Guidance & belief

A good coach puts some pressure on you to do better and demonstrates his belief that you can do better in you. But more than that, the coach makes sure that what is expected of you is clearly communicated so that you have a clear vision of yourself accomplishing it. The ‘video’ that can be played in your head is important. If the resolution of this video is poor, then it is harder for the coachee to perform. And putting pressure on the person by reminding him or her of the deadline or final prize is pointless.

A coach doesn’t review a race with the runner telling that him or her that at different point of the race, how far or near he/she is still from the finish line. He tells the runner about his or her gait to improve, the rhythm of breathes. The how is more important than the what; but the why even more so. The good coach then reminds the runner of why he or she is running.

It is not possible for managers to help a team thrive without these coaching capabilities. Most managers would just be churning output without developing the team or sustaining the right motivation for the team to go on. Often this could lead to burn-out and poor morale. This is where a strong individual contributor needs to learn new skills to move into manager position and not thinking that he or she can just keep doing what they are good at.

Transition economics

What happens in economics when technological innovation happens? There’s a bit of dilemma between technological progress and economics because technology needs to progress to a stage when it upend the economics of an established technology – yet the incumbent is often enjoying scale economies as well as other effects such as network economies that can make it incredibly difficult for the new comer even if it is superior to existing technology at the scale that the incumbent operates.

In the Innovators’ Dilemma, that was being described and the strategy as well as the market approach is always for the new technology to chip away at the market of the incumbent technology by being appealing enough to a small group in the market to help it grow its scale and challenge the incumbent on more fronts gradually. Can the new technologies that we are trying to cross over towards make their way through this path in order to break the dominance of the incumbent technologies?

They probably won’t be able to move fast enough. And that is probably the justification for government to intervene and encourage developments. Yet governments do not want to be seen as favouring particular technologies. There is also a concern about creating inefficiencies in the market by distorting prices or forcing the taxpayers to shoulder the wrong costs.

Yet in reality, for the world to create a better future, there’s no real ways around it. The modern world was not built by shielding taxpayers from the wrong technological investments nor from carefully betting on the right technologies to take off. The complex problems around climate issues today are not so different from the public infrastructure challenges that people faced in the time before government had the kind of powers they have today. They are more complex, and we probably need more talented people working on them, both in the private sector as well as in government. In fact more so in government than ever.

The challenge remains the cost-benefit paradigms and all the free-market type principles to government and what intervention should be like. Without more mission-oriented policy-making principles and a system that is properly leveraging talents and passion, it will be difficult for governments around the world to assume the kind of role and leadership it needs to lead the transition.

Con-tinuing

Despite the bad press for EY in Germany and PwC in Australia; the big four and their sprawling professional services activities continues to grow. Accounting and audit services aside, advisory services appears to be in demand across the international business world. Overall across the economy, as best practices across the industry spreads, companies becomes more competitive and efficiency goes beyond just market prices and matching of customer demands. Innovation takes place as well.

Consultants, through advisory services helps information and knowledge work themselves out in the market. Mariana’s Big Con argument about economic rents however, might still somehow stand in the sense that the fees they attain may be somewhat outsized compared to the value created. And I’m referring more to generic type of business consulting as compared to technical advice or consulting that augments capacity of businesses during special situations such as a transaction or some kind of innovation project.

Yet I would say that the bigger con that is present in the market is the financialisation of our economy and everything that the financial industry abd banking does to generate rents. The issue is that the labour of financial industry keeps serving capital, and capital, with its sustained bargaining power (as pointed out by Thomas Piketty), continues to direct rents towards the financial industry.

The main force that can change this will be the government and regulators; there has to be more research and thinking around the manner we are setting up our economies.

Profitable transition

What does it mean if companies declare that they are committed to the energy transition including committing resources towards it, and massive investments, only to make a U-turn when oil & gas turns out to be way more profitable? It tells you that it had always been about the money it makes rather than the transition. Never mind that the fossil fuels continue to drive up carbon emissions and hurting the climate. In fact, maybe climate change would drive up demand for energy – especially in terms of heating or cooling, or requiring more activities in the economy to deal with and mitigate the impacts.

