The market has a role to play in the energy transition but the market is not responsible for the transition. Technological improvements and our sense of purpose or mission does not come from the market – they are exogenous inputs. What is challenging about the market is that it does have a life of its own and there are always entrenched interests pushing against the direction of the mission that the world is on. It is not just about gaining buy-in to the mission but unraveling the interests vested in it.
That is a serious conundrum especially when we need to transition fast. The bigger the vessel, the harder it is to steer and change directions. So it is with the market economy. The most vested the market is with the status quo, the greater the reach of the tentacles of the market through the system across areas of life, the harder it is for change to happen. Or at least directed, meaningful change.
It is probably time to recognise that the market can help drive the demand for greener fuels and renewable energy if the incentives are put right. It is also critical to recognise that the economics around change can be arbitrary and a snapshot in time. Cracking the puzzle is not just about performing a cost-benefit analysis and saying whether to proceed with this or not. It is about identifying the pain-points, challenging the status quo, re-jigging incentives and rallying the champions.
We have done that before, with ushering more peace, with managing overpopulation, with feeding hunger, dealing with poverty. We can deal with the challenge of climate change and the transition of our economy. If we make it our mission to do so, rather than to wait for the market.
When you try to sell your house, you take reference off the market price. You determine essentially the ‘market value’ of your house and then try to sell your house for that price. When you do eventually meet an interested serious buyer who makes an offer, you then haggle until you agree upon a price. This price is of course somewhat anchored by the market value you seem to have developed but then it would likely be different, complicated by the specific situation you and the buyer is in.
Do you value your own home based on that market value? Does it matter that your neighbour bought his house at a certain price? What is the basis of that price? Ultimately, while we can deconstruct these prices into locality, the quality of the build and other attribute, it is still a bit of a mystery. Is the value of something based on our subjective eyes and preferences, or is it intrinsic to the thing itself?
When we pay an artist to perform for 1 hour; is it the performance that is worth the money or the time spent by the artist? Do we allow the market to value us or do we value ourselves? Which market are we talking about anyways?
In this whole green wave there’s lots of hype and one of the dangers that corporates put themselves is being cast as greenwashers. The challenge is that some corporates might just be doing it unintentionally, without having realised the hypocrisy surrounding their brandishing of green credentials because they did not realise how much harm their business activities have been bringing to the environment.
The initial audit of the business is important from the ESG perspective but it doesn’t stop at just reporting because if the initial audit is all it takes to establish green claims and then allow businesses to carry on, it would have been a waste of opportunity. Corporate leaders need to recognise that subjecting themselves to these audits and scrutiny should not earn them any kudos. So they should not be patting themselves on the back if those reporting metric turns out stellar. Rather, they should be thinking about what approach they have taken to their businesses that enabled that.
And then they should be considering if there are blindspots or areas of their businesses where the right philosophy hasn’t been applied. The hypocrisy can often stem from the fact that executives are too busy gaming the reporting metrics as opposed to genuinely thinking through business processes and activities. That can still be unintentional but they can start making sure that their activities to gear the company towards green can be more intentional.
There’s going to be a new kind of entrepreneurship; not necessarily one that is building businesses with an established revenue stream or for a current market need, but one that bets on the needs of a future that the world wants to be creating. And the upcoming green race might unleash this new breed of entrepreneur more strongly than before. In the post-pandemic era where people might have got sick of government stimulus allowing billions of capital to slosh around the system, risking inflation and simply making the richer rich, fiscal policy might be returning to the center-stage as the new means of keeping the public voting base satisfied.
The green race is going to drive new winners in the economy as entrepreneurs who have positioned themselves to make the critical investments needed for the economy. Especially the ones that going to create the very jobs that politicians plan to trumpet about. Being able to think ahead and consider the kinds of businesses desired both by the public sector in an economy that is highly pro-market will be rewarded. The risk is that the public sector decides to take on the direct investments themselves rather than to ‘incentivise’ the businesses to do so. This is why the pro-market orientation of the government is important.
For the markets where the government have the tendency to perform direct intervention or deem infrastructure investments way too strategic to be left to private sector, the green race may take those economy in a different direction. They may choose to create new state-owned and managed entities to make new direct investments or to use the existing ones. And the green jobs will be created within state-linked enterprises. Civil servants who are savvy in these areas will tend to gain within such systems.
Either way, there are going to be new ways smart people will be gaming the system.
The beauty of the market system emerges when there’s competition along the right dimensions just when we all need them. But competition doesn’t always require a market economy – there’s always limited resources, time and other constraints that requires us to somehow compete. There’s also reputation, attention of people and recognition that drives us to compete. In the 20th century, the space race during the cold war led to phenomenal technical and technological advances which powered the growth over the 21st century.
