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Beat the heat: How chilled water can help to keep cities cool with a smaller carbon footprint

Sustainable energy solutions are key to mitigating the effects of climate change

Temperatures soared to 37 deg C in Ang Mo Kio on May 13, the highest recorded temperature for the month. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The heat has been bordering on the unbearable this month, with temperatures soaring to a record-equalling high of 37 deg C on May 13, notably in Ang Mo Kio.

Chances are you sought relief in the cool comfort of air-conditioned spaces, such as our shopping centres, offices and homes.

But here’s the catch: By switching on your air-conditioner, you are making your days and nights warmer.

By the end of this century, carbon emissions from air-conditioning can result in up to 0.5 deg C in global warming by 2100, according to the World Economic Forum. This is enough to increase sea levels by 6cm.

Studies have shown that air-conditioning uses up to half of a building's energy, making buildings and homes the second-largest source of carbon emissions in Singapore, after the industrial sector.

So how can we stay cool without increasing our carbon footprint?

One solution: By cooling multiple buildings and malls with a network of insulated pipes filled with chilled water from centralised cooling plants. Known as a district cooling network, this solution provides effective air-conditioning while reducing carbon emissions.

It is now being explored in Tampines Central, as part of efforts to transform Tampines into an eco-town. By the first half of 2025, it will be Singapore’s first town centre to retrofit a new district cooling system.

The result: Energy consumption in Tampines Central will be reduced by 17 per cent each year, which is enough to power 1,665 three-room Housing Board flats over the same period.

This finding was outlined in a study by global investment company Temasek and SP Group, and supported by the Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment.

We’re already seeing the consequences today, with many countries experiencing extreme weather events including devastating floods and prolonged drought.

The latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that these weather extremes are threatening our food supply, increasing the risk of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, and destroying livelihoods.

Singapore, as a low-lying city state, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, says the National Climate Change Secretariat, including rising temperatures, more intense rainfall events, and rising sea levels.

On the other side of Singapore, over 19,000 home owners in the newly-developed Tengah estate will also benefit from a similar district cooling system.

Sustainability at its core

Why is Temasek involved in these efforts to help Singapore beat the heat sustainably?

“Energy is at the heart of the climate challenge,” says Mr Russell Tham, Temasek’s joint head of enterprise development group (Singapore) and head of strategic development. “The ability to deploy and scale sustainable energy solutions is key to mitigating the consequences brought about by the climate crisis.”

However, climate change cannot be tackled by any single entity.

“Governments, businesses and individuals must work together and shift away from carbon-emitting processes to innovations that enable more efficient uses of energy,” says Mr Tham.

“Collaboration is crucial to spur the development of novel climate technologies that are required to advance our net-zero ambition.

Net zero is the state where the amount of man-made greenhouse gas emissions generated equals the amount removed from the atmosphere.

That’s why Temasek is taking action, he says. “This is the race of our lives to decarbonise, where the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action. We are at a critical juncture where we can change the trajectory of our collective future.

This is the race of our lives to decarbonise, where the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action. We are at a critical juncture where we can change the trajectory of our collective future.

MR RUSSELL THAM, joint head of enterprise development group (Singapore) and head of strategic development, Temasek

Working towards a brighter future

But there are hurdles to overcome. For one, a gap exists between global energy demand and the supply of energy obtainable from renewable sources, says Mr Tham.

He explains: “While conversations around switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy are increasingly common these days, technology to harness renewable energy is still playing catch-up with market demand.”

Global demand is expected to rise by 3 per cent per year from 2023 to 2025 as developing economies grow, says the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).

Compounding the issue is cost. “Even as renewable energy becomes more available, users may choose to continue relying on fossil fuels due to the green premium,” says Mr Tham. 

The green premium is the additional cost of cleaner alternatives, which are typically pricier because of how new the industry is.

This is where Temasek is working to improve mass adoption of sustainable energy solutions.

Says Mr Tham: “By investing in sustainable energy and its transition, we hope to catalyse new innovations and the development of renewable energy sources. Commercialisation can thus scale at a systematic pace.”

Governments can play a part with policies that encourage the use of green technologies, he says, while consumers can help create a market for such solutions.

There has been progress. “In the last two decades, the world has spent several trillion dollars on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables such as wind and solar, including energy storage technologies like grid-scale battery facilities.

“The cost of using renewables will decline with the economy of scale. In many markets now, solar and wind are some of the cheapest sources of electricity.”

Temasek is pressing on with its sustainability efforts as it works with like-minded partners to develop novel decarbonisation solutions.

Says Mr Tham: “Our investment horizon can span decades, putting us in a unique position to support companies to become more sustainable and adopt carbon abatement (reduction) strategies.”

“While there may be some costs in the move to net zero,” he says, “the collaborative action by communities, businesses and governments will allow everyone to reap sustainable returns in the longer term for a greener economy, where people and the planet can thrive.”

Three pathways to sustainability

Temasek says it aims to achieve its net-zero carbon ambition through three pathways.

1) Investing in climate-aligned opportunities: It actively invests in companies that have strong track records in reducing carbon emissions in their course of business.

For example, Temasek invested in a global catalyst and technology provider that focuses on green hydrogen (the cleanest form of hydrogen, made using renewable electricity to separate hydrogen from water).

Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store energy and generate electricity, without emitting greenhouse gases.

2) Enabling carbon negative solutions: It catalyses the development of innovative technologies that reduce carbon emissions.

Temasek collaborates with like-minded partners and industry leaders to accelerate carbon negative solutions (actions that offset more carbon dioxide than one contributes to the environment).

One example is through GenZero, which invests in a diverse mix of decarbonisation solutions including nature-based ones. Nature-based solutions help to protect and restore our natural ecosystems, which are crucial in absorbing and storing carbon emissions.

3) Encouraging decarbonisation in businesses: It aims to support the transition of businesses as they are key drivers of decarbonisation.

In hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry and transportation, transformative changes are required in systems and technology before they can transition fully to clean energy.

This is where Temasek acts as a catalyst to bring together stakeholders and invest in critical research and development, such as through its partnership with Singapore Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore on sustainable aviation fuel.

This was produced in partnership with Temasek