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.
There was a time when demand and pricing was what matters because the rise of logistics and transport technologies made it easy to ship things around or even store things for long. So production becomes so isolated from consumption that as long as you can price things right on demand side, you can be producing anything anywhere.
Profit then is just about finding lower cost locations, resources, manpower, materials and so on. Services gradually have those attributes as they are increasingly performed remotely. But when we start considering supply chains of products, issues of resilience as well as carbon emissions, things goes a bit tricky.
The future low carbon world might be one where supply chains are shorter, where consuming local looms large and where decentralisation returns. Powering decentralisation is simply the recognition that there’s both financial economy and carbon economy; that when we need to economise on carbon, we can afford it.
Do you want to be remembered for achieving FIRE at the age of 40 or having been generous with your time and money? What really lives forever? You, or the stories about you? A world that lives for the current generation is likely one with no future generation. Is it about how much you get or how much you give?
When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.
On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.
Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.
Our lives are limited in many ways but more so by our perspectives than anything else. Time is one perspective by which we limit our lives. In some ways, it is sombering and perks us up but the urgency to accomplish things doesn’t always help. In that sense, the perspective of time as a resource otherwise wasted rather than an input to possibilities, limits us.
Then there is the dimension of money. Because money can buy more and more things, we become increasingly overwhelmed by our limited ability to generate income and wealth. The reason why get-rich-quick scheme works and why greed is pervasive is that we fear that material needs catches up with us. In the market system, money is our vote of some kind, the power we have to grab our share of possessions and material in this world. If we don’t get hold of enough money, we also lose our share of the society’s production. So then life gets caught up with that, with trying to get our share of production by trying to produce or to divert. And in the process we limit our lives to the material, even as we pursue experiences that money can buy.
Money, time and numbers/metrics were gifts to our lives, meant to be additions and blessings but instead they end up limiting our lives. Because of the way we have come to perceive them.
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.
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.
What does additionality mean? There’s this idea that the activity needs to add on something to the existing context. This is a big matter in the case of renewable energies as people are speaking against carbon credits or renewable energy certificates that are actually not adding more renewable energy or removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
We are trying to create a system where incentives themselves are not blunted or abused. If for example, we introduce incentives to reduce rat infestation by rewarding those who catch rats, then you risk the abuse where people are breeding rats to be killed and submitted for incentives. The result of this unintended condition is that people are taking actions that may be contrary to what the original intent of the incentives were.
The world is trying to shift towards a low carbon world. Incentives ought to be rejigged and aligned towards reducing carbon emissions. Yet if we allow abuses and undermine the credibility of emission reductions, we’re hurting ourselves. If forest land owners are suddenly making new revenue streams for trees they are already protecting, it might be a problem that there is no additionality for the new carbon assets.
We should only be incentivising activities that will reduce the world’s carbon emissions. Or increasing its sequestration. The problem is that is hard to measure and align standards of what really counts.
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?
It can be pretty hard for me not to think about energy. It probably has to do with my job but the topic itself is fascinating. In some sense, ‘energy’ could be a subject itself that draws on science, mathematics, economics, engineering, law and many more disciplines to help us make sense of it. While we learn a lot about it in science, most of those fundamentals just remain where they are in our minds and do not connect with the wonders of modern technology and everything that we are so immersed in.
Electricity of course is the most fascinating of it all. It is the energy form that we have been able to manipulate with great precision and even enable energy to take on so much more new roles in life that it would not have been conceived to take on centuries ago even when electricity was first discovered. Electricity of course is a form of energy manifesting and needs to have various mediums, and the best carrier of electricity remains to be chemical batteries.
There are many other energy carriers as well and typically these are fuels; they are released through combustion. That produces heat energy which then can be transformed into kinetic energy, and in turn that tends to be then transformed into electrical energy with appropriate mechanisms such as some kind of motor and generator.
Carriers of energy are themselves interesting and fascinating because there are losses that results from going through the carriers and the various different forms of them. They also come in different forms, shapes and stability, influencing their functionality. Coal is a solid fuel; oils are liquid while natural gas is gaseous. Their state allows them to be conveyed differently and also affects the cost of transporting them.
Last century, the world was afraid of running out of them. Because they are commonly known as non-renewable energy. We use them faster than we can replenish them. Fossil fuels are created through millions of years. This century however, we begin to realise we will end up changing the climate of the world even before we run out of fossil fuel so we’re in a race to phase it out as quickly as we can. Alright it isn’t actually a race because many countries, organisations, assets are stubbornly using it.
But the point of this piece here is to help us recognise that fossil fuel does not have the monopoly in carrying energy and there can be more ways for us to obtain and use energy. Ways that can lead to sustainability and circularity in the world.
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