Whose responsibility?

So Singapore’s target for net-zero is 2050, with the public sector aiming to reach the target in 2045. And with coordination being touted as one of the core strengths of the Singapore government, we have a Chief sustainability within the government to manage that. This role in businesses is still very ambiguous and it is not clear whether the person is managing the process of decarbonisation for the the company or to manage the sustainability offering of the firm.

Likewise, it is not entirely clear whether the Chief sustainability in the government of a country should be responsible only for the public sector emissions or taking charge of the reduction of emissions across the entire country. Frankly, the public sector emissions are already very significant. Part of the challenge is that almost all of the wastewater treatment and water supply plants are owned and operated by the government; at the same time, the government also own and operate incineration plants. This is probably why in the business times article, it was stated that Ministry of Sustainability & Environment is itself one of the large emitter.

But Singapore’s approach to decarbonisation is unlikely to be about the government just dealing with its own emissions and then trying to create structures to drive decarbonisation of the private sector. The fact that the Chief sustainability starts talking about costs, value and trade-offs is already a clear sign that the government is probably thinking about abatement cost at a system level. And it is true that the government in Singapore is uniquely positioned to evaluate this. We might have a shot at being able to collectively determine what are the lowest hanging fruit across the society to reduce emissions and then collective work through the curve of diminishing marginal returns. In other words, we can look at the avenues of abatement that incur the lowest costs while making the largest reductions first.

This means that while the government might be able to try to reduce energy use in the desalination plants or secure green electricity, they might not because there may be other industries that can reduce the emissions at lower costs. This sort of system level optimisation may not be possible in bigger countries; but for a small island state where our renewable resources are too scarce, that might be the only way.


Chanced upon Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con in the bookstore today and took the chance to read a bit of it. I first heard of the book from the media and my curiosity was piqued, not least because I’m a consultant myself. The firms highlighted by the book are the usual big consulting groups and Mariana’s main area of attack was on their work for governments enfeebling the public sector and exercising undue influence on the decision and politics of countries.

Being focused on the energy transition, I thought perhaps that my work is less implicated by Mariana’s attack but having been a public servant myself, I do wander if the government contracting out work to the consulting industry is a problem in itself. I think for Singapore, we can safely say that Mariana’s attacks don’t have teeth because the public sector in Singapore maintains a lot of the critical capabilities and information even whilst drawing upon consultants to help drive forward its work.

The Big Con then has in mind very specific governments as targets and in some sense, cherry-pick specific stories, case studies and situations to make its argument. Nevertheless, I still empathize with what the authors are driving at and the change they are hoping to make. Mariana Mazzucatto also wrote The Mission Economy and while I have not read it, I understand the underlying ideas and how The Big Con interacts with some of those fundamental notions. I do think that governments and more actors in the economy needs to get together to galvanise the economy and wider society to collectively embark on the joint mission for a future that is worth creating.

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.

Importing green energy

Singapore is going to import low-carbon electricity soon; well, technically it already has been importing these electricity through some “small pilots”. The idea of importing electricity isn’t new. For a long time, Thailand had been importing power from Laos, developing hydroelectric plants there and building transmission lines into their network.

Most regional electricity markets started out first with interconnectors to help with load balancing, which also provides for imports and export. The Nord Pool in Nordic states started out that way. And the purpose of that had always been to enhance resilience and promote regional integration.

Singapore’s case is interesting because of the focus on securing green electrons. From a GHG Protocol carbon accounting standpoint for Nationally Determined Contributions to emission reduction, the electrons that are imported are carbon-free. This is because countries only need to care about Scope 1 emissions. That is to say the electricity exporting country will need to care about their energy mix and be responsible for the carbon emitted during the power generation process.

At the country level, all imported electricity is carbon free. But for companies consuming the electricity, things can be complicated. Do they use the grid emissions factor assuming the imported electricity is carbon-free? Are retailers who purchase the import electricity able to claim the power is carbon-free?

Because of these controversies, Singapore took the clear path of requiring the power imported to be from low-carbon sources / renewable sources. So hydroelectricity qualifies, and so does solar and wind. The challenging layer that Singapore added to the electricity importers is for the power to be firm; ie. the solar power cannot be just supplied in the day when the sun is shinning. The message is that we want green electricity but not the intermittency that comes with it. Nevertheless, managing the intermittency will come down to the importer rather than the exporter since the requirement comes from Singapore.

I do wonder if this whole musical chairs around who should own the cost or benefit to the matter of carbon emissions a big distraction from the world’s attempt to reduce carbon emissions though. If Singapore could simply develop more projects overseas and secure the relevant credits from other countries on a government-to-government basis, we could still create new instruments that could help to release more supply of green energy for companies in Singapore to meet their obligations.

