In 1977, more than 45 years ago, James Black, a senior scientist from ExxonMobil delivered a sobering message to the company:
In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels…
And in later warnings, he was clear about the need for action
…present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.
And if you want to know more about this you can check out the article published 8 years ago in Scientific American. What I’m trying to say here is that incentives are important guide to corporations, businesses and while they are operated by humans, we cannot trust them to follow moral principles or human values that are not captured within regulations, rules or laws. In fact, we already cannot quite trust them to follow rules, regulations and laws to begin with, especially when they are at odds with profit-making.
The market is designed to act in certain ways that do not necessarily promote the greatest general well-being of the society. The conclusion that Adam Smith came to unfortunately doesn’t apply to the extent that market incentives rule so many aspects of our lives.
If ExxonMobil had been not only incentivised to ignore the climate problem but potentially contribute to confusion in the subsequent decades, how can we expect shareholder pressure, financial reporting and disclosures to help? And at the same time, putting all of these burden on the companies are probably going to make more enemies to decarbonisation. Disclosures are more about self-regulation and expecting the market to bring the whip. That’s hit and miss; and when there is incentive to ignore the problem, the market would, as we have seen for more than four decades.
It is time for governments to wake up and lead the mission on climate change. Businesses, consultants, NGOs, activists can only go this far and no more.
The government tends to be an easy target for most of the problems, or the lack of solution towards them. In most cases, the lack of technical solutions tend not to be the barrier towards solving the problems. It is a matter of adoption. And people look towards the government to drive the uptake of solutions. The struggle today, in the market economy where there’s a multitude of technical solutions backed by various different economic interest, there’s some kind of gridlock towards having governments select solutions.
Historically, the popular beliefs, ideas and thoughts drive the directions of democratically elected government. Influence from businesses probably will contribute to some of that. But the options are limited (automobiles or horse carriages, internal combustion engines or electric engines, AC or DC transmission, etc.) and there are certain dimensions by which governments can justify their choices and move forward.
Today, it is less clear. Should we electrify homes completely or allow them to continue using gas, albeit having to encourage the development of renewable gases? Should the government be driving the choice of technologies used in homes or industries by enabling or making difficult the development of more biomethane for grid-injection? Or should they be encouraging full electrification not just of homes but also industries, and even heavy transport, redeveloping infrastructure to be able to deliver lots of electricity, enabling battery swapping or ultra-fast charging along highways?
What are the dimensions that the government should be optimising along, should they be taking positions to propagate certain solutions or standards? Are they in the position to make those choices? Yet some of these innovations and technological adoption can only move forward with enabling policies. The issue is that being in a standstill and not enacting any policy is in itself a choice for status quo, for the carbon-intense way of life, and dooming our system. Yet making a choice can mean excluding certain options or causing certain options to be more or less expensive than they otherwise would be, hence favouring one over another.
Taking policy positions and ultimately making some kind of technological choice implicitly is inevitable. So it is just a matter of what are the priorities.
One of the things we learnt early on in economics is that allocative efficiency which the perfect competitive market seem to move towards is efficient in terms of maximising social welfare even if distributionally it is skewed. In other words, by using the ability to pay as the final arbiter for who gets the goods and services, the society moves towards high levels of efficiency about what gets produced and who gets what goods/services without questioning whether things are really ‘fair’ or if in the first place, the ability to pay is properly distributed.
This is a problem that we seem to ignore because it is convenient to think we are already in the best of worlds. The idea of Pareto optimal is powerful – that you stop moving things around as long as you cannot make someone better off without having to make someone worse off even if the one who is slightly worse off is not much more worse than the amount of betterment you can create in another. That comparison isn’t objectively possible anyways.
But by sweeping it under the carpet, economics close itself off to a lot of interesting philosophical debate that really matters and tries to consign itself to an amoral science. Yet championing for markets is not exactly amoral, it is taking the stance that the market approach is morally superior and already deferring to the market in the work of economic justice. Michael Sandel writes and lectures extensively on this and as we ponder over how we marketize various things from infrastructure to healthcare, we can go back to consider those ideas.
