Transition as an opportunity

I work with businesses daily and when we speak of transiting to the low-carbon economy, moving away from Oil & Gas assets, to new businesses that would accelerate the transition, the conversation could go both ways: (1) Show me the money; (2) There is no other way.

The motivation for green is hard to be sustained by pure profit motive because that tends to be more short term whereas longer term motivation is driven more by fundamentals.

If there isn’t money right now or that money doesn’t come, then those who claim that they are in green for the money won’t be able to stay on. Even if you have conviction that the money would come, it is almost certainly driven by a longer term, fundamental thesis. And this fundamental thesis, tends towards the “there is no other way”.

A balanced, and pragmatic view of this landscape requires us to recognise that the old incentives and structures need to be dismantled to push for the new but at the same time, we need to keep proving that the new works. After all, the oil & gas industry and technology had decades to build up to the scale they have today.

Small market

Singapore is a small market, everyone would say. Yet it imports and exports so much goods and services it would be considered an important market for different businesses. Take bunkering for example; it is the largest single point of sales for the refueling of vessels in the world.

So how do markets grow? What drives them? It depends on who are the customers, and what grows their numbers or their demand in the goods and services of the market. How do supply help to drive demand? Be it through advertising, increasing distribution and availability, etc.

On the other hand, we got to think about how markets shrink as well. How did the market for video or movie rental shrink in face of the growth of streaming? When would an original big market be considered small for the incumbent to start looking elsewhere?

Market for green premium II

Airlines are in the business of transporting people around. Or maybe it’s about curating and creating the best experience in air travel? Or about building a brand? Or is it about bringing people to places and catalysing activities, businesses for locations that would otherwise be overlooked by travellers? Seen that way, the fuel cost of an airline would always be considered a cost. Therefore, to keep cost low, or deliver the greatest profits, the airline will see their fuel as a commodity.

What if the choice of fuel they use starts impacting the customer segments they are targeting or they can serve? What if using sustainable aviation fuel allows them to attract more premium customers? What if they could sell their air tickets at a higher price when they are demonstrably emitting less carbon dioxide? And what if doing so also help them comply with some ICAO requirements?

The market for green premium turns various cost parameters in businesses into a tool for something else. There’s an opportunity to use these new parameters to disrupt the business. Years ago, the low-cost carrier disrupted some of the most traditional airline businesses. Would a low-carbon carrier do the same? What other elements of the whole airline business can be refashioned to fit the whole sustainable, low-carbon identity?

Market for green premium

The energy transition and decentralisation of energy had quietly started shifting the capital markets since close to a decade ago. While the traditional energy players continue to compare the cost of green energy against the cost of their own fossil fuel based energy, they found no reason to diversify their business. Even in face of some subsidy, or some Feed-in-Tariffs, they were reluctant to invest.

There was no scale, and they thought they were going to face more competition and erosion of any green premiums they could secure. But then the capital holders started taking notice. The projects were simple enough to invest into. Solar farms had minimal requirements from an operational perspective, and represented to some degree a pure capital good where almost all the cost are paid upfront for a stream of revenue in long term.

From a risk perspective, it was safe. And so long-term funds which needed safe investments at moderate yields started piling in. The utility scale projects expanded, driving down the cost of equipment, and fostered more innovation there. Here is a case where, the technical simplicity of the operations enabled investors to bypass the typical operating businesses to get into the underlying projects themselves. All of a sudden, it is not about looking for the premium anymore. Because you’re alright with scale.

Sometimes, growing and developing a market is about finding customers who are willing to pay a higher price; but other times, it is about finding investors who are willing to accept a lower expected return for other attributes.

Going back to objectives

What happens when you are ‘stuck’; what exactly does it mean to feel stuck. Is it more about not making progress? If so, then progress towards what? You can’t get stuck if there’s no sense of destination you are trying to get to. And having no destination is not the same as being stuck. Because not knowing where you want to go means it’s perfectly fine wherever you are! Stop thinking like you need to go somewhere if you’re alright with here and now.

If you’re not alright with here and now, and unsure where you need to go, then it’s not about getting out. It’s about figuring where you want to go. And figuring out where you want to go has more to do with rethinking about your objectives. Your objectives for life, for lifestyle, for your work, your career, your relationships and all. Reflect on what is it about the here and now that is uncomfortable; consider what you know you want, and what you don’t know you want.

The same applies to problem-solving. When you feel that you’re not progressing towards the solution, and hence ‘stuck’, it’s time to revisit the objectives. What are you trying to do exactly? Have you contextualised or defined the problem in a way that narrows the solution set such that you are missing out things that can get you your objectives anyways. For example, if you are looking to hammer a nail into the wall, and you contextualise the problem as you “needing a hammer” then you essentially ruled out solving the problem by using any other equipment.

Revisiting objectives helps; and that’s also why it is sometimes difficult to deal with higher level issues by contextualising a problem within a silo-ed context. That would be a good topic of discussion for another day!

What would a net zero agrifood business look like?

Talking about creating net-zero businesses reminds me of the time when I wrote about zero-based thinking about the education system. Only by reconstructing what we want to achieve from scratch, can we try to uncover new innovations and ideas that we have been missing out to think about problems we have.

