Opinion: Jewel Changi symbolises S'pore's insatiable need for growth. But at what cost?

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 05, 2020, 11:24 AM

COMMENTARY: Jewel Changi and the upcoming Terminal 5 epitomises Singapore’s commitment to expanding its aviation sector. But how sustainable is this ever-increasing demand and expanding infrastructure for air travel?

  • Jewel Changi and Terminal 5 symbolises Singapore's desire to remain a top global aviation hub.
  • Such growth in the aviation industry comes at a price to the environment. The airport's architecture is also not as "eco-friendly" as it seems.
  • There will always be a demand for air travel, and consumption is expected to rise in the coming years.
  • Covid-19 has shown that governments are capable of change, and it is the responsibility of governments to tackle climate change in a meaningful way.

We reproduce an excerpt from the essay "Changing Course: Jewel Changi and the Ethics of Aviation" which argues that Singapore's dedication to expanding the aviation industry means that it is complicit in exacerbating the climate change crisis.

Written by Mathias Ooi Yikai, the essay is part of a book titled Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene which is published by Ethos Books.

You can get a copy here.

By Mathias Ooi Yikai

Jewel Changi symbolises Singapore's desire to remain a top global aviation hub

At the official opening of Jewel in 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described it as a symbol of the nation’s ambition “to create new possibilities for ourselves.”

And it’s true that Jewel, with its “mythical garden” aesthetic and its smorgasbord of attractions (including sleek canopy bridges, bouncy sky nets and a manicured hedge maze), has reinvented the modern airport.

In the words of New York Times journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom, “While an airport is typically a limbo—a swinging door between where you’ve been and where you’re going—Changi is the rare airport that invites you to stay.”

The outlandish luxury of Jewel has intrigued observers and tourists around the world, drawing a staggering 50 million visitors within the first six months of its opening.

But at what cost?

Jewel epitomises Singapore’s persistent commitment to expanding its aviation sector, a drive that stems from an insatiable need to compete.

Of course, Singapore isn’t alone in this endeavour. The desire for greater economic growth has pitted the world’s wealthiest nations against each other in a never-ending race for the largest slice of the aviation pie.

Jewel is just one step in Singapore’s innovative strategy to stay ahead of its rivals, a strategy that has landed Changi the Skytrax World’s Best Airport award for eight consecutive years. Its rivals are similarly motivated to compete, innovate and expand.

Come 2023, Hong Kong International Airport is set to go toe-to-toe with Changi when its Sky City development, a large “integrated destination” much like Jewel, is complete.

Come 2023, the glow of whatever competitive advantage Jewel has eked out for Singapore may all but fade.

Together with the upcoming Terminal 5, it showcases the continuous growth of the aviation industry

This relentless competition and expansion is part of a positive feedback loop that generates further demand for and expansion of aviation.

Increased revenue from Jewel will enable the Changi Airport Group to reduce costs for airlines, incentivising them to “grow the Singapore hub by adding destinations and bumping up frequencies,” which should, in turn, reinforce the airport’s attractiveness to airlines and travellers alike.

After Jewel comes the Terminal 5 mega-project, to which the government has already committed at least S$9 billion.

Terminal 5 will be Changi’s largest, with a capacity of 50 million passengers per year, and will help the airport handle unprecedented levels of air passenger traffic from 2030 onwards. Along with an additional runway, the new terminal will mean more flights, new routes and possibly cheaper airfares (as a result of competition and economies of scale), making flying even more attractive for consumers.

Singapore demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between infrastructure and demand: as airports are incentivised to grow continually, passengers are encouraged to fly more, and more, and more.

Such growth is deeply unsettling. Greater investment in airport infrastructure, reduced airfares and the desirability of travel in the twenty-first century have come at exactly the wrong time.

But such growth comes at a price to the environment

The steep trajectory of aviation’s impact on the environment can no longer be ignored as demand for air travel continues to grow—rampant, unchecked and faster than previously predicted.

While aviation has contributed less than three per cent of global carbon emissions in recent years, it is expected to expand to 22 per cent by 2050.

Airplanes run on conventional jet fuel derived from petroleum, and release harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are made even more destructive due to the height at which they occur. In addition, soot particles in the contrails of airplanes react with water vapour to form temporary cirrus clouds that block surface heat radiation from escaping into space.

The result is that the aviation industry is more responsible for global warming than we might think. One study places the actual impact of aviation at five per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions—almost double that implied by emission statistics alone.

There are no two ways about it: by encouraging flight, Changi and its competitors are complicit in exacerbating the climate crisis.

Airport’s eco-friendliness cannot make up for aviation’s carbon footprint

We need look no further than Jewel and Changi Airport to see this greenwashing in action. While the Singapore government continues to stimulate demand for a destructive industry, Changi Airport flaunts the “eco-friendly” elements of its design.

But bathing travellers in natural light and installing carbon-absorbing greenery in the airport cannot plausibly compensate for the contrail emissions left by entire fleets of planes. Such energy savings in the airport’s “clean and green” operations are a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of gallons of jet fuel burnt during the thousands of flights that take off from Changi’s runways day after day after day.

Not to mention the copious amount of resources and energy, mostly from fossil fuels, devoted to maintaining Jewel’s immaculate façade.

Changi Airport has created the illusion of a futuristic eco-paradise, but make no mistake: as we stroll towards our departure gates, we support an industry that is knowingly contributing to climate change.

