Some thoughts on Customs role in sustainable developmentBy Singapore Customs
This article looks at how Singapore Customs strives to bring efficiency in the management of trade operations to lower their impact on the environment as well as at the initiatives it has taken to support environmental policies.
The most frequently cited definition of sustainability is in Our Common Future, the 1987 UN-commissioned study known as the Brundtland Report: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainability has always been a part of Singapore’s DNA. Even before the term became widely used in the 1990s, Singapore has always pursued sustainable development by balancing economic growth with protecting our environment. As early as 1967, Singapore had the vision of a “Garden City” and took active steps to make it a reality. In the 1980s, the government undertook the monumental task of cleaning up the rivers, and made Singapore River the icon it is today. The government also put in place a strong Climate Action Plan. The country significantly reduced the use of coal-generated power many years ago, and does not subsidise the use of fossil fuel. It is the first Southeast Asian country to implement a carbon tax (in 2019), made early investments to boost our climate science capabilities, and have been a strong advocate for a robust multilateral rules-based approach to addressing climate change.
The Singapore Green Plan 2030, or the Green Plan, unveiled on 10 Feb 2022, builds on the efforts of the preceding decades, with sustainability as an engine of growth. It aims to bring the nation together as it seeks to transit into a more sustainable future. The Green Plan charts ambitious and concrete targets, strengthening Singapore’s commitments under the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and Paris Agreement, and positioning Singapore to achieve net zero emissions. Examples of such targets include:
- Doubling annual tree planting rate between 2020 and 2030;
- Increase nature parks; land area by 50% from 2020;
- Reduce amount of waste to landfill per capita per day by 30%;
- Achieve 75% mass public transport peak-period modal share;
- Achieve two-thirds reduction of net carbon emissions from schools;
- Increase solar energy deployment by five-fold;
- All new car and taxi registrations to be of cleaner-energy models from 2030.
What about trade?
Singapore being one of Asia’s largest trading hubs, readers may ask “What about international trade and transport-related emissions?” The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore has launched the Singapore Green Initiative, which seeks to reduce the environmental impact of shipping and related activities and to promote clean and green shipping in Singapore. Singapore Customs also has an important role to play by ensuring efficiency in the management and processing of trade operations.
Digitalisation: improving efficiencies to lower trade operations impact
One way to reduce the impact of trade operations on the environment is to facilitate legal logistics flows and Singapore Customs has been instrumental here by developing efficient procedures and processes, digitalising them, and building a new trade information management ecosystem.
In 1989, we released our National Single Window, TradeNet, which has helped to reduce the use of paper and travelling (i.e. collection and delivering of documents to local and overseas players) among the supply chain players by allowing the trade and logistics community to fulfil their trade formalities electronically.
Riding on the digitalisation drive, Singapore Customs launched the Networked Trade Platform (NTP), a one-stop trade and logistics information management ecosystem which supports digitalisation efforts and connects players across the trade value chain in Singapore and abroad. Key features of the NTP include:
- Document hub for digitisation at source that enables reuse of data to cut costs and streamline processes;
- Trade information management system offering a wide range of trade-related services; and
- Gateway for G-2-G digital connectivity with Singapore’s trading partners.
We have also continued our efforts to digitalise trade procedures and processes and reduce the use of hardcopies, such as:
- Participating in China Customs’ Electronic Origin Data Exchange System which eliminates the need for hardcopy Preferential Certificates of Origin to be despatched overseas;
- Implementing the Self-Service Printing of Certificates of Origin and Verification Portal which enables businesses to print their certificates themselves, and Singapore Customs to avoid having to keep duplicate hardcopies;
- Full digitalisation of the Hand-Carried Exports Scheme endorsement, where traders can receive digital endorsement instead of waiting for the physically endorsed documents to be sent to them, thus reducing paperwork; and
- Implementing the Electronic Banker’s Guarantee Programme, where traders no longer have to collect the Banker’s Guarantee lodgement from the issuing bank and send it to Singapore Customs.
Lessening the impact of our activities
The creation, processing, storage and movement of data rely extensively on finite resources: electricity, water, metals, chemicals and manmade materials, such as plastics and glass. This is why it is important to undertake rigorous environmental impact assessment before implementing any technology related solutions. Processes have to be efficient so that data is not stored or send twice. We are looking closely at discussions on products and solutions to build the data centres of the future. Sweden and Finland have already designed data centres that reuse the heat they produce to power homes. In 2018, Microsoft launched Project Natick to understand the benefits and difficulties in deploying subsea data centres.