Can the work of accelerating the energy transition be left to the markets? Can profits really motivate companies to support the transition and reduce carbon emissions? Does the market demand understand, appreciate and would be willing to drive and pay for the transition? I don’t think so. Absent regulation, it is unlikely for the markets to drive the emergence of the solution. It is as if we want seat belt manufacturers to drive the messaging around safety and benefits of having seat belts rather than legislate it as a requirement in cars. Or just waiting around for cars to adopt them as the standard feature in a car.

We probably don’t have enough time for all that to make an impact on mitigating climate change. Regulations will be required. To put a price for carbon on the market, to push technologies and options in the market that will reduce emissions. We must also evolve and steer the regulation as our understanding of the technologies and impact on environment advances. We don’t have to get everything right on the first try but we do need to be trying.

Hoarding resources

New York Times just ran an opinion piece about Big Oil and whether the rhetoric about these big international oil companies actually push for the energy transition or not, their contribution to the development was probably not that significant anyways. There is minimal capital redeployment from oil & gas towards renewable energy. The truth is that capital coming into renewable energy is largely from other sources and areas.

The big oil players were in any case just trying to defend their turf when they invest into renewable energy; and in other instances, it was probably just more of a PR exercise. The recent big retreats from the rhetoric around energy transition can only serve to create more climate anxiety amongst the younger ones, and discourage us further about our ability to get the climate transition right. There’s really limited plan B options for us as the human race on earth facing climate change so everyone needs to work together regardless what the big oil is trying to do.

The biggest challenge for the world with the big oil not doing much to withdraw from the fossil fuel business is not about the market, the demand from the energy users but perhaps more about the people who are continuing to work within the big oil’s supply chains and operations. If we are serious about the transition, we need to give oil rig workers something new to work on that can help with the climate transition; we need to get the refinery process engineers to work for some other sort of plants. In general, we need a coordinated effort to transform our economies by making it a mission to do so.

When the world sent people to the moon decades ago, we were creating new industries using taxpayers’ dollars. We were using military spending to drive advancements that would usher in a new era. We could do the same with energy transition. It will take a lot of political will and convincing people but there is enough resources to redirect ourselves from the global warming path that we are on.

Gas in households

When corporates purchase carbon credits and try to ‘offset’ their emissions, environmental groups would accuse them of greenwashing and to a certain extent, tokenism. Yet when Victoria state government bans gas in new homes from 2024, environmental groups were pleased and herald it as some degree or progress and victory.

It is easy to pass this off as a big move. Developers of new homes may have more planning restrictions. Those buying new homes will need to stop using gas. Gas demand growth from households will slow down but gas use in homes are a really tiny fraction of 17% contribution to the state’s emissions by the gas sector.

At the system level, Victoria’s grid emission factor in 2022 is actually such that it emits 4.6 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than combusting piped gas for an equivalent amount of energy. You can easily work that out by consulting the greenhouse emission factors published each year. Of course, I’m probably ignoring some of the emissions associated with the distribution part of things and also with fugitives. The reason for this big difference is the presence of coal-fired power plants on Victoria’s grid. In any case, all renewable energy injected into the grid from wind and solar will be used. Coal-fired power plants provide the baseload and gas-fired power plants usually absorb the additional load demand. What this means is that during the times (early morning or in the evenings) when you’re using electricity for heating or cooking in households, it is quite likely you’re consuming more gas fired power than solar power (whose generation peak in the mid-day).

There are questions on the efficiency of the whole process. Burning gas at power plants and converting them to electricity will result in some energy loss, and then using the electricity to convert it back to heat will mean a bit more losses (less than at the power plant of course); so heat applications for electricity isn’t all that efficient.

And then there is the question of energy bills. Whether you are consuming gas directly in the house or indirectly through electricity in the system, you are going to bear the cost of the gas that is consumed. In Australia, a large proportion of the cost of energy isn’t really in the energy itself but the share of cost that goes into infrastructure, especially that of distribution. Going full electric in households serves to help decarbonise the system only when the renewable electricity is supplied during the times when household’s demand peak. For solar, this is unlikely to be the case unless the household installs its own battery system to charge when solar generation is peak in mid-day. Batteries, additional distribution network assets to cater to peak renewable generation, are all infrastructure that will add to the cost of electricity.