I spent many years focused on infrastructure development, particularly working on getting private sector involvement into infrastructure investments, executing the projects, operating and maintaining them for government. The advantage, as we would often tout, has a lot to do with the efficiency of getting private sector with experience to do it. At the same time, it reduces need to use direct state budget for financing such projects, and reduce the need for government to get involved in the complexities of hiring specialists, working on those technical subjects that will not support other areas of government work.
We called these infrastructure projects public-private partnerships or PPPs. It has somehow unlocked lots of private sector financing into the market and supported infrastructure investments. That is all good but it made me wonder whether marketization infrastructure is necessarily a good thing. For one, collecting fees on a piece of infrastructure in order to maintain it sounds right; and that fee will somehow have to be regulated since the private sector party would try to extract all the surplus with its monopoly position. So what should the regulator allow? Average cost pricing or marginal cost pricing? There is a ‘right answer’ in economics but in practice it is always hard to really work out what is the long run marginal cost involved. Particularly if the amount of service you render in each time period varies with demand.
And who is to prevent the monopoly from trying to extract more surpluses by pushing the regulator to allow it to charge certain prices by gaming the criteria or the measurement methodologies that the public sector develops. So the cat and mouse game starts. Is this what we expect when we try to marketize infrastructure? And should we not expect it when we do go ahead to privatise infrastructure? Eventually the tax payers have to fund both the cat and the mouse – the regulator and the monopoly or the private shareholders’ profits. Does that really make sense in terms of overall economic efficiency?
And finally, can such a set up really deal with change? Especially with the energy and climate transition. A lot of infrastructure need to build in resilience, consider the climate impacts on not just their infrastructure but also their customers and the way their demand base will be evolving, whether that is going to impact existing business models. All that is not even accounting for the decarbonisation ambitions of their customers. Meanwhile, can these all become an excuse for extracting further surpluses?
What if the sun could give us all our power and energy, to drive everything we need to power our economies, perform our activities and live life? Or what if we can afford everything that we ever want and need? What if money can buy us everything? What if this one thing can solve all your problems?
If all that hypothetical questioning sounds like a bunch of marketing crap or storytelling, they are actually fantastic devices that somehow appeals so much to our psyche. But they can simultaneously be truth with caveats and also complete bullshit.
In case you are curious, I provide the solutions:
The sun does power a lot of things and is capable of providing sufficient energy for all of our activities and more but capturing it and channeling them properly is had.
We, as a collective earth, already is able to afford everything we produce and will be able to satisfy all of our needs – wants on the other hand are completely manufactured by ourselves and can be managed.
Money can buy us everything that can be bought (or sold).
One thing that can solve all your problems is a mental reframe to see them not as problems but challenges to help you grow.
There is always some kind of rhetoric to get you out of those conundrum but doesn’t really address the actual psychological appeal of those questions. The thing is that we naturally gravitate towards some kind of monolithic system or idea where we want a single solution or something that becomes a common denominator for everything else. Money comes close to becoming that. Yet that has probably demonstrated that such a system do not actually deliver what you think it would.
Likewise, the market economy and market system isn’t going to be the one that delivers us all from the problems around energy, climate change, innovations and poverty elimination. The market system needs to be rightly placed for what it is good for just as we should see wind and solar power in their place within the energy system rather than expecting them to deliver all our needs. Even oil and gas was not able to power all of our world’s energy needs even if they came close to that. Monolithic systems reduces resilience even if they provide scale economies.
For some reason most people forget that energy markets were created through a combination of business activities and government regulation. There would be a push of some kind towards energy access, electrification in the beginning of any modern country’s development. There wasn’t that much public consultation around these topics – that was simply how development takes place and everyone sort of aspired towards that. Or so we thought; but systems were built to drive countries and societies towards those directions.