In 2005, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority launched the Green Mark certification scheme. It is a green building rating system designed to evaluate a building’s environmental impact and performance. All government data centres are to achieve Green Mark Platinum by 2025. The Singapore Customs Headquarters and the Customs Operations Command buildings are already certified Green Mark Platinum while our new Tuas Export Inspection Station is certified Green Mark Gold. Moreover, recycling programmes are implemented at major locations. Another initiative worth mentioning is that, to reduce our carbon footprint, solar photovoltaics (PV) have been installed on our new facility in Tuas and we are undertaking a feasibility study on the use of PVs at the rooftops of our existing buildings.
Singapore Customs has also put in place green procurement practices to source for green products to maximise energy efficiency:
- All new office IT equipment are to meet the latest ENERGY STAR standards.
- White printing paper is to be accredited with the Enhanced Singapore Green Label by the Singapore Environment Council.
- Electrical Appliances (e.g. lamps, air-conditioners, refrigerators, televisions) are to meet high standards set out in the National Environment Agency’s Mandatory Energy Labelling Scheme to raise the average energy efficiency.
- Events and functions organised by Singapore Customs are held in venues with at least a Green Mark Certified rating.
- Stopping the use of disposable bottled water at meeting rooms in its premises.
- All new Singapore Customs operational vehicles will be of a cleaner energy model.
- Singapore Customs will also be deploying smart facilities management solutions to enhance productivity and sustainable maintenance of our buildings.
- Singapore Customs will also be launching a new electronic email and records management system where we are digitising and doing away with hardcopy filing.
Ensuring compliance of trade with environmental policies
Singapore Customs administers the collection of excise duties on fossil fuels and motor vehicles to support Singapore’s drive towards the broader objectives to reduce carbon emissions, combat climate change, and encourage less car usage. In addition to the existing duties on motor fuels such as petrol and natural gas, Singapore introduced a duty on diesel in 2017. Over the last few years, the diesel duty was doubled and petrol duty was raised by 23%. Singapore Customs had worked with industry stakeholders such as the petroleum companies that are licensed by Customs to implement these changes timely to ensure the duties and taxes were collected correctly and efficiently.
To support green technology adoption, Singapore Customs partners with relevant domestic agencies to facilitate the establishment of such facilities in Singapore. A recent example is the planned set-up of an electric vehicle manufacturing facility where Singapore Customs had worked closely with the company on the Customs documentation and licensing requirements.
On the illicit trade front, Singapore Customs collaborates with other Competent Authorities as part of a Whole-of-Government approach in preventing cross-border illegal trade and ensuring the effective and efficient implementation of various environmental treaties, protocols and Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Intelligence is shared between relevant Competent Authorities and checks are conducted not only on import but also on export and transhipment cargoes. For example, we worked closely with National Parks to ensure compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora have run many joint enforcement operations against illicit wildlife trade together. Singapore Customs, National Parks Board (NParks), Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and China Customs authorities have received the UN Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards in 2019 for the seizure of 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales and 8.8 tonnes of elephant ivory which transhipped through Singapore. The seizure took place after China Customs officers shared relevant intelligence with the Singapore authorities following the arrest of 12 people on suspicion of wildlife trafficking in China.
Singapore’s efforts toward sustainability will only be successful if people’s mindset change. At Singapore Customs, we encourage our officers to cultivate ‘greener’ habits and work towards a more sustainable living, for example by recycling goods, using energy-saving appliances, choosing cleaner transport options, etc. When organizing staff bonding activities, we also choose activities related to the protection of the environment, such as tree planting or beach clean-ups.
 “The term net zero applies to a situation where global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are in balance with emissions reductions. At net zero, carbon dioxide emissions are still generated, but an equal amount of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere as is released into it, resulting in zero increase in net emissions.” Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/net-zero-emissions-cop26-climate-change
 See https://mag.wcoomd.org/magazine/wco-news-87/going-beyond-the-single-window/
 See https://mag.wcoomd.org/magazine/wco-news-96/recent-changes-in-china-rules-of-origin/