The monolithic system

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.

Small firm in energy transition

The energy transition exposes the weakness of the current energy system of the world. It reveals how much we are reliant on a few resources to draw our energy to power the economy despite how dispersed and distributed energy resources are.

Take for example a rural area in Indonesia, where there are small farms and villages – and they are relying on diesel or kerosene refined and fetched from some far flung areas in order to power their generators or farm equipment. All the while just sitting beside heaps of bioenergy resources that are seen as waste.

The emphasis on low-carbon economy helps us recognise that we may have to start shortening our supply chains and reducing its complexity if we want to decarbonise our economies. Part of this has to do with how stuck we are between the CAPEX and OPEX distribution of the manner we consume energy. By consuming fossil fuels, we shift the burden of costs mostly to the OPEX since equipment are mostly standardised and so they are cheaper to procure and use while we adopt the long supply chains needed to achieve the delivery of fossil fuels on regular basis.

If we were to shift to shorter supply chains where the distributed energy resources were consumed instead, there might be more local equipment needed, the CAPEX might increase. But OPEX may actually decrease because now you’re saving on storage or disposal costs of some of the feedstock that might go into making the fuel you need.

If the world is to develop shorter supply chains, it will need more small firms. And governments all around the world needs to know better how to encourage, support and empower small firms to rise up to the challenge. We need local firms who are familiar with the local constraints, context and needs. They need to be upskilled technically to rise up to the challenge and generate solutions.

This mode of development is vastly different from the old school model of having a big multi-national firm come into a less developed location to help ‘develop’ it by reshaping local demands. Aside from how much this harks back to colonialism, it is creating long supply chains which seem to create more jobs but is not doing much for the climate and environment.

Hydrogen ecosystem II

When I first penned the blog post on hydrogen ecosystem, I had a couple of ill-fitting ideas that I thought could come together but I did not successfully pull them together beyond putting them in a single blog post. What I really meant to say is that the government will need to do more work understanding and studying the nuances of the ecosystem and industrial value chain that makes sense for green hydrogen and then perhaps take action to ease the struggles of the market in developing projects.

The thing about green hydrogen is that it is something that requires quite a fair amount of new infrastructure. And the situation is uncertain because governments are thinking that maybe electrification will be more dominant and want to avoid investing in white elephants. Or they think that it is all a zero-sum game due to budget and resource constraints and that investing into transmission and distribution which meant favouring electrification would naturally be inconsistent with investing into more gas infrastructure.

In reality however, green hydrogen is made from renewable energy and hence the alleviation of electricity grid issues that foster more wind and solar can also support the development of a green hydrogen sector. The key here again is that the government needs to have better knowledge of how different parts of the value chain works and the value they are contributing.

Only in appreciating that, the governments can make the right moves.

Case on climate change

It’s almost surreal that the explanation of climate change, its far-reaching consequences and the warning of the lack of action as well as the foresight on the reluctance to switch from fossil fuels is so cogently made in 1985 before the US Congress.

And today, we still have what we have happening in the US. Meanwhile, other developing countries are massively adopting green energy, unlocking the opportunities and growth which comes from the energy transition.

The economic downsides of displacing the traditional, carbon-intensive activities were huge in 1985, but compared to the manner we allowed the activities to have expanded till today, humanity seemed like it’s dancing towards the edge of the cliff.

Demand reductions

We perform a lot of demand forecasting for energy players and increasingly we need to forecast energy or fuel use for other industries. Often the players are thinking about greening their production, supply chain, etc. so we are forecasting how much fuel will be needed, or fleets of ship, volume of goods, amount of energy consumed.

In the climate transitioned world, we envision a greener version of our world when actually, it’ll be a different world altogether. It will not be the same as the one we are in today. For example, the energy content of hydrogen or green ammonia is a fraction of what we currently use as maritime fuel. If long-haul vessels are to switch fuel, they need more frequent refueling and bunkering activities will no longer be as concentrated as today. What will happen to Singapore as a bunkering hub?

Likewise, if companies are starting to be concerned about Scope 3 emissions, are we sure they would just pay more for green logistics? Won’t they procure more of their supplies locally? If we care about sustainability, will we not change our supply chains to switch out carbon-intensive materials.

