Building Smart, Green and High: What the EU can learn from Singapore
As a kid everyone dreamed at some point about living in a tree house. What if this dream becomes the reality of today?
Walking to the room of your apartment on the 30th floor you see a bed of vegetation hanging vertically all the way down. It helps remove greenhouse gas emissions and minimise heat absorption and the green roof and high-performance glass façade maintain a low ambient temperature. The building has a sloped design to maximise the harvest of rainwater and automated irrigation, lights with built-in motion and photocell sensors that reduce energy wastage. This is 2019 in Singapore.
In 2008, for the first time, more than half of the world’s population lived in urban areas, and this figure is expected to grow. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. This would mean an additional 2.5 billion people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa. Many people tend to move to cities to find a better job or due to worsening conditions in rural areas as a consequence of climate change, affecting soil productivity to levels where no stable income is possible to be made and where subsistence levels are sometimes not reached. But perhaps there is also the underlying perception that cities offer better educational facilities, better living standards, better sanitation and housing, better health care, better recreation facilities, and better social life. Unfortunately, rapid and unplanned urbanisation often leads to increased poverty, environmental degradation, and puts stress on limited services and infrastructure.
Over the next 20 years, more than half of buildings expected to last until 2060 will be constructed. More alarmingly, two-thirds of those additions are expected to occur in countries that do not currently have mandatory building energy codes in place. But some cities, such as Singapore, have figured out how to make this transition possible whilst facing many challenges like hot and humid weather, limited surface area, and increasing population growth.
Why is it important: Building a sustainable future
82% of final energy consumption in buildings was supplied by fossil fuels in 2015. Buildings and construction account for more than 35% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions. Despite progress, energy efficiency improvements since 2010 have not been enough to offset strong growth in energy demand from rising population, floor area and buildings sector activity
In Europe, two thirds of the population live in cities today with increasing flows of people requiring more infrastructure. However, buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU. Currently, about 35% of the EU’s buildings are over 50 years old and almost 75% of the building stock is energy inefficient. Additionally, buildings in Europe entail 50% of raw material consumption and 40% of solid waste streams.
It is additionally key to incentivise cities to buy green public procurement, as 14% of the EU’s GDP is public procurement. There is a market that can be created for high quality standard of products. Although these tend to be on the pricier side, it is important to look into the long-term investment and take into account the co-benefits that those products offer. For this reason, it is crucial to put in place policy frameworks that help develop such initiatives, one of these being the Long Term Strategy.
In the European Long Term Strategy, published by the European Commission end of 2018, it is mentioned that:
“[maximising] the benefits from energy efficiency, including zero emission buildings, energy efficiency measures should play a central role in reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, reducing energy consumption by as much as half compared to 2005. This transition will require higher renovation rates, fuel switching with a large majority of homes that will be using renewable heating (electricity, district heating, renewable gas or solar thermal), diffusion of the most efficient products and appliances, smart building/appliances management systems, and improved materials for insulation.”
Initiatives such as C40, a network of 94 cities, representing 25% of worldwide GDP and 700+ million citizens, help cities share best practices and allow mayors and city officials to work towards healthy and sustainable cities delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement at the local level. Other opportunities like The ‘European Year of Greener Cities 2020’ a platform of European NGOs with the aim of highlighting the fact that “bringing nature into cities and greening our neighbourhoods is one of the biggest underutilised tools at our disposal to increase the quality of life of European citizens, to increase the quantity and quality of research and development of new innovations etc.”
Singapore: An example of Green High Mastery
Dense human population and tree population
One of the 94 cities in C40, with a population of over 5.612 million (2017) and with a surface area of only 721,5, Singapore is the 3rd most densely populated country with around 8000 people per square kilometre. Nonetheless, not only do they have a high human population but also tree population. The tree cover of the city of Singapore covers 29,3% of the surface area, coming in first globally, above Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Several studies regarding Green spaces have shown that these can play an important role in “fostering social interactions and promoting a sense of community.”
Green where? Everywhere
Luxurious green high tech new development apartment buildings or condominiums filled with the top 1% of society, this is the image people might have of those new trendy and sustainable places. However, Singapore is a good example where more sustainable practices are accessible to more than the top 1%.
Projects go from:
- Public housing: Residents can enjoy common sky terraces outdoors, but they can also enjoy energy-efficient air-conditioners indoors that all units come with. Prices are 15-20% lower than private condos.
- Hotels: Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel blends cutting-edge environmentally-friendly practices and technologies with 15,000 square metres of lofty four-storey tall sky-gardens, reflecting pools, waterfalls, planter terraces and cascading vertical greenery.
- University: Nanyang Technological University’s EcoCampus. The initiative aims to develop one of the world’s most eco-friendly campuses. It has many demonstration sites of sustainable technologies to achieve 35% reduction in energy, water and waste intensity by 2020, compared to 2011. 
- Public Gardens: One of the biggest attractions in Singapore, the project’s design, features two conservatories and a forest of 18 Supertrees, from 25 up to 50m high. The Supertrees have incorporated technologies such as PVs, cooling channels in their structure to moderate the surrounding environment, and a skin of living plants that uses the tree structure as a trellis and contains more than 1,5 million plants. 
Moving and leading the way forward
Besides greening buildings and the area, Singapore is also greening its transportation system. The mass rapid transit network train will be accessible in a less than 10-minute walk for 80% of homes, while also adding buses and trains and increasing the network of cycling paths to over 700 km by 2030. In Europe, urban mobility accounts for 40 % of all CO2 emissions of road transport. Nevertheless, there is an increasing trend of moving to free public transportation, an initiative started by Tallinn (Estonia), back in 2013, and continued by Luxembourg earlier this year. The revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, adopted in July 2018, mandates the installation of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles by introducing minimum requirements for car parks over a certain size and other minimum infrastructure for smaller buildings. However, this Directive excludes small- and medium-sized enterprises, effectively making this directive applicable to only 0.02% of the EU’s businesses.
Overall, although only contributing about 0.11% of global GHG emissions, Singapore, acclaimed for its city-in-a-garden setting, can be a role model for other cities and the EU in its mission to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement at the EU level. Making European cities greener, more sustainable and energy efficient will not only help in terms of energy savings, but also regarding air pollution, transportation and has effects on social relationships on health and wellbeing.
 Pascal Eveillard, Saint-Gobain, Level(s)-Moving the building sector to a circular economy