Friday, 9 November 2018

Being Right and Being Effective

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that said the world needs to take drastic and unprecedented steps to hold global warming to a moderate but still devastating level. Every country will need to increase their commitment to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris Accord.

Also recently, Oxfam release their Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index that ranked Singapore very low (in the bottom 10) of countries making efforts to reduce inequality. Note that it does not assess that Singapore has inequality that ranks it at the bottom 10 countries. With a Gini index of 45.9, SG is 35th. US is 39th with a Gini index of 45. Philippines is 44th with 44.4. South Korea is 93rd with 35.7. (The lower the Gini Index, the less inequality.)

The point is not that SG’s inequality score Gini index is anything to crow about. But neither are we the worst. There are 34 countries with more inequality. But yes, we could do better in that. The issue is that the report simply castigates Singapore for not doing enough. And “enough” is defined solely, simply and only by Oxfam. Which to Oxfam means taxing the wealthiest, and giving money to the poor. You know, so that there would be less inequality.

And SPENDING a lot of money on Education. Regardless of whether that spending is having an impact. More on this later.

About 10 years ago (or more), Thomas Friedman wrote about the problem of a “Hot, Flat and Crowded” world. Consider: there are 1 billion people in China that are clawing their way out of poverty, and another billion in India wanting to do the same. What's the problem? Well, if 1 billion people were each given a single 60-watt incandescent light bulb, 1 billion light bulbs would weigh 20,000 metric tons! When they turn on all the light bulbs at the same time, they will need 60,000 megawatts of electricity! Fortunately, they will only turn them on about 4 hours a night, so at any time, the power needed would 10,000 megawatts. That is still about twenty NEW 500-megawatt power generating stations just so the new billion can have light!

Of course, a 60-watt incandescent bulb is rather outdated. Fluorescent is more efficient, LED even more. But add the need to access internet, refrigerators, hot water, air-conditioning, then consider a "60-watt light bulb" to be “shorthand” for the minimum energy needs of 1 billion people.

Recently, I saw a Youtube video where Stephen Fry debated against Political Correctness (some years ago). His key issue with political correctness is that it is just lip service with no real impact. The gains in tolerance, respect, and the reduction of prejudices and biases were not accomplished with politically correct speech but by people being rational and kind. The problem as he sees it, is that people seem to feel a need to be right rather than being effective. Political Correctness is all about being right in one’s speech, but not about being effective. It's the precursor (or variation) of "slacktivism". You don't actually need to change anything, you just need to give lip service (literally!) by using the politically correct terms.

Sometime after Suharto (the then-President of Indonesia) was ousted in 1998 I had a discussion with a very practical and pragmatic friend. His view was that while Suharto was corrupt, he was also effective, and competent (well, more competent than his replacements). He asked (rhetorically, I believe) if it were better to have a competent corrupt government, or an honest incompetent government.

Of course, the best government is an honest AND competent government.

Please. Find me one.

And while you are at it, find me a job that will pay me just to watch movies and play games (badly) on the internet.

Back to the IPCC report. And the need for the world to make drastic, unprecedented cuts to their emissions to hold global warming to no more than 1.5 degree increase.

Oh look! 7 countries are meeting their commitments to the Paris Accord! Isn't it great?

Look carefully. The seven countries? Morocco, Gambia, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. (Bravo India and Philippines!) Total population of these 7 countries? About 1.6 billion. (India, Ethiopia, and Philippines make up about 1.5billion. The rest is less than 50 million. (India 1.3 billion, Philippines 104 million, Bhutan 0.76m, Morocco 34 m, Gambia 2 m, Ethiopia 105m, Costa Rica 5 m)

Those not making sufficient efforts? Russia, US, Saudi Arabia, China, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Argentina, and Singapore.

Also insufficient but to a lesser degree: Australia, EU, New Zealand, Norway, UAE, and Brazil.