At some point we need to cut through the whole posturing, learn to be strategic together as Team World and work on the problem of climate change together.

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.

Identity forgotten

When Google sort of botched their launch of Bard AI integration into search, a smart commentator reminds everyone that Google may have well forgot their identity. The analysis was crisp and contrasted Google and Apple’s product launches to reflect the kind of audience they appealed to and should focus on.

It begs the question if a company or a brand’s identity is meant to hang around and if so, what kind of values should persist as it grows. Or as the market changes. The idea that Google can quietly push out something and slap a Beta sticker to insulate themselves is attractive when their market share is still not exactly dominant in a new space they are trying to enter. Moreover, the pool of audience they had targeted; the ones who would try something new or be eager to take the tech guinea pig role might no longer be enough to feed the company’s need for growth and scale.

So certain aspects of the company changes and one could say the identity is forgotten but it could also mean they have allowed it to be forsaken in order to pursue something else.

The question is what defines the company’s identity? Is it a way of doing things? That’d be too dynamic. Is it the targeted group of customer it serves? Then it’s growth is constrained to the size of that group. Or the pursuit of the company? But surely the world changes and that pursuit gets altered.

In any case Google is long past their “original identity”; and practically all of those dimensions I mentioned above have changed for them. It is up to them to tell the story of their identity’s evolution and redefine what they really want to keep or discard.

Negative prices

What are negative prices in the market? When you don’t want something and have to pay someone to take it. But why can’t you just “dispose” it somehow? Or “leave it there”? Maybe there are regulations in place. Or maybe there isn’t a place that you can and want to “leave it”

Carbon prices are negative prices; you need to pay someone to take it away. By creating regulations to prevent people from just “leaving it there (in the atmosphere)”, you push the cost of disposal to the polluters and set out the signals and momentum necessary to rewire the system.

Free market doesn’t emerge spontaneously; it requires regulation, boundaries and legal mechanisms to enforce rules, especially explicit ones. Implicit rules are also necessary to keep things together. Question is if we are willing to create a system intellectual property and enforce rights to spark innovation, why aren’t we doing so for climate change?

Fraud and shortcuts to success

Maybe I’m writing this too early given the case just surfaced. I’m talking about JP Morgan’s allegation that Javice Charlie fabricated customers in order to inflate the price that she could sell her startup, Frank. It’s ironic to some extent that the fintech startup was supposed to help students cut through opacity with the college financial aid system in the US.

It reminded me of Theranos of course, if you looked at Charlie Javice’s profile, everything suggests she was incredibly intelligent and could certainly be very successful on her on merits without committing fraud. But yes she seem to have taken the position not so different from Liz Holmes or Sam Bankman-Fried.

Why is the culture making us so desperate for success or to go down the slippery slope of misrepresentation? Why are our young people believing that the whole startup and venture space is about faking it till you make it? Is there nothing wrong with that? What should we look into fixing?

Cutlery on the go

I was going through a security check and the security officer saw that my bag had fork, spoon and chopsticks. They were from my portable dinning cutlery set. The officer was amused and asked me to remove it from my bag to check. He then realised it was more for sustainability and that I was not some homeless dude lumbering around.

Lots of disposable cutlery can be saved from bringing your own cutlery set around. That reduces material waste. But at the same time, what we eat matters too!

Cutting down on meats especially beef reduces significant amount of carbon emissions and also animal waste. The globalised world has more diversity in diets so that helps to disperse demand for different food products but the way food is produced had become a lot more industrialised and intense in those particular areas where crops and livestock are produced. This means more logistics, centralisation of profits and inequality.

If you were to make a choice to change your cutlery use or your diet, I’d prefer you think more about your diet.

Paying for work or process?

As a consultant, we work with businesses on different topics and we charge them based on how much work the project involves. Yet the only way to measure the amount of work was to estimate the time it would take us to complete the work. Of course, the price per unit time of someone more experienced (or higher up in position) is higher. But this inevitably seems as though we are charging people for the process rather than work.

Another way to really charge for the work is to find out how much the problem is costing the client, and charge an amount just below the cost of the problem. The client gains the difference. If it’s not a problem but more benefits flow to the client as a result of the work, it can also be valued based on the incremental value to the client. That’s just harder because the clients are unlikely to really reveal that.

As a result when we overvalue ourselves, the transaction never happens and it only seem to happen when we undervalue ourselves vis-a-vis the client’s own value of the work that we are doing. Along the way though, the client can sometimes try to give us more work. After all, the lump sum price have been decided on. Better to ask more questions and wring more value out of these guys. It’s a delicate balance to strike. But all I can say is that consulting is such a human business we can never escape having to manage these interactions and relationships.

They are all necessarily more valuable than the transactions; but it is after all the job, the work, and the payments that enable these relationship. So do you value the work more or the process to arrive at it?