Pollution of the Solution?

By Derek Loh

Amid the noise, vitriol and spectacle, the real debate that we need to have about climate change has been drowned out.

In the past few weeks, I have followed with much interest a Swedish child activist’s barely concealed yearning for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly, Greta Thunberg, famous for her tirades on climate change, did not win the award, despite her widely watched zero-emission Atlantic crossing in a hydro- and solar-powered yacht to address the UN General Assembly.

Climate change is humanity’s most pressing threat. The Singapore government has, to its credit, made addressing the issue a central policy. So serious is the peril that even the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, was moved to publish an encyclical on climate change, an uncommon event.

Rising above the tide

A week ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a university professor who teaches sustainable investing. Hoping to impress, I recited the typical ideas on how we could save the earth. After enduring this for 10 minutes, she looked at me and said in gentle bemusement that much of the messaging shared by the media is “green washing”.

I was rightly rebuked. Our current news cycle obsesses on plastic polluting our oceans, bombarding audiences with all types of climate change advice from avoiding beef to travelling less. Celebrities are jumping onto the bandwagon, including fashion designer Stella McCartney, who startlingly advises that one should not “chuck stuff into a washing machine because it’s been worn”.

But in doing so, the complex environmental discussion has been reduced to soundbites such as “Don’t be a fossil fool” and “Solution Not Pollution”. Superstars exacerbate the problem with their patronising finger-wagging, which provokes counter-accusations of hypocrisy when they fly on private jets to escape the hoi polloi.

This overly simplistic and holier-than-thou approach will undermine climate change’s critical message and create the perception that it is no more than a trivial and irritating complaint. In this cacophony, the real debate that we need to have about climate change is lost.

Three things are distorting a more mature conversation. The noise, such as the hullabaloo over single-use straws, which contribute to just a quarter of one-thousandth of the plastic that flows into the ocean. The vitriol, which draws attention to the messenger rather than the actual issues. And the spectacle, which prioritises optics over action: after Thunberg’s sea crossing, in which she relieved herself in blue plastic buckets, several crew members had to be flown into New York to pilot the vessel back to Europe.

Instead, we need to address how to ameliorate the impact on human lives that result from tackling global warming, so that we are mentally prepared for the price – one that has to be paid by each and every one of us.

The impacts of climate change action

In the short term, two important aspects of our existence will be affected: economic health and world peace.

A principal driver of climate change is consumption, be it in the form of beef, clothing, travel, or electronics. If we increase consumption, more carbon enters the atmosphere, placing greater stress on the environment. At the heart of this activity is the use of fossil fuels, whether for fuel or packaging.

So the answer to climate change seems to be simply to consume less and to cease fossil fuel use. Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

Consumption is at the core economic growth and economic strength. The data speaks for itself: consumer spending accounts for 69 per cent of GDP on average in the US, and about 60 per cent for the rest of the world. Should worldwide consumption be reduced by just five percentage points, the world’s GDP would fall by 3 per cent. The corollary is that the world’s economy will likely sink into recession, causing greater suffering for the working masses, which readily manifests itself in public discontent and demonstrations, of late, violent ones.

A prime example are the ongoing protests that have rocked countries such as Chile, Ecuador and Lebanon. These were prompted by unhappiness over matters such as the removal of fuel subsidies, increments in public transport charges, falling income, income inequality and new taxes being foisted on the lower and middle class.

The survival of a politician’s career may hang in the balance. In such circumstances, leaders will be tempted to abandon environmental policies in favour of those that promote economic health. Possibly a bigger threat is a frustrated, struggling electorate supporting politicians who espouse populist, even extremist, ideology.

This is one reason why it is so difficult to have a centrist candidate in the 2020 US Presidential race. On the one hand, we have Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose green policies include cracking down on fracking and sharply turning away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. This has been seen as very bad news for businesses. On the other extreme is incumbent President Donald Trump, who infamously called climate change a “hoax” and pulled the US out of a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions backed by nearly 200 other countries.

Ceasing fossil fuel use is even more complicated, carrying not only economic consequences but also geopolitical ones. A total of 97 countries engage in oil production, many of whom are third world states. The oil and gas drilling sector alone accounts for between two and three per cent of the global economy. The petroleum sector of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, accounts for 42 per cent of its GDP. Notwithstanding its enormous wealth in natural resources (especially fossil fuels), the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 12.9 per cent and it had a budget deficit of 4.6 per cent in 2018.

The resulting widespread unemployment consequent to the loss of income in countries whose economies are heavily dependent on the production and sale of oil could quickly lead to violent unrest. Significantly, some of the largest oil producers are in the Middle East, one of the most volatile regions in the world. If economic turmoil there from the loss of oil revenues translates into extremism taking hold, then the risk to global security could greatly increase.

A more mature conversation

Rather than an extremist and hostile narrative, is there a more measured conversation to be had on climate change?

Singapore’s government has started tackling the problem, first by detailing the steps needed, and then by being transparent about what it’s going to cost – a staggering S$100 billion.

Starting from this year, the Carbon Pricing Act will tax industrial facilities at S$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emission, a levy set to be doubled or tripled by 2030. The government is also being more selective when allocating land for power-hungry data centres – Singapore being a favourite base for global IT companies – to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. For a state that has always aimed to be business-friendly, these moves signal its willingness to prioritise climate concerns over economic performance.

At the same time, it is making it easier for citizens to do their part in reducing their carbon footprint. By 2030, the MRT network will be extended by 80 per cent to 360 km, making eight out of every 10 homes within 10 minutes’ walk of a station, often with covered walkways sheltering pedestrians all the way in between.

This is a mature approach, quietly reducing emissions without blame-throwing histrionics. Nations and leaders serious about climate change should implement sustainable policies – plans that are both effective and can be rolled out, and thus accepted, gradually. Otherwise, all the impassioned UN speeches will be no more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. And it will be our planet, and our future generations, that will pay the price.

A version of this article was published in The Business Times on 2 November 2019.


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