Total of these countries? Well, the population of the world is about 7.6 billion currently (Sept 2018 estimate). Less the 1.6 billion people living in countries who are meeting their commitment, the rest of the world that is NOT meeting their commitment would have about 6 billion people.

But the people in each country are not equally responsible for the global warming. India with over a billion people,  ranked 3rd (in 2015) in terms of total CO2 emissions in 2015 (2 billion metric tons). China, also with over 1 billion people, emitted 9 billion metric tons. And the US, 5 billion. 

But... India and China have HUGE populations of over 1 billion people each.

At the per capita level, each person in China bears 6.6 tons of CO2. India, only 1.6 tons. The US with just a quarter of the population of China (or less), emits 15.5 metric tons per person.

[Note: A "metric ton" is also called a "tonne". And I'll be using tonnes here on out.]

The EU's per capita CO2 emission (by my estimate) is about 6.8 tonnes per person. (3447 million tonnes divided by 508 million population. The 2014 figures is 6.4 tonnes per capita. So about there.).

List of top 20 countries by CO2 emissions from fuel combustion

2015 country rank
2015 CO2 emissions (million metric tons)
2015 per capita (metric tons)
United States
South Korea
Saudi Arabia
South Africa
United Kingdom

What about Singapore?

Singapore's Emission Figures for a small country is low. We contribute just 0.11% of the world's emission.

BUT, nowhere in the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) website, do they actually give you the actual total of our CO2 emission. Just "0.11% of global emissions". This means that our percentage can decrease even if we do NOTHING, if the world's total emission INCREASES.

Also, 0.11% seems low. until you find that SG's population is about 0.08% of the worlds total population (est'd). Then 0.11% would be disproportionately large.

Singapore's CO2 emission figures in 2015 is 44.4 million tonnes (metric ton). This is from the International Energy Agency's (IEA) report on CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. For a population of 5.6 million people, that works out to... about 8 tonnes per person. Which is pretty high. Not in the same class as the US or Canada, but higher than China. And way higher than India's

After I read Friedman's book ("Hot, Flat and Crowded", well most of it anyway), I realised that the problem of global warming/Climate change/Carbon pollution is not solvable realistically. The change required is too drastic, asks too much (or unrealistically much).

Take the two largest polluters - China and the US.

China with a billion people are just beginning to enter middle-class and to enjoy the comfort and luxuries it brings. When they do, they will be using electric heaters, hot water, air-conditioning, air purifiers, the internet, and private vehicles.

In fact, in his book Friedman lamented that China used to have a very "green" Beijing (and other cities). The bicycle was king of the roads then. Then China got rich. And their richer populace wanted to do better than ride bikes. Then the roads became congested with cars. And Bejing's air today has become polluted.

From "Pedal Powered Beijing, China":
... In terms of bicycle ownership, up to the mid-1970s most Chinese were not earning enough to purchase a bicycle, even when there were bikes available.

The Golden Age of cycling in China was the 1980s. Economic and market reforms had greatly improved the purchasing power of the average Chinese and industrial modernization allowed production to boom. However, Chinese were not wealthy enough to afford cars or other motorized transport and so the bicycle was the most popular vehicle. This was when individual and private use of bicycles floured along with cycling for livelihoods and trades. Foreigners reported extensively on the “floods” of cyclists in Chinese cities in the 1980s.

But how do you tell your people that they cannot drive cars?

Well, some people in developed countries are starting to come around to the idea of biking to work.

On their hundred or even thousand dollar bikes, dri-weave clothes, Oakley shades, reflective vest and protective gear.

China is still in love with their cars, but ride sharing bikes are making a comeback. but those are basic bikes. Not the customised work bikes the Beijingers used to have.

And still have.

From "Smarter than car: Pedal Powered Beijing":

So the cycle seems to be - cycle, drive, then get socially and environmentally conscious and go back to cycling on bike-sharing programmes?


But I won't bet on it. Not from the bike graveyards that are emerging. Even in China.

The point is China's rise economically is giving its citizens the wherewithal to afford a middle class lifestyle. And that will mean more energy use, and more pollution from fuel combustion.

