Sentosa Golf Club wins race to carbon neutrality

The decorated Singapore club is driven to improve further on its considerable sustainability credentials.


Sentosa golf club
Sentosa Golf Club has become the world's first carbon neutral golf club. Photos courtesy of Sentosa Golf Club

The world’s first carbon neutral golf course isn’t about to rest on its substantial green laurels.

“The journey is not over by any means,” says Andy Johnston, general manager and GCSAA Class A director of agronomy at Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore. “We have a long way to go before we get to carbon neutral the right way.”

That’s not to say stakeholders at Sentosa GC, home to two decorated 18-hole championship golf courses, aren’t pleased at the carbon neutrality they announced earlier this month, just before the Tanjong course hosted the HSBC Women’s World Championship. It’s more that fulfilling the promise they made during the 2021 HSBC event wasn’t supposed to be the end of their drive toward sustainability. It was merely another step.

“The journey isn’t over by any stretch,” says Johnston, a 21-year GCSAA member. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Since Sentosa’s opening in 1974, it has made steady and significant strides toward sustainability. Among the courses’ many environmentally-driven initiatives are: the use of GPS-guided sprayers, which reduced pesticide use by 95% and fertilizer use by 50%; the creation of reservoir water features on the Tanjong course to make it self-irrigating and reduce water use by 60% through the utilization of single-head irrigation control; switching to an all-electric golf cart fleet; the use of biochar to enhance soil productivity; using horticultural biodigesters to turn food and plant waste into fertilizer; and banning single-use plastic bottles on course, saving over 150,000 plastic bottles per year.

By using carefully vetted carbon credits to complement its carbon-abatement efforts, Sentosa actually met carbon neutrality — that is, it offset its nearly 4,000-ton carbon footprint — last year. However, Johnston says, the course leadership were reluctant to share the news.

“There are a lot of people in the world who frown on investing in carbon credits to reach carbon neutrality,” he says. “There are organizations that see that as something that stops people from really focusing on doing the right things to make their business truly carbon neutral. They just spend money and get there, and a lot of organizations aren’t happy about that.”

Carbon credits are investments in initiatives that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Sentosa GC carefully selected two projects from which to purchase its credits: the Katingan Mentaya Project, which protects 150,000 hectares (371,000 acres) of Indonesian peat swamp forest, generating 7.5 million carbon credits; and the Cordillera Azul National Park project, which helps support 665 jobs in the local community restoring degraded Peruvian forests, which so far have prevented 25.2 million tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

“The credits are only as good as the place you buy them from,” Johnston says, “and we spent a long time following strict criteria to find the right kind of projects we wanted to deal with.”

Tanjong golf course
The Tanjong is one of Asia's most exciting golf courses, and host of the 15th edition of the HSBC Women's World Championship.

Pay to play

Funding for the credits came from a $1-per-round fee the club levied.

“It’s kind of funny. We thought it would be a good idea to say to everybody, before every round, ‘Would you like to play a carbon-free round of golf? Only one dollar.’ Everybody was like, ‘Nah,’” Johnston says with a laugh. “So we just made it mandatory. But ultimately, our customers are the ones who helped us invest in this.”

Before the club could begin working toward carbon neutrality, leadership first had to determine just how big a carbon footprint it would need to fill. About four years ago, the club hired a firm to measure just that, and it proved eye-opening.

“I was a little bit in denial,” Johnston says. “I thought ‘There’s no way that could be true.’”

The carbon audit was exhausting, evaluating obvious carbon sources, like the energy that goes into running the club and the fossil fuels that power maintenance equipment, but also aspects like sourcing the food served in the clubhouse, and whether golfers traveled there by plane, train, bus or electric car.

“There are a lot of factors that go into it, and it’s difficult to get 100% accuracy,” Johnston says. “The thing that really stood out was that energy use was off the charts.”

Sentosa’s carbon profile showed grid electricity accounted for 69% of its emissions. Pesticides (1%), water (4%) and fertilizers (6%) were among the smallest contributors. The profile gave the club a roadmap, which dovetailed nicely with its membership in the United Nations Sports for Climate Action initiative. Sentosa is the only golf club signatory on that initiative’s Race to Zero campaign.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know any better,” Johnston says. “We didn’t know what was right and what was wrong in this journey. We did things like single-head (irrigation) control just because it was the right thing to do. But once we started measuring our carbon footprint, we had a better idea of what the reality is, and it gave us a different view of how to improve. It allowed us to say, ‘Now we have a measuring stick we can improve on from year to year. We’re going down the right path.’”<

Case in point: A few years ago, the clubhouse’s air conditioning was failing and needed replacing. Cognizant of the huge energy demands, the club decided to purchase the most energy-efficient replacement possible.

“It was painful, super expensive to do it,” Johnston says. “But we took a 40-year-old building, and it became the only Platinum Green Mark building in our community. It shows you can do it if you’re willing to focus on it. We’re huge energy users. Most golf courses are. We have 230 golf carts that need to be charged every night. Our golf maintenance … we need to continue to get better at that. You know, it’s a nearly 50-year-old maintenance facility. When it was built, there was no vision to have it ready for what the world is today. We’re having to go through a major upgrade to get electricity there. If we did it (went fully electric) today, we couldn’t possibly charge everything. So it’s a big commitment. We’ll have to invest in that facility, just like we did in the clubhouse.”

Serapong golf course
Along the edge of The Serapong Holes 4 and 6 lies Rhizophora Stylosa - a vulnerable Mangrove listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. It is located only in a few locations in Singapore.

‘We just have to get smarter’

The club is looking into solar, but … “If we put solar on the entire roof,” Johnston says, “it would only change things by a factor of 6%. We just have to get smarter with our energy use, what we do with waste, improve equipment. The stuff we’re doing with Toro could be a real game-changer, with robotics and their energy efficiency.”

Another boost on the road to true carbon neutrality could come from the ground itself.

Turfgrasses — all plants, really — are proven carbon sinks, preventing the release of carbon into the atmosphere. In all those previous discussions about measuring Sentosa GC’s carbon footprint, Johnston insisted the course itself was keeping carbon out of the air. Why wasn’t it getting credit for that?

The response was that there was no hard data on how much carbon a golf course sequesters, so Sentosa is working with researchers at the University of Oslo to quantify just that.

“If we can figure out what our carbon sequestration is and get it certified, it may change nothing,” Johnston says. “But it may be one of those things where we discover we already are carbon neutral. If that’s the case, that could really change the way people look at our sport. That could really change everything.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.