Today, in the struggle to set up an orderly energy transition, policy leadership from government is more important than ever. The challenge is in determining what are political choices and what are really policy-choices that is to be determined through more rigorous research and analysis. There is always the search for market-based solutions even though we might actually have seen in history that a lot of big dislocations are resolved or handled through public sector decisions and investments.
The idea of seeking the market for solutions is a new idea. And while the market appear to have been terrific in generating a whole load of choices and new options, the fundamental innovations are still pulled together by a greater sense of mission than market competition. We probably need to mature further to appreciate this.
We might not realise it but governments have a huge role in creating markets. This is because markets do not spontaneously emerge out of nowhere especially in highly developed economies. One of the reasons is that markets actually requires structures, institutions and frameworks such as rules and regulation can encourage players to step forward more boldly and grow the market.
Today, in Australia, despite the multi-dimensional benefits that bioenergy brings, and synergises with the traditional economy, there’s still little recognition of the low-carbon identity of bioenergy. And it is a shame that methane produced from biological processes are still seen as not too different from natural gas that is extracted from the ground. There is no forward direction by the government to stake the space and define the standards for biogas production, upgrading into biomethane and regulations around treatment and handling of the digestate, which itself is a by-product of the process that can be made useful.
There is perhaps a clear path to create a market not just through regulatory clarity but also enforcing demand. Market for audit, market for inspections, even market for many public services are created by regulations. Sure, there’s a need and the market contributes positively to society and so regulations support that. Why can’t we do the same with clean energy? One that displaces directly the fossil fuels in our system?
I’ve been reading Erin Meyer’s Culture Map. And I even did her survey on her website that would cost you a bit to get some results. Anyways, I realised as a Singaporean that my results lacked 1 dimension, and it was on the persuading scale. It was only when I had results not benchmarked to my country’s norm that I realised there was a dimension missing!
Only then I realised from her book that she claims the East Asians tend towards a ‘holistic thinking approach’ where they focus on inter-connectedness and inter-dependencies. I found this pretty interesting being a Singaporean and essentially East Asian descent. I’m not exactly sure how this drags us out of that Persuading spectrum of ‘principles-first’ vs ‘applications-first’ because I do find myself on the scale as well and I’m inclined towards ‘principles-first’. I attribute it to my western upbringing but I also think that holistic thinking is more compatible with the ‘principles-first’ approach to reasoning.
East Asians are also logical; even if they might not have a standard structure of approach. The holistic thinking perhaps just cause us to reach out farther to consider more marginal connections to the core topic. This could mean that in using the ‘principles-first’ approach, holistic thinkers are drawing from even broader principles that may at first sight, have nothing to do with the topic at hand.
For example, I was recently having a conversation with a renowned East Asian expert in the bioenergy field and in talking about the advantages of biofuels over e-fuels, he started by considering the efficiency of electrolysing water, and then the fact that most locations rich in wind or solar power tend to be scarce in water supply, and eventually the land required to support the power generation that is required to produce just a small amount of renewable e-fuel. Then he went on to talk about growing crops on some of these land, how they might help the habitat, the robustness of particular crops. Finally, that the crop residues can be processed to produce biofuels; allowing the land to be used for multiple purpose of food and energy – especially if the right kind of crops are grown to ensure more cycles of harvest.
The point about biofuels being superior to e-fuels was made somewhat indirectly and through a detailed explanation about something way beyond the issue of energy – it was about resource-intensity in terms of land-use and perhaps water. So he was drawing from a principle about resource intensity to produce the required fuel essentially though the manner he had approached it starts with considering linkages between the subject and other concepts.
For me, I am relatively comfortable with that sort of conversations and being patient for the point to be made; and even if the point is not really made clearly, I often give benefit of doubt and draw the connections by myself. Perhaps being East Asian in heritage, I rarely have an issue drawing the actual connections that the speakers are getting at. Indeed, perhaps persuading an East Asian will require more appreciation of the importance of connections and inter-dependencies or relationship than a linear approach to logic.
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.
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