The metrics around overall goods demand and where they come from will change fundamentally in a climate-transitioned world. ESG or climate is not just compliance, regulatory risk and reporting.

Real circularity

There is a collorary to our economic system in nature. It’s not considered a single subject or discipline but involves a mixture of physical geography with ecology, biology and so on. Nature is truly circular to the extent that the outputs of one system feeds into the input of another and the overall grand scheme of things is in a kind of dynamic equilibrium that eventually shifts over time.

For a while humans have mimicked nature in creating circularity in our economy. And then we gave up because it was easier to scale things up and create wastage in order to fulfill profit motives. The unequality in an economy, the more wastage is produced because production gets inevitably skewed towards satisfying a demand that is aligned more to the distribution of “means” rather than a distribution of “needs”.

Nature behaves differently because the currency of nature is multi-dimensional and rich. There is no “monetisation”; nature do not base its value on a single commodity. You can’t exchange one calorie for another easily within the diet of most animals.

Real circularity involves richness that the industrial capitalist manner of approach cannot replicate.

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.

Plastic, cheap and perceptions

Singapore Airlines is trying to switch their in-flight dining serviceware to paper rather than the current single-use plastic and met with accusation of attempting to cut costs. There is an issue also of sacrificing in-flight experience of customers for the sake of costs despite profits.

There are a few dimensions to consider in the debate and wider issues around the consumerist culture and system we have created. For the longest time, it pays off for companies to upsell: by providing better materials, packaging, a little more space and convenience, they can sell at higher price than it costs them to deliver the service or product. In fact sometimes they spend additional costs to cheapen the alternative because encouraging you to consume more and creating the cheaper alternative simultaneously enhance their customer base without cannibalising on some of their profits.

But as we step into a world where sustainability matters increasingly, these values and strategies we used to leverage on becomes more complex. We no longer just trade off customer experience, price and the costs of providing that experience. Now we have to consider how much being sustainable adds or subtracts that experience, how perceptions will be reshaped. And how important this is, for our culture to shift towards more sustainable consumption.

Smoking and carbon emissions

When dealing with a global issue with local variations of a problem and the need to change culture the way we are trying to do with climate change, there are important lessons we can learn about curbing smoking, especially here in Singapore.

Before we go there however, I want to first envision a state of the world where carbon emissions become more like stigmatised like smoking. Carbon-emitting industries would be like the cousin or uncle we have who is our relative and we can’t quite shake off but still be puffing away, causing our clothes to smell and our lungs to be polluted. We would want them to smoke far from us but they will inevitably bring that odour and whiff of smoke, and also ash back to us.

As employers, we would have competent workers who are smokers – and while we know that they might be taking smoke breaks, we still need to keep them as they are largely productive. So they will continue to exist, but we can treat them a little badly to nudge them to reduce their carbon emissions. Currently, we’re definitely not doing enough.

Some ideas on how to treat the carbon-intense companies/industries like smokers:

  • Labels could be slapped on all of the products and service invoices of these companies – imagine going down the aisle of supermarkets and seeing these labels on the fresh beef packaging.
  • These industries could be made to situate together (maybe within a yellow box); and if they are not in that given zone, they cannot run processes that emits carbon dioxide above certain threshold.
  • Tax them based on escalating, progressive carbon tax rates; this is above
  • These companies are not allowed to emit carbon dioxide until they registered their business in the jurisdiction and operated for at least 21 years.

So consider if we are doing enough for climate change; compared to public health. Both concerns survival of a nation, of the entire mankind.

Net zero actions

Reducing carbon emissions is about doing less things. But our culture and economy is not used to that. Maybe that’s why it is easier to sell the idea that we must do more new things or different things.

New actions from various parties in the economy requires new forms of coordination. We are not familiar with all that and neither are we familiar with the roles, actions and expectations.

In some sense the talents who used to do this sort of work would have come from those with public policy background but because of the manner the economy and talent flows have evolved in the past few decades, these people now come from everywhere.

For those in research, it is knowledge that catalyses actions. For those in politics it is the voice from the people. And for businesses, it would tend to be what constitutes opportunity, these various pockets of objectives, desired outcomes and tools need to be laid out and strung together.

It’s not too late. But things need to be done.