There was an alignment of political, and public interest. The economic interest was not entirely foreseen and only realised much later. But it seemed that entire economies of Europe, US and Soviet Union were engaged in this mission. It seemed like a conflict and perhaps competition of egos but eventually worked for the good of mankind.
As an energy transition consultant, I welcome this. As much as we might think the competition can result in duplicative efforts and inefficiency, it is what we need to align the incentives in the market with the interest of the overall society. Moreover, harnessing the public interest and pressure upon this topic through directing the workforce and human capital towards the low-carbon economy is much needed. The green race should hopefully create the necessary ecosystem we need to drive further changes and ensure the climate transition.
In the situation where capital investment in machines and technology becomes a more level playing field for companies, the edge that companies can get from replacing humans with machines becomes smaller. But it takes market leadership to decide that the new basis of competition is probably not about having more automation than the competition but to be able to attract and motivate the best frontline workers serving the customers and making their day.
Market leadership is not about following what the rest of the industry is doing but deciding what is the next basis of competition and focusing on those parameters. Scale helps but more critical is the courage and strategic thinking of those in charge.
Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?
What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?
Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.
Organisations work in silos and we often talk about breaking silos because it is a real problem. What is interesting is how silos form naturally and what keeps them functioning and feeds the way human behaves. The truth is that majority of people connect well only with a handful of people around them. It’s all they need to survive and even thrive. Organisations are set up for people to do their best work each day rather than over a long time horizon, and rightly so. Silos are natural tendency and efforts to resist them will be inefficient in short term.
The real solution to breaking silos is having superconnectors, being able to identify them in organisations and bring them into roles that allows them to help arbitrate across silos. They ought to be put in charge of coordination problems and given the authority to enable those connections. These people could also take the form of external consultants who have no stakes within the organisation.
Mathematically, clustering is just a natural population, psychological phenomena amongst people. Yet with just a handful of “super nodes” that connects across clusters, the other nodes within clusters can be quickly brought together and average degrees of separation reduced dramatically and really quickly.
Organisations need to recognise the role of these superconnectors that enable silos to continue working alongside in ways that are productive and non-duplicative. They allow everyone to remain efficient even as they ensure that the organisation overall operates strategically in the right direction.
This is the way the system works. For everything you see in the wild, every specie of plant, insect, animal out there, they are the survivors. Somehow, someone, somewhere is keeping them alive. There is an ecosystem and while it is not like they could get by without doing a thing, their survival comes not from them alone. There’s a system thing going on. And overall, the system keeps all of them alive.
Why are the households running well, and companies making stuff, selling them? Why are we all with jobs or having kids growing up well and paying taxes? That’s because we are fed in a system that manages and coordinates those relationships. And keep things going. Of course, some systems are sustainable and some are not. In most cases, one could say no system is infinitely sustainable, just awaiting our discovery of the break in it.
The oil companies continue to extract and sell oil; and power plants continue to burn fuels and emit carbon dioxide because there’s a system that works with them in the place. That will always keep them surviving – at the expense of the future that we want to create. To overcome that system, we need to be able to dream up and work towards the alternative system.
It’s becoming really hard to use experience as a way to measure people’s ability to perform certain work. The problems that our world is seeking to solve are what we have not seen before and if we know exactly what experience would help us find the solution, then we are already prescribing the solution somewhat. Moreover, a lot of innovations that are needed to deal with those problems only emerged in the last 3-5 years in a big way. The person with 10-20 years experience in wind or solar may not be adequately equipped to support a project today where one has to consider elements of energy storage and even green hydrogen production.
When we choose to specialise, and the area we enter is something growing and continually improving, we are caught in some kind of race – with the field itself and also other people who are pouring into the field. Energy and climate transition appears to be in that category and being a consultant in this space, I’m conscious that there are more consultancies who are entering this space without much credibility. It’s good to have more people championing this cause for mankind but there’s a risk that the transition gets slowed down by some of the ESG crowd that is distracting us from the true solutions by shifting the attention towards elements of compliance and reporting as opposed to real action.
In terms of recruitment and hiring, we are seeing more people trying to step up to the challenge but without the right or clear understanding what the energy or climate transition is about. I am seeing people who are intent on joining a hype train without recognizing its genuine significance in the world. The choice to specialise should not to be making more bucks but to make a greater impact than one would make merely from just doing the general. At this point when people are not going to be hiring for experience, young people have the opportunity to differentiate themselves. And this differentiation will not be just a matter of talking about passion but understanding the impact one is trying to make.
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