Could the Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) lead to a paradox of cleaner cars which are less efficient?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Could the Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) lead to a paradox of cleaner cars which are less efficient?

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THE new Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES), which kicks in from January 1, 2018 is clearly more stringent than the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS). And by virtue of that, it is a superior scheme insofar as improving air quality here is concerned. 

But will this goal be at some expense to global warming? This doubt arises because the VES sets a very high bar for nitrogen oxides and particulate matter – pollutants which diesel engines tend to emit more of. 

As a result, diesel models are more likely to end up facing tax surcharges. This would be a stark contrast to the current state of affairs, where they enjoy sizeable tax rebates under the CEVS. 

So, it would not be a surprise if diesel engines become far less popular from next year. Already, the taxi operators, who have long favoured diesels, have been switching to petrol-electric hybrids in the last 18 months or so. 

The thing is, while diesel engines emit more nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, they produce less carbon dioxide than petrol equivalents – in fact, up to 30% less. If diesel models become less viable because of the VES, Singapore’s vehicular carbon footprint could enlarge. 

And that in turn may affect the Republic’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 16% by 2020, in accordance to the Paris Agreement. 

Since transport ranks as the third largest carbon producer here, accounting for 15% of total emissions, a shift away from carbon-efficient diesel fuel is likely to affect the country’s ability to meet this target, which is less than three years away. 

In setting the parameters for the VES, Singapore is giving a clear signal that it is prioritising human health over health of the planet. The decision is understandable, given the country’s inability to meet the World Health Organisation’s limits on fine particulate matter (a pollutant which can cause irreparable damage to the respiratory system) despite many attempts. 

This may partly have to do with Singapore’s premature implementation of the Euro 4 standard for diesel engines back in 2006. The Japanese brands, which accounted for the bulk of diesel commercial vehicles here, could not meet the deadline. This led to their sudden absence from the market, which in turn led to the COE for commercial vehicles to crash to $2 for six consecutive tenders.

As a result, fleet owners renewed the COE on their ageing vans, trucks and buses – simply because it was so cheap to do so. This effectively delayed efforts to clean up the diesel fleet by 10 years. It did not help that particulate filters were not mandatory for Euro 4 engines. Also, bootleg diesel of dubious quality was widely available at so- called white pumps. 

Since then, the Government has been intensifying efforts to clean up the diesel fleet, such as rolling out the Early Turnover Scheme to persuade fleet owners to scrap their old, pollutive vehicles for the latest models. 

The Volkswagen scandal has also made Singapore – along with many other countries – wary of diesel technology. Under real-world conditions, and driven under load, diesel vehicles tend to pollute a lot more than when they are tested on the bench. 

But Singapore ignores the impact of climate change at its own peril. Being an island state, even a marginal rise in sea level can have devastating effects. So, it has to do its part to keep a tighter rein on carbon emissions.

To this end, the country has re-introduced diesel duty at the pumps. This is intended to encourage more judicious usage of the fuel. But at merely 10 cents a litre, the duty is unlikely to influence usage patterns significantly. It should ideally be raised, gradually. 

Singapore will also introduce a carbon tax in 2019. At between $10 and $20 per tonne, it is meant to nudge heavy carbon producers such as power stations and industries towards higher energy efficiency. 

But back to the VES. Its punitive stance towards diesel aside, the scheme is likely to persuade car buyers to pick more efficient models. This in turn should lead to lower carbon intensity. For instance, full electric models, which are likely to qualify for the top-tier tax rebate of $20,000, are deemed to be the lowest carbon emitters. 

Alas, electric cars will still be too costly for the majority of motorists even after the rebate. At the same time, small-displacement turbocharged engines which are carbon-lite are likely to be penalised with surcharges because of their relatively high nitrogen oxide and particulate matter readings. Hence they may give way to models which are cleaner but which emit more CO2. 

So, let’s hope policymakers have done their math. Otherwise, Singapore will not be able to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While this may have a negligible impact on global greenhouse-gas production, no country’s contribution is too small when it comes to the climate.


Fully electric vehicles are the lowest carbon emitters under the VES, but they’ll still be too expensive even after a $20k rebate.
Fully electric vehicles are the lowest carbon emitters under the VES, but they’ll still be too expensive even after a $20k rebate.