Getting them to cycle again?

That ship has sailed. That train has left the station. That fuel-guzzling SUV has left the lot.

Meanwhile SOME environmentally conscious western city-dweller has decided that it makes more sense to cycle to work.

Bravo! Even if all 260 million or so US citizens owning vehicles give up their vehicles to use greener alternatives like bikes, they would be discouraged to learn that China has over 300 million motor vehicles since 2017.

But with the 260 million cars the US per capita car ratio is over 900 cars per 1000 population. China only has 231 cars per 1000 population.

They have room to grow. In 1990, there were less than 6 million vehicles. This grew to 16 million in 2000, 90 million in 2010, and now 300 million.

How many will China have by 2030? If they were to keep to just half the US per capita ratio of 900 vehicles per 1000 people, it would still be about double the numbers today. Or over 600 million vehicles. The US could give up ALL 260 million vehicles they own, and it would not make a difference to the Earth. In fact it would be worse.

So here's the problem.

Can we get the Americans to give up their cars?

They won't even give up their guns.

Can we get the Chinese to stop aspiring to own a car? Stop aspiring to having modern conveniences? Like air-conditioning in the summer, heaters in the winter, water heaters for their showers, refrigerators for their food, microwaves for their cooking, and internet access to connect to the world? And as the Chinese get more affluent, they will want better food. So more meat, less vegetables. And meat has a higher carbon footprint than vegetables.

Yes, one "strategy" to reduce carbon emission is to reduce meat consumption. See what I mean about unrealistic hope?

Even if you somehow convince China to continue to live nostalgically (in the 1980s), and not aspire to vehicle ownership, and not use modern conveniences and electricity, and not eat better food, what about India?

India is as populous as China. Currently, Indians use or rather emits 1.6 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. This is way lower than China. Which suggests that Indians currently do not use as much electricity as China.

They definitely do not have as many cars as China - just 55 million or about 50 cars per 1000 population.

Is that encouraging, or does that mean India has room to grow as well?

Well, maybe India won't reach middle-class status any time soon. And most of her citizens will remain poor and backward without knowledge of and need for modern conveniences. Maybe most Indians will remain cut off from the world, and be energy poor.

And contribute just 1.6 tonnes of CO2 each year.


So preventing climate change or rather preventing too drastic a climate change, by keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees will depend on
1) Americans and Chinese giving up their cars.
2) Hoping (most of) India does not reach middle class.
3) Convincing people to go vegan or at least eat less meat.
4) Use less electricity.
5) All the above within 10 to 12 years.
We can dream.

But dreams and hopes are not strategies. 

From a Facebook comment on a study/story about South-east Asian nations not meeting the commitment for a 1.5 degree increase in temperature:
... China's population is pulling themselves out of poverty and dragging themselves into the middle class. As they achieve middle-class status, they want the modern conveniences, they want the comfortable life, and they want better quality of life. And that means electricity, and better food (more meat)...
...The number of cars in China is going to increase. It is inevitable. If India reaches middle class status, they will also likely see an increase in cars...

The things that need to be done cannot be done, not because it is impossible, but because it goes against human nature, human desire, human selfishness, human self-centredness, and human self-interest.
I won't say that it is human selfishness, per se. But what needs to be done goes against the immediate needs and interests of people. Sure, you can deny people the right to own and use private vehicles to reduce carbon emission, but will it costs you your government? (Not in Singapore, but then again we haven't actually DENIED people the right to own cars. Just charged them for the right.) And even if you survive that, can you survive denying your people electricity when you block the development of power plants?

Can you force people to become vegans, or eat less meat?

But while I wanted to respond to the IPCC report and why there is no alarm over this, this is part of the larger point I wanted to make.

It is RIGHT to want to reduce carbon emissions, it is RIGHT to want to keep the world the way it is, it is RIGHT to want to control Climate Change and prevent it from changing.

