background image

Island ingenuity: How small states can lead the sustainability charge (I:II)

author image

By Alex Hong

· 9 min read

This is part one of a two part series. You can find part two here

Small island nations are threatened by climate change, but they also have a great opportunity to lead the way in sustainability. This commentary examines the opportunities and problems city-states like Singapore confront as they work towards their net-zero goals. It explores technical solutions such as climate-smart agriculture, green buildings, and integration of renewable energy. It highlights the value of strong legislative frameworks, community involvement, regional cooperation, and technology. 

Small island governments can become pioneers in sustainability and systems integrators by growing successful initiatives like Singapore's green construction programmes and encouraging knowledge sharing among ASEAN members. It will take creative finance solutions, global backing, and a move towards a circular economy to embrace this role fully.

Success ultimately depends on cooperation, an openness to new ideas, and a common vision of a time when small island states prosper not in spite of, but precisely because of, their dedication to sustainability.

I. Introduction: Island ingenuity in the face of climate adversity

The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are facing a difficult decision. They are without a doubt in the forefront of the climate change phenomenon, with disturbances to vital ecosystems, rising sea levels, and increasingly extreme weather events posing grave dangers. According to World Bank projections, more than half of the world's Small Island Developing States (SIDS) may face ongoing water scarcity by 2050, and several Pacific Island countries may completely lose substantial chunks of their landmass.

But within this weakness is a powerful opportunity. SIDS have a special ability to be agile and focused since they are not constrained by the inertia of huge, complicated economies. Their modest size encourages a feeling of community and common purpose, which facilitates quick decision-making and coordinated action on sustainability-related issues. Furthermore, SIDS could become vital players in the larger battle against climate change as systems integrators.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Among the biggest possibilities for renewable energy per person worldwide are island nations. For utility-scale wind farms, Fiji, for instance, has typical wind speeds of above 6 m/s. 

  • SIDS frequently create cutting-edge approaches to resource efficiency and waste management because of their isolation. For example, trash is converted into biogas for power generation in the Maldives through the use of biodigesters.

These instances show how SIDS cannot only implement these solutions domestically but also share their knowledge and serve as centres of knowledge transfer in their own communities. By fusing their focus, agility, and current advances, SIDS have the potential to become significant catalysts for the global sustainability transition.

II. Challenges for city-island states: Resource constraints and environmental vulnerability

While SIDS have distinct advantages for leadership in sustainability, they also face major obstacles. Their restricted resource base and increased susceptibility to environmental risks are the main causes of these difficulties.

Energy dependence:

  • Fossil fuel reliance: A lack of local resources and insufficient area for large-scale renewable energy projects cause many SIDS to rely largely on imported fossil fuels. This reliance compromises energy security and exposes them to price swings. In 2020, SIDS in the Caribbean imported fossil fuels at a rate that accounted for an average of 6% of their GDP, according to a research published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

  • Limited renewables potential: Even though certain SIDS, like Fiji, have great potential for renewable energy due to their strong winds, integrating these resources might be difficult. Large-scale solar or wind farm development may be challenging due to island size and dispersed landmasses; this calls for creative solutions like offshore wind installations.

Waste management:

  • High waste generation: SIDS frequently generate large amounts of waste per person as a result of tourism and inadequate recycling facilities. This poses a serious problem for landfill capacity, especially when combined with the restricted land area. For instance, the island nation of Palau in the Pacific is predicted to produce 1.6 tonnes of waste per person year, with few choices available for disposal.

  • Limited recycling facilities: Building substantial recycling plants may not be financially feasible for SIDS because to the lack of economies of scale. Since waste exporting is frequently impossible owing to logistics and distance, importing recycling technologies can be costly.

Water security:

  • Drought Vulnerability: Freshwater supplies are a major concern for SIDS, especially those in arid locations. Because of altered rainfall patterns and higher evaporation, climate change is predicted to make the current water shortage worse. According to World Bank estimates, more than half of SIDS may have persistent water shortages by 2050.

  • Sea level rise: Water security is further threatened by rising sea levels, which might contaminate freshwater supplies with saltwater intrusion. Rising sea levels also pose a threat to entire groundwater aquifers, which is particularly dangerous for low-lying island nations.

A multifaceted strategy that makes use of innovation, global cooperation, and focused policy interventions will be needed to address these issues.