So let us be honest about it: banning gas in residential use is unlikely to move the needle much in terms of decarbonisation in the electricity system right now. At least not all that much in Victoria. It is going to push the problem upstream where it can potentially be managed better. But a lot more actions will have to be taken. Would it improve indoor air quality for homes? Maybe, if your house is not properly ventilated but I doubt it is a very serious issue. Would it really reduce energy bills across the household? Quite unlikely. What it could accomplish is some degree of tokenism to pacify the groups of people who thinks it is a good idea.

Yet it is probably a setback for decarbonisation because we are narrowing ourselves to decarbonise by using a narrow set of technologies and forgetting about the ability to decarbonise gas through biomethane.

Carbon credits 101

Earlier this year, Guardian released an expose about forest carbon offsets, in particular about a handful of projects and brought a bit of an uproar in the industry. While it created more awareness about carbon credits and concerns around the quality, methodology around calculation of the emissions reductions or how the “offsets” can really be quantified, there seem to be a lot of misconception remaining around carbon markets and how they work.

First, we need to recognise that there are compliance markets and voluntary markets for carbon. And while we may sometimes call them all ‘carbon credits’, the concepts are vastly different. In compliance settings such as the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), the object that is traded are actually permits or allowances. These are regulatory objects that are created arbitrarily by regulators. Basically, when the regulator says the industry is allowed to emit 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, this 100 units becomes permits or allowances. Each unit represents the permission to emit a unit of carbon dioxide linked to a time period based on regulation.

On the other hand, there are voluntary markets; and these are where the majority of carbon credits that can constitute conceptually ‘offsets’. Putting that notion aside first, we need to recognise that those ‘credits’ are conceptually different from emission allowances. In reality, those are supposed to be like merit points awarded for good behaviour – of not emitting carbon dioxide. They are given to projects that protects rainforests, improve efficiency, manage waste more carefully, switch fuel from fossil to low-carbon ones and so on.

The manner for calculating these merit points are complex and set by various standard bodies that are structured as non-profits. In and of themselves, the credits when valued in the market encourages more of the activities that generate them. And because they inevitably entail some kind of emission reduction or even carbon removal (through some sort of sequestration), when companies buy and then retire them, they are basically trying to ‘offset’ their own emissions. The calculation of the amount of merit points was essentially what the Guardian article referenced was really criticising.

The projects in and of themselves are voluntary; and those buying the credits are not really forced to buy them by any regulators. That said, companies have been buying them in order to ‘offset’ their actual emissions and then gain the ability to pass of their products as ‘carbon neutral’ – not because they rejigged the supply chains to no longer emit carbon but because they used the credits/merit points off those projects to neutralise the demerit points they had from emitting carbon. The problem is when this is the value of the carbon emission reduction – so that companies have the ability to emit more, we really wonder if that is worthwhile.

Using the market mechanisms to spur production of something tends to be quite easy but to reduce it might be harder. This is why we have the government, public services such as the police and defence force and not leave these things to the market. Otherwise, the police could just offer bounties for anyone to catch the criminals and so on. Carbon markets are interesting but further regulation and a proper understanding of how we want to value emission reductions and count them is vital.

Tailpipe emissions

We moved to Sydney earlier this year and one of the main highways that the buses move on to get to our place in the suburbs is Parramatta Road. It was a highway leading into the western suburbs but now it is just a road – a relatively narrow one for the heavy traffic that goes through it.

I recall one morning when I walked along the road to get to the bus stop that gets me a bus to the city. There were heavy trucks going down the road, with large SUVs and smaller passenger vehicles as well. I didn’t recall tailpipe emissions bothering me that much back in Singapore – perhaps only the heat that the cars were emitting then. But I noticed how much the tailpipe emissions were stinking up the air even in Sydney where it was less humid than in Singapore and smells tend not to linger or stay strong in the air.

It did make me wonder what the roads would be like without those tailpipe emissions. And that’s probably the dream of those EV companies and the policymakers who are trying to push for more EVs on the roads. Singapore could have done that way earlier; given our ability to manage the vehicle population through COE. Moreover, Singapore already has one of the highest taxes on vehicles in the world. This means the population was ready to shell out the kind of money that an EV would cost.

It is a fine balance to strike given that there’s a lot more consideration around the readiness of our electricity network infrastructure to develop the charging capacities needed. There’s a lot of thinking around whether our vehicle refueling infrastructure is going to be disrupted – and how we can manage those disruptions. Sometimes we just want the transition to happen immediately and for all of us to gain access to the latest technology at reasonable costs. Singapore has done a good job juggling these difficulties and we can do more to explain the linkages between systems to allow us to pinpoint and put pressure on the bottlenecks.

