On this part 2 of my post about the green plan, I want to interrogate the next 2 pillars about Sustainable Living, and the Green Economy.
Sustainable living; our lifestyles are a product of systemic incentives and disincentives. We already see that in the case of marriage in Singapore and HDB flats availability. And often, availability is actually more powerful than price signals in changing behaviours. Take IKEA for example, you can’t choose to buy a plastic bag, you simply have to make do with carrying with your hands if you didn’t bring your own bag. Of course you can buy the proper reusable bag but that unavailability of the cheap plastic bag option matters.
So when it comes to waste, the lack of waste bins around can help; and maybe more importantly, the availability of proper recycling bins that are locked up, keeps the stuff in them dry and used only by those who have sorted and wash their recyclables should be available. You can even have a daily passcode reset so only those who bother to login to their accounts, check the code can use the bin. This kind of accountability, sense that your upholding of sustainability living makes an impact, will be infectious. Sustainable living only works when everyone plays their part but ideas spread in a different way, the leaders of action is a minority, most people “adapt” to social conventions when they take hold. How we start things off will have to appeal to exclusivity, to those who are leaders of action. We don’t need to convert non-believers but we do need to make things easier and impactful for believers.
Trying to “mass manufacture” sustainable living in the way we drive GDP KPIs is simply not going to work. We need smart and innovative marketing – to spread the good and infectious ideas that convinces us we actually can move mountains – then things gets interesting.
The Green Economy; what exactly is that? The Green Plan blurb for this section starts off with “Tackling climate change cannot be at the expense of livelihoods and jobs”. The negative thinking and presupposition is disappointing here. There is so much assumption around loss of livelihoods and jobs because of tackling climate change which is opposite of truth. Dealing with climate change needs work; and if we think more fundamentally about the work of creating transparency about environmental impacts, around assessment, deployment of solutions, campaigning for behavioural changes (such as those points made above), there are plenty of jobs that will be created. The idea of taxing carbon then subsidising investments in decarbonisation is a great principle but safeguards as to how the investments are made is important; otherwise it gets reduced to tokenism.
All the technological solutions (such as carbon capture, use and storage, hydrogen based energy carriers) trotted out are already available though not necessarily commercial. It’s not so much a question of availability this time around but how the government can help make the economics work by helping to create scale. Singapore has done well in this historically with infrastructure and the latest example is the district cooling system applied at the upcoming Tengeh HDB estate. There are other opportunities similar to creating multi-utilities synergies in Jurong Island a generation ago. When you have stronger regulation on waste management and then provide the waste treatment services efficiently at scale, it will be taken up. And new jobs will be created.
The difficulty in the current existing narrative is the traditional marginal thinking prevailing. We behave as if the green economy is an add on, either to parts of the economy or a layer upon the whole economy. The truth is, whether we see it that way or not, it’ll pervade the entire economy, and it’s going to transform things. That does not mean marginal thinking is not useful – we still need to think about the incrementals but target the systemic differences across all sectors first, then work out the incrementals.