III. Technological solutions: Powering the sustainability shift

SIDS have access to a plethora of technical options that can help them move towards a sustainable future despite the obstacles they encounter. In addition to addressing their particular weaknesses, these solutions provide insightful insights for a broader audience.

Renewable energy integration:

  • Harnessing renewables: SIDS boast exceptional potential for renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and tidal power. These resources can significantly reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels, enhance energy security, and combat climate change.

  • Case study: Singapore's Tengeh Solar Farm: Known as one of the world largest floating solar farms at Tengeh Reservoir. It has the size of 45 football fields and has a capacity of 60 megawatt peak which can powered around 16,000 homes in Singapore for a year. While smaller in peak capacity compared to the 150 megawatt peak floating solar array at Anhui province China, it nevertheless demonstrated the viability of large-scale solar projects even on limited land (

  • Emerging technologies: Tidal and wave energy have great potential for SIDS, especially those with strong coastline currents. Pilot programmes are being conducted to investigate the viability of these technologies on a large scale in several places, including Palau and Fiji.

Green buildings:

  • Energy efficiency: By using green building techniques, SIDS may drastically save energy usage. To maximise energy use, these strategies include passive cooling methods, energy-efficient equipment, and smart grid integration.

  • Policy example: Singapore's BCA Green Mark Scheme: Sustainable building principles are encouraged in Singapore via this mandated green building grading system. Developers are incentivized to implement energy-saving solutions by virtue of the building's environmental impact rating system.

  • Focus on resilience: Resilience to climate extremes should be given priority in SIDS green building design. This comprises elements like construction that is storm-resistant, mechanisms for collecting rainfall, and flood control.

Climate-smart agriculture:

  • Food security and water conservation: Because of the scarcity of land and water in SIDS, traditional agriculture might be difficult. Climate-smart agricultural technology provide creative alternatives, such as hydroponics and vertical farming.

  • Vertical farming: In order to maximise food production in a constrained area, this strategy includes growing crops in layers that are stacked vertically. The possibility of using vertical farms to improve food security is being investigated by a number of SIDS, such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

  • Hydroponics: Water-scarce SIDS can benefit greatly from the use of nutrient-rich water solutions for soilless agricultural growth, as this method can drastically cut down on water usage. Hydroponics holds great promise for sustainable food production, as seen by pilot programmes in nations such as the Maldives.

Not only may SIDS accomplish their own sustainability objectives through embracing these technology solutions and encouraging innovation, but they can also act as role models for the international community.

IV. Beyond technology: A systems approach with SIDS as integrators

Although technological innovation is a major factor in driving sustainability, it is simply one aspect of the whole. For SIDS to genuinely spearhead the sustainability movement, they need to embrace a systems approach that encourages cooperation, policy creation, and community involvement. In this capacity, SIDS can make significant inroads inside their regions by utilising their agility and focus.

Policy frameworks:

  • Carbon pricing and green procurement: SIDS can be quite important when it comes to supporting and working together on regional policies that provide incentives for sustainable behaviours. This can entail implementing carbon pricing schemes to deter the use of fossil fuels and encouraging green procurement practices that prioritize sustainable products and services throughout the ASEAN region.

  • Example: Singapore's carbon price implementation in 2019 provides other ASEAN countries with a possible blueprint. SIDS can foster information exchange and regional cooperation to support the adoption of comparable policies throughout the area.

Community engagement:

  • Public awareness and behaviour change: Any sustainability strategy's capacity to succeed depends on public awareness and involvement. Singapore and other SIDS with effective citizen engagement programmes can exchange best practices with other ASEAN members. This could entail behaviour modification campaigns that promote sustainable lifestyles, educational programmes, and community outreach projects.

  • Case study: The National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore conducts a number of programmes to encourage public involvement in sustainability projects and awareness. These projects, which range from educational campaigns to community recycling programmes, can serve as useful role models for other nations.

Regional collaboration:

  • Knowledge sharing and hubs: SIDS, with their unique experiences in navigating resource constraints and environmental vulnerability, can become hubs for knowledge sharing and collaboration within ASEAN. These hubs could facilitate research partnerships, host capacity-building workshops, and act as platforms for knowledge exchange on best practices in sustainable development.

  • Model: The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) serves as an example of a successful regional knowledge hub for climate change adaptation in the Caribbean. SIDS in ASEAN could establish similar institutions focused on sustainability across the region.

By embracing this systems approach, SIDS can transcend their physical limitations and emerge as powerful integrators of regional sustainability efforts. Their agility, focus, and

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)