The reality is, it is impossible. Or if not "impossible" then highly improbable given the state of the world and the state of human nature.

You can try to be RIGHT, you can try to do the RIGHT thing, you can try to convince people to do the RIGHT thing, but you would be INEFFECTIVE.

This is a Tragedy of the Commons situation, and trying to get people to do the RIGHT thing is almost guaranteed to fail.

Even trying to disincentivise certain behaviour (like SG's COE for cars) cannot overcome human desires and aspiration, regardless of the larger social good.

So what's the solution?

Technology to the rescue!

Maybe not. This video explains the various technical issues and hurdles that need to be solved.

What this means is... technology, as in renewable energy, is not the immediate solution. Not for some time, anyway. Until we have overcome all the technological hurdles.

And while we are working on that, the world may simply be headed towards entropy:

So are we doomed?

Is there nothing for us to do?

Well, maybe not for us laypersons to do. But here is Michio Kaku's take on the issue.
Some people think that the time is right for the solar revolution, that one day solar power will replace oil and we'll all live in a world that is clean and renewable. Well, not so fast. I believe in solar power. However, there are problems that we have to face... 
So my point of view is this: I think in the coming decade, as oil prices start to rise and as the cost of wind and solar and renewables start to drop, the two curves will probably cross in maybe ten years. So in ten years it will be the marketplace which then begins to drive the whole thing forward because of the dropping cost of solar cells and rising efficiency and the rising price of oil... 
Meanwhile, solar power is going to become cheaper and in 10 years or so the two curves could actually cross, and in 20 years a new game changer arrives and that is fusion power. The Europeans are betting the store on the ITER fusion reactor to be built outside Cadarache, France in Southern France, and if we have the power of the sun on the earth then sea water could drive all our machines. So if this scenario plays out as I predict, it means that global warming could actually be a problem only for the next several decades as we enter the solar era and the fusion era. The problem is we have already lofted so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we will continue to do so for decades to come, that even before we enter the solar age and the fusion age we will have so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we will really screw up the weather. But on a long-term basis I think that solar energy and fusion power will be the solution, the ultimate solution, for the greenhouse problem.
So am I worried?

Yeah. Things are worrying. But then things are always worrying. Forty, fifty years ago there was the Cold War, and the prospect of Nuclear War or at least Mutual Assured Destruction. But there was nothing we could do about it. And it didn't happen. And the Soviet Union collapsed. Then there was the worry that rogue warlords from the disintegrating Soviet Union would seize nuclear weapons and start wars with them, or blackmail or terrorise the world. That didn't happen. But 9/11 did and the world worried about terrorists. Then global warming or climate change. Then Kim Jong Un. Then Donald Trump.

The point is, there is always something to worry about. There is always some way the world was going to end that is out of our control.

What are you going to do about it?

The RIGHT thing, or the EFFECTIVE thing?

One of my favourite quote is from Angel (TV series), I believe it is from the second season, the episode titled, "Epiphany": When nothing you do matters, all that matters is what you do.

THAT completely goes against my general philosophy of doing what is effective rather than simply doing what seems to be right but futile.

But it is a worthy motto or guide. At the individual level.

But if we want to save the world, if we want to change the world, if we want to do what is effective, then, not so much.

We need to do what makes sense and what makes an impact. Not simply what makes us feel good; what gives us moral righteousness; what makes us politically correct, "woke", and with the latest trend.

We are not going to change the world by being hip and with it and patting ourselves on the back for recycling a few items. Those are mere tokenism that will give you bragging rights while the world burns.

You wanna save the world?

Are you willing to give up your car?

Are you willing to give up your aircon (especially in hot humid Singapore)?

Are you willing to use your same mobile phone instead of changing to a new one every year?

Are you a supporter of "fast fashion", and have more clothes than your closet can hold?

Some things you do will have a real impact. Some are just you martyring yourself, and giving yourself a Merit Badge with bragging rights.

[Michio Kaku mentioned ITER and fusion power. This video suggests it may be less than 20 years away:


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