Given the green, Garden City image that Singapore has worked so hard to cultivate and promote, its obsession with aviation is inherently hypocritical.

Already, the government has been criticised by scholars and international observers for placing “a premium on physical and economic development at the expense of environmental protection”—for foregrounding environmentalism only when it doesn’t impede economic development.

At Changi, this half-hearted “environmentalism” is manifest in steel, concrete and glass, unbending and unwilling to compromise on economic growth and a lucrative international brand.

Singapore’s unapologetic attitude towards airport expansion is perhaps most evident in its 2018 Climate Change Plan, in which the only mention of aviation is a promise to build the upcoming Terminal 5 at 5.5 metres above the mean sea level so as to guard against the ongoing rise in sea level and ensure that the airport can continue to thrive.

Is it not a bit ludicrous that even in a document aimed at mitigating and adapting to the bleak reality of accelerating climate change, our government so defiantly clings to the continual expansion of Singapore’s aviation sector?

Unfortunately, demand for air travel will rise in the coming years

The unfortunate truth is that demand for air travel will not disappear overnight.

Consumption is expected to rise in the coming years. And as much as the growing demand for flight has been used to justify airport expansions, it is ultimately the development of this infrastructure and its accompanying economies of scale that fuel this demand.

It is ultimately governments, airports and airlines that keep the skies crowded and the planet warming. Despite the obvious gravity and urgency of climate change, neoliberals and free marketeers maintain that humanity, with the help of the free market’s Invisible Hand, will always be able to adapt to its consequences.

Some even suggest that since future climate change is already inevitable, it is cheaper and more efficient to dedicate precious resources to adaptation rather than mitigation—indeed, Singapore’s commitment to Terminal 5 in its Climate Change Plan is a testament to this misguided position.

This blind optimism belies the fact that there are realistic constraints to humanity’s ability to adapt. Should we fail to mitigate climate change in time, entire swathes of the globe—Singapore included—might well become uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future.

Effective climate action cannot come soon enough, but it requires the total cooperation of all stakeholders, from passengers to airports to governments and international organisations—a tall order, no doubt.

Yet we can take heart from the way we are dealing with another global emergency that is unfolding as I write this chapter: the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected every country in the world. If there is any silver lining to the ongoing pandemic, it is the necessary and timely reminder that we, as a nation and a species, are capable of change.

But the Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated that governments are capable of change

The coordinated local and global response to the pandemic has demonstrated that if governments and citizens around the world acknowledge and accept the gravity of a global public health emergency, people are ready and willing to make relatively minor sacrifices.

In addition to wearing masks, submitting to regular temperature checks and working or schooling from home, people around the world have foregone travel, voluntarily or otherwise.

As travel restrictions and advisories mount, more and more flights have been cancelled. Viral images online register the sudden cessation of aviation—fleets of empty planes parked in tidy rows on the tarmac and overflowing onto the runway.

Here in Singapore, a friend’s recent Instagram Story showed an empty Jewel, its atrium magnificently empty and eerie under the morning light. Changi Airport Group has declared that Terminal 2 will be closed for 18 months (from May 2020).

Singapore Airlines has grounded 96 per cent of its capacity. And as people grow accustomed to the new reality of Zoom conferences, lockdowns and social distancing, demand for aviation looks like it has been almost completely extinguished, at least for the near future.

Trying as this period has been, humanity’s response to this unprecedented challenge should remind us of our incredible adaptability. It should be a cause for optimism that a different kind of flightless living is possible.

While the novel coronavirus is a grave and immediate threat, climate change will be, in the long run, far more threatening to human society.

Not unlike the effects of the pandemic, the health of our planet is plainly in crisis; it has been ill—with a burning fever, if you will—far longer than Covid-19 has existed, far longer than we should have allowed.

The parallels between these simultaneous public health crises are clear as day: both are urgent, "characterised by an escalating probability of disaster," and require coordinated large-scale responses.

Now is not a time for moral purity tests, for unrealistic commitments that one cannot keep, but rather, an imperative to do better. For starters, to consider the increasingly obvious climate cost of flying before we book our next trip.

It is possible for behaviour to change

The results of millions of people acting in concert will be measured not only by the tons of carbon dioxide saved, but also by the significant message it sends to everyone else: that people are willing to change in accordance with the reality of climate change and the threat of much worse to come; that they are willing to make sacrifices, cooperate and do the right thing for the greater good; and, as unthinkable as it might sometimes seem, that behaviours, norms and desires can shift over time.

They can and they will.

As economist Nicholas Stern put it, “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.”

As our world literally burns, it is ultimately the responsibility of national governments to correct this market failure—to rein in their reckless economic ambitions, adopt anti-expansion policies and forcefully implement large-scale demand management.

Behemoths of aviation like Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong hold the key to ensuring that emissions do not reach a level that will jeopardise our long-term survival.

Rather than provide consumers with more and more incentives to fly, they ought to strive to keep the volume of flights in check, by abandoning or reversing airport expansion plans and discouraging excessive travel.

If we appeal to Singapore’s climate anxiety and legendary foresight, perhaps this change in course will come more naturally.

If we, the citizens of Singapore and the world, join the ongoing conversation, perhaps our tiny but exemplary Garden City can be moved to champion coordinated climate action, and pave the runway towards a more liveable future.

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Top image from Jewel Changi Aiport Facebook