The agrifood industry supposedly produces about one-third of all the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for these days. We can try to think about where to cut emissions or we can consider how to overhaul things. One of the chief challenge of the world today is that we have been taking the theory of comparative advantage and trade too far, forgetting in part the risk of concentration, and the issues around carbon emissions of the logistics and supply chain. Once we start factoring in carbon costs, we can start considering more about growing and consuming local more because it might actually be worth the while.

Overspecialisation in the agrifood sector may bring about economic efficiencies at the expense of carbon emissions and food security. A long time ago, there were stories about fish being sent from the Nordic seas to China to be fillet only to be sold back in the Nordic states. It is a reflection of how capitalism have morphed our appreciation of craftsmanship, and our values around environmental stewardship.

So a net-zero agrifood business quite likely will have start from considering crop cycles, relevant crops to be growing for the local taste and preferences, and the techniques for cultivation, processing, and marketing these products. It will have to reduce distribution or tap on synergies with other nearby industries for distribution. It should concern itself with strong focus on quality and selection of robust crops.

Of course, it will also concern itself with minimizing packaging, pioneering newer retail approaches; once again leveraging more on synergies with surrounding industries. Of course, there is still room for trade and exporting but it might be harder especially if the produce is perishable. Nevertheless, the idea is no longer to use economies of scale and efficiency to sell to the mass market and allow the whole capitalist-industrial complex to be built upon heaps of waste and trash.

Finding good people

Can people be talented in terms of their attitude and work ethic rather than in content? I think it is potentially harder to find good people who takes ownership in their work and do them well than so-called skilled people. Because our work and education system increasingly churn out lots of generalists in the market, education stops being a good system for sifting out the non-committed, the slackers and non-resilient.

We want the system to help everyone get a degree, get good jobs and get paid well but we forget that our market system continues to be built on the competitive premise of “may the best team win” – which is to say that at some space between the education system and our industries, something is going to snap.

To move away from creating broken systems or breaking one part of the system while trying to fix another part. You choose.

Market for innovation

One of the biggest argument for capitalism and market economy is the promotion of innovation. Competition promotes innovation; and the common incentive of money (as a placeholder for all things monetised) helps to drive that competition. The challenge is that money is based on those who actually happen to get hold of a lot of it, no matter how.

Consequently, the market economy can develop a lot of innovations that are not useful. An additional brand of shampoo, or another design of reading glasses, or another variation of packaging. Yet these sometimes seemingly useless improvements can be incremental steps towards newer, disruptive products. So even during those times when money is seen to be chasing something frivilous, the march and progress in innovation can still be advancing.

Yet we are unlikely to rely purely on the movements in the market to develop innovations that we as humans truly need. Often, innovations that eventually change the world involves some degree of intentionality and sense of mission. The market for innovation isn’t as much about dollars and cents, as compared with purpose and mission.

Dynamic cost-benefit analysis

One of the most power tools that economics have brought to the world is cost-benefit analysis and really assessing what is the constitution of cost or benefits at various levels: individuals, firms, regional government, national government, countries.

Where it fails is the ability to properly ascribe who cares about what. The assumption around rational, selfish agents cannot possibly hold in reality. On the other hand, there is radical inconsistencies when you perform such optimisation on behalf of “government” which is staffed by human agents and with politicians have their own agenda. Over the years, these poor assumptions have made room for more colourful, richer analysis of agents, decision-making units at different levels.

Now if we move our attention to the dimension of time rather than perspective of our agents, we realise another issue. We can assess somehow the cost and benefits of today if we use our imaginations but to stretch it to the future would require even more manipulations. And the uncertainty make render the exercise less fruitful than one may expect.

Alas, we continue to use these tools expecting them to work while not having proper assessment of whether they work or not when the outcomes play out in reality. It is not the issue of calculating those figures but how we incorporate them into our judgment that matters. Yet with limited budgets and resources, most have chosen to opt for a semblance of the exercise, paying a smaller cost but getting almost none of the benefits.

Trash & waste

About 81 years ago, Dorothy Sayer, a British writer penned these words:

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

Dorothy Sayers (1942), Why Work

In the article, I’m amazed by the clarity which Dorothy Sayers foresaw the world post-war, with piercing critique of the economic system we have created. The economics that she was schooled in was one of observations of the market, of history and of human psyche itself.

The second world war has ended for more than 70 years now; and as predicted by Sayer, we had immediately jumped back into the business as usual, where work and labour was valued only by money. And this is why we churn out more waste our planet can scarcely handle (both in terms of carbon emissions and lots of material wastage).

Sayer’s remedy has to do with appreciating our work in a different way and valuing it more. And much of it certainly sounds like echoes of the messages around ESG, corporate social responsibility and sustainability these days. Yet she also points to something deeper, points revolving around values of work, of the things we do in society, and value that is created to serve lives and human beings, not abstracted by the market in the form of price signals.

Her full essay can be found here. I confess of course that my shared faith with Sayers help me appreciate the essay in a deep way. If you do care about sustainability and our world, even if you are not a Christian, surely some of the points she brought up should give us a deeper motivation to drive us to live in a manner that is a part and yet apart from this market system?