Having been based in Australia for two months now and getting a better view of the overall energy landscape, I’d say that the greatest hurdle we need to overcome is developing an alignment in commitment, plans and action to bring bioenergy especially biomethane into the system energy mix in order to decarbonise.
We are trying to build a bridge to the low-carbon energy future. And there has been many announcement, efforts and plans around hydrogen hubs, hydrogen parks. In the year 2023, the prices of electrolysers didn’t seem to come down all that much as expected, renewable electricity in the form of wind and solar, while being cheap, is bringing about a degree of intermittency that challenges grid operations to the extent that overall cost of electricity or at least access to electricity remains high. As it turns out, we were building the bridge from the destination towards us when we were working on the hydrogen projects. They were good, at some point in the future but it seems that they are not being built fast enough to reach us today. We are still unable to adopt those solutions.
This means that as the decarbonisation targets and emission reduction dreams comes back to bite us, we need to start building the bridge from our side. And biomethane is a great solution that allows us to do that. It displaces natural gas on a one-to-one basis and does not require end-users of natural gas to change their appliances. Biomethane can be spec-ed properly in the biogas upgrading process in order to achieve the quality required for gas grid injection. Moreover, the production of biogas (precursor to biomethane) can be done in conjunction with managing our organic and agricultural wastes which were either being burnt, composted openly or sent to the landfill – all of which involves some kind of carbon emission (albeit short-cycle to a certain extent) that does not achieve extra work done. And don’t get me started on the potential of biogenic carbon dioxide as a future market to build.
Lots of clear work and action. Once we get the perception right and eliminate the misinformation around bioenergy in Australia.
Is the whole notion of ESG disclosure a massive distraction? In 2021, Tariq Fancy of Blackrock called it a distraction for climate action. And I tend to agree because it tries to pass on the responsibility of climate action into the hands of the market, that had continually proved incapable of generating endogenous climate action. Sure, you need the market to scale solutions, and drive the expansion of some of the good things that will benefit the climate. But to think that the market can drive change just purely from the realisation of climate change as a problem is naive.
By leaving the type of climate action and the labelling of what counts as green to the market will simply generate greater confusion and inaction as we have seen from the proliferation of funds that tout sustainability or impact, or both and often still trying to pair that with financial returns, etc. The extra cost that goes into reporting, emissions accounting and massive resources around disclosure standards and all simply drives activities for the big consultancies without diverting energies towards the direction of climate action.
The issue is that greenwashing is real and pretty easy. And that can take the form of superficial disclosures that tosses buzzwords around. Yet there are corporates taking genuine action drowning in this sea of sustainability marketing and PR nonsense, being accused of greenwashing when they are trying to make a difference. If it was all going to boil down to rules, regulations and laws, then there won’t be ESG funds and non-ESG funds or government having to regulate disclosures. There won’t be accusations of greenwashing because you are either green or just illegal/non-compliant.
Regulation is of course a complex topic for another day but it has to be worked on. Regulating disclosure is unlikely to be enough.
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?
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.
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.
Insurance seemed like betting against your death or misfortune and some people don’t want to bet on your personal downfall so they don’t want to buy insurance. For years, the industry have been trying to change the story and they settled on the idea of protection, financial protection against those misfortune.
In principle, that works theoretically but the issue is that a lot of what you pay for is sales and distribution. The structure of the industry is such because insurance works well only when the risks are being pooled. That means having lots of people paying the premiums in order to support payouts during adverse events. As a business though, it means that the firm is ultimately a sales and marketing organisation. Costs will have to weigh disproportionately on the distribution side of the business.
This is a shame because the society needs insurance. Yet it is a market failure; the market system allocates resources poorly in this market. It can be better designed through a mix of regulation and making it mandatory to have certain amount of cover. The government should not think the market will help reduce cost of insurance through competition because the basis of competition in this market isn’t so much pricing. It is more sales, marketing and tactics.
But isn’t it just like many other products? For luxury products, yes. Basically for things people don’t actually need, you can allow the whims and fancies to be shaped by the market. But when it comes to insurance, you want the market to deliver an outcome so you need to design the boundaries and structure to make it work.
The story of insurance should be that of mandates, regulation, and basic necessity and right of people. We come together to live in highly urbanised environment and it should be a no brainer for us to risk-pool and mutually insure. There’s no excuse for this market to be hijacked to support high-flying salespeople.