Singaporean aspirations

The former China CEO of McDonald’s Kenneth Chan penned a recent opinion piece in Channel News Asia about Singaporeans not taking on leaderships in global companies. It was written in the “practical” Singaporean way that focused on the steps towards being ‘next-level’ and being ‘bold’ to be a leader. He described personal insecurities and his experiences on the ground to rise up.

Personally, I’ve had a host of regional experience within China, South Asia and Southeast Asia during my time with the Singapore government. At International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore, now Enterprise Singapore), I had the chance to work with Singapore companies on their internationalisation plans and follow them to markets you would not even think about as a man-on-the-street. Subsequently, I was in the pioneer team of Infrastructure Asia, engaging regional government bodies on infrastructure projects. That gives me the exposure, the open-mind and also the skills to communicate and manage cross-culturally.

As a Manager at the Sydney office of Blunomy today, I am leading teams of consultants across our Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne offices. I often have to facilitate exchanges with our European offices as well. Insecurities or perceived inadequacies may hold me back but ultimately, it cannot be the fear of me losing my edge or competitiveness that drives me forward.

And that’s the issue I have with the way the article was framed. The opinions expressed in the article reeks of the same old fear-mongering about Singaporeans being comfortable and losing out. I’m not sure if this works for the new generations of Singaporeans nor if that is the right motivation to begin with. The challenge for Singaporeans is not so much the desire for comfort but the lack of worthwhile aspirations. It used to be that rising up to be a ‘GM’ or a ‘CEO’ was something worth aspiring towards. But that simply isn’t the case today with the new generation.

The ‘boomer’ aspirations are simply not worth fighting for. It is in dealing with the ‘why’ that we find our fuel to move forward. “Success” as is constructed in past generations might not work anymore. Instead of aspiring towards “senior leadership” of global corporations, Singaporeans should be desiring to lead the charge of changing the world. Leading global organisations are means to do this. And then it is no longer about remuneration and the practical barriers of relocation and incentives. Monetary incentives should not be the reason for taking up these positions because they are challenging, stressful and hard. There is only so much money can drive that sort of sacrifice. It is the inspiration and influence that counts.

Think about Kenneth Chan leading McDonald’s – you’ve the chance to change the diets of millions of people by making decisions on the menus of your outlets. By thinking more deeply about the toys and promotions on Happy Meal, you get to reshape the aspirations and fancies of a generation of children. That is why it is worth being the leader of a global company – not because of the recognition or being labeled a ‘talent’.

Likewise, if you’re heading up a technology company, it shouldn’t be about maximising shareholder value or aiming to enable investors to make more money. Those elements are important only to the extent they allow businesses to continue making a difference. It is the ability for the technology to grow, benefit people and shape the future into one that we want their children to be part of. That can tip the scale of our motivation no monetary incentives can.

Are we equipping Singaporeans with the right aspirations? It’s not about skills and all that jazz about leadership. Those are important. And yes, government incentives with relocation or settling back in Singapore after stints overseas can help. But what is it that is worth Singaporeans developing that leadership for? That’s what we should be developing.

Passing of Adrian Tan

Lawyer Adrian Tan, President of Singapore Law Society passed away, having been battling cancer for just over a year. I’ve only once written about him, the thoughts he shared about how his mother manipulated his view of his disenfranchisement. But I think that piece of his writing I shared already reflected his witty brilliance and the manner he examines ideas and the world – with not just his mind, but his heart as well.

Having been from Hwa Chong, I’ve heard of stories of how his time in Hwa Chong gave inspiration for his early teenage novels. While I never had a chance to watch the films or read the book, I could guess from reading Adrian’s writing that his quintessential wacky Singaporean humour would have been extremely entertaining. Yet he grasped the value of entertainment in the manner it could inform and influence – and he used it for the benefit of Singaporeans through his massively accessible musings on Linkedin.

57 years is far too few years for a man in Singapore to live. Yet in those years he gave much to the legal profession, and Singapore’s art and literary scene. He certainly made me proud to be a Singaporean. Goodbye Adrian.