top of page
  • Writer's picturesgclimaterally

Small Emissions =/= Small Impact

Updated: Mar 18

With the 2050 net zero target announced last week, we are one step closer to achieving a just transition. However, can and should Singapore do more, or is this all we can do given our constraints as a small country? This post explores these questions and more.

The words “small emissions” and “small impact” with the “not equals” sign between them. On the left is 0.11% formed from smoke, on the right is a globe with a red dot where Singapore is, radiating red waves from it. The background has grey clouds.

Singapore island coloured red, with buildings and trees drawn on it and the words “land scarcity”. Surrounding it are clouds with the words “high cloud cover”, wind lines with words “low wind speeds”, cargo ships labelled “low tidal range and limited sea space”, “no fast rivers” near the Singapore river, and  “no geothermal energy”. The government’s position on climate change is that our small size poses challenges for transitioning to renewable energy. After all, we only contribute 0.11% of global emissions, and climate change is a problem that requires a global response. But can we do better?

A graph of GDP going up over time, from the 1960s to 2020s. Under the graph is various news clippings with headlines like “Finance minister opens $25m Maruzen Toyo Refinery”, “Shell investing $700m in upgrading projects”, “Shell refinery in Bukom one of world’s most advanced”, “Mobil has long links with S’pore”. “Singapore’s Pavilion Energy signs 10-year LNG agreement with Qatar Petroleum”, “ExxonMobil commits to multibillon-dollar expansion of Singapore complex”, with a drawing of an oil refinery. First, some historical context: Fossil fuel companies played a large role in Singapore’s economic growth. Even if we weren’t aware of global warming in the 1960s, we have a moral duty today to reverse the damage. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate whether they should remain “important and valued partner” who enjoy preferential tax rates and potential allowances despite the increased carbon tax?


Graph of annual consumption-based carbon emissions per capita (tonnes) by country. From left to right: Qatar 27, Brunei 23, UAE 21, Singapore 19, Saudi Arabia 19, USA 17, High-income countries 12, EU 8, Asia 4, Low-income countries 0.11. Annotation on first 5 countries: “Our emissions are in the same range as these petrostates even though we don’t produce oil!”. Arrow between Singapore and low-income countries with note “our emissions are 170x of theirs”. Source: Our World in Data and Global Carbon Project.  Another angle is to look at whether we are doing our fair share. Singapore is one of the world’s richest countries, and also the 8th highest carbon emitter per capita.


  • In 2019, Singapore had the 8th largest consumption-based carbon emissions per capita at 19.11 tons (Our World In Data), only ranking below oil-rich countries like Brunei and Qatar, and much higher than the average of 11.97 tons for high-income countries, or 0.11 tons for low-income countries [2024 Correction: Our World in Data has since updated its figures and put Singapore at the top emitting country at 27.5 tons]

  • In fact, Singapore’s total consumption-based emissions in 2019 was 110.9 million tons (Mt), more than twice of its production-based emissions of 45.7 Mt or the government’s reported emissions for 2020, which was 49.7 Mt.

  • The Sustainable Development Index, which measures each country’s human development score divided by their ecological overshoot, ranked Singapore last out of 165 countries in 2019, with a material footprint of 77.41 per capita, more than double that of the United States.

Pie chart of global incomes linked to bar chart of per capita emissions showing the bottom 50% of incomes as the baseline, the middle 40% having 7x the emissions, the top 9% at 23x, and the top 1% at 96x. Sources: World Inequality Database and Emissions Inequality Dashboard. Globally, the top 1% of incomes (equivalent to the top 11% in SG) are responsible for 15% of emissions — a carbon footprint 96x larger than those in the bottom 50%. Is it fair to expect all countries to contribute equally to climate action?


  • Globally, the top 1% of incomes (equivalent to the top 11% in SG[1]) are responsible for 15% of emissions [2] — a carbon footprint 96x larger than those in the bottom 50% [3].

  • [1] Data from World Inequality Database. Using the dataset on 2021 pre-tax income in USD PPP, the average income for the 99.0-99.1th percentile of $144,008.5 for the world is lower than the average income for the 89-90th percentile of $150,700.0 for Singapore.

  • [2] Carbon Historical Emissions and Income Inequality Data in 2015. Emily Ghosh, Anisha Nazareth, Guozhong Wang, Sivan Kartha, Eric Kemp-Benedict (2021). Emissions Inequality Dashboard. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

  • [3] Data from the Emissions Inequality Calculator. In 2015, the top 1% of incomes was responsible for 15.17% of global emissions, compared to 7.88% for the bottom 50% of incomes. Dividing 7.88% by 50 gives an average of 0.158% of global emissions per 1% of global population in the bottom 50%, which is 96 times lower than 15.17%.

On the left, a bus with advertisement of housing blocks saying “new launch”, with the price of $600k crossed out and replaced with $700k. In the middle, a food delivery rider cycling in the rain. On the right, a restaurant signboard with prices $3.50 and $4.00 crossed out and a person writing the new price of $5.50.  At the same time, we must remember that there are people in Singapore who already struggle to pay for daily expenses, and yet face rising prices. Instead of raising the GST, we should implement a wealth tax that covers all assets instead of just property, and distribute dividends from the carbon tax to support everyone else.


Map of the region around Singapore including parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore is drawn larger than scale, with eyes and two muscular arms holding a wind turbine and solar panels.  So what about our physical constraints, where we have limited options for renewables? Singapore has always been proud of punching above our weight, and our impact need not be limited within our borders.


Singapore island in the middle, where the left side is coloured in grey and the right in a red-orange-green gradient. On the left are arrows pointing to Singapore labelled palm oil, migrant labour, oil and gas and sand mining, illustrated by a forest fire, people at a construction site, a tanker with oil barrels, and an excavator with piles of sand. On the right are arrows that point outwards from Singapore labelled emergency aid, loss & damage funds and technology transfer, illustrated by people with boxes and building materials constructing a shelter, people passing a box with a square cross, dollar signs, and a solar panel with an electricity symbol.  After decades of benefiting from cheap labour from the region while indirectly causing environmental harms elsewhere (e.g. deforestation, sand mining), it is only fair that we provide climate aid to our neighbours, while ensuring that this is done in a just and equitable manner.


In the middle, two newspapers with headlines “S’pore announces just transition” and image of speaker on podium and screen with title “no more oil”, and “$XX Bn S’pore climate fund for ASEAN” with image of people shaking hands. Surrounding it are illustrations of various topics: “Fossil fuel phase out” with people taking apart an oil refinery; “citizens’ assemblies” with people holding placards; “green jobs union” with workers in helmets working on solar panels; “retrofitting old buildings” with workers installing equipment on a building; “mangrove restoration” with mangrove trees; “agroforestry” with people planting fruit plants under large trees, and “ASEAN power grid” with a solar panel connected to power lines with an electricity symbol.   We should not rest at achieving net zero emissions by 2050 within Singapore’s borders, thinking that we have done our part. Our future has always been tightly bound with that of the larger region and beyond.  If we can successfully implement a just transition to a low-carbon society, it could quicken similar efforts around the world — an example of outsize impact that we can all be truly proud of.


bottom of page