23 June 2008

Mr Mah Bow Tan, Singapore's Minister for National Development, in today's Straits Times:

More than 700 policymakers, governors, urban planners and environmentalists from various countries are gathering at the Suntec Convention Centre, where the concept of 'sustainable development' will be in the limelight.

It is 'one of those terms that people use without knowing the meaning', noted Mr Mah, who defined it as such: 'It's how do we continue to grow in a way that doesn't adversely affect our living environment.'

With all due respect, I have to ask him, "Minister, do you know that the phrase 'sustainable development' is an oxymoron?" It is oxymoronic because the arithmetic of steady growth becomes exponentially large over a period of time, and due to physical constraints development or growth has to stop somewhere when the limits are reached. See video.
While Singapore has done 'fairly well over the last 40, 50 years', it faces new challenges in terms of resource constraints - energy, water, and land - as it tries to maintain growth, said Mr Mah.

To grow, he added: 'I submit that we need to continue to attract talent.

'More talent, more people means more strain on resources. More strain on resources means growth may be at the expense of the environment. So how do we reconcile that? It can be a vicious circle or we make it into a virtuous circle.'

I'm glad Mr Mah sees the toll a higher population exacts on the environment, but strangely he does not see the obvious solution. How do we reconcile that? He asks. Well, the simple answer is we can't. We can't reconcile environmental protection with ever-increasing human numbers and consumption. Logic dictates that conclusion as we live in a finite world with finite resources. The only (unpopular and politically incorrect) solution is to replace the doctrine of population and economic growth with a Steady State Economy.

How in the world does Mr Mah intend to make "more people" a "virtuous circle"? It's impossible. Is the minister familiar with Garrett Hardin's Three Laws of Human Ecology? I don't think so, and even if he is, he is not taking them seriously.
First Law of Human Ecology: "We can never do merely one thing." This is a profound and eloquent observation of the interconnectedness of nature.

Second Law of Human Ecology: "There's no away to throw to." This is a compact statement of one of the major problems of the effluent society.

Third Law of Human Ecology: The impact (I) of any group or nation on the environment is represented qualitatively by the relation

I = P A T

where P is the size of the population,A is the per capita affluence, measured by per capita rate of consumption, and T is a measure of the damage done by the technologies that are used in supplying the consumption. Hardin attributes this law to Ehrlich and Holdren (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971).

http://dieoff.org/page39.htm
Said Mr Mah: 'Now we've got to look at energy. How do we save energy? How do we make better use of energy? How can we, can we recycle energy?'
Does the minister even understand what he himself is saying? You can't "recycle" energy because the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that. Energy once used is transformed from a state of low entropy to high entropy. Entropy measures the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work. When you burn gasoline, chemical energy is transformed into heat energy to power the car. How do you "recycle" the dispersed heat that has been used to do work? Is it possible to assemble the used energy for "recycling"? The answer is you can't. The entropy law dictates that this transformation process is one-way only and is therefore irreversible.

One cannot help but despair of the future when the minister who is responsible for a sustainable living environment makes such ludicrous statements.


The Straits Times, June 23, 2008

http://www.straitstimes.com/Free/Story/STIStory_250709.html

Next target: Cut energy use

Minister Mah suggests reduction of 20%-30%; people will need to rethink how they use electricity By Li Xueying

SINGAPORE has to work harder at cutting down energy usage - perhaps by 20 per cent to 30 per cent, as countries around the world increasingly emphasise sustainable development.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, who said this, noted that Singapore has scored relatively well on the water and land usage fronts.

'But I think (on) energy, we've not done enough. I think we need to do more,' he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

There would have to be a multifaceted approach taken, he noted.

On the Government's part, it can examine policies such as using new materials to construct HDB blocks, examining new ways of designing and maintaining lifts which currently 'use up a lot of energy', and installing energy-saving lights in public carparks.

Singaporeans, as consumers, also have to play their part in understanding the amount of energy that their various appliances use up, and going for energy-saving versions, he added.

'So I think we need to go into the details of each and every one of these items, and see how we can cut down energy usage 20 per cent, 30 per cent,' said Mr Mah.

His remarks come as the inaugural three-day World Cities Summit - co-organised by his ministry - kicks off today.

More than 700 policymakers, governors, urban planners and environmentalists from various countries are gathering at the Suntec Convention Centre, where the concept of 'sustainable development' will be in the limelight.

It is 'one of those terms that people use without knowing the meaning', noted Mr Mah, who defined it as such: 'It's how do we continue to grow in a way that doesn't adversely affect our living environment.'

Certainly, there are challenges as Singapore seeks to cut down on its energy usage, he conceded.

'Upfront costs may be a bit higher, but we have to (do it), if it makes practical sense. And (whether) the payback period is two, three, five, seven years, whatever, if this makes sense, then we have to do it,' he said.

'How many taxes, how many incentives are there, what are the things we need? I think these are things that we need to sit down and discuss.'

These are details that an inter-ministerial committee - co-chaired by Mr Mah and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim - is thrashing out.

It will be rolling out a 10-year roadmap next year on how Singapore can adopt green solutions in transport, housing and industry.

While Singapore has done 'fairly well over the last 40, 50 years', it faces new challenges in terms of resource constraints - energy, water, and land - as it tries to maintain growth, said Mr Mah.

To grow, he added: 'I submit that we need to continue to attract talent.

'More talent, more people means more strain on resources. More strain on resources means growth may be at the expense of the environment. So how do we reconcile that? It can be a vicious circle or we make it into a virtuous circle.'

This comes in tandem with record energy prices.

In an assessment of Singapore's efforts to date, the minister said: '(With respect to) water we have done very well: How do we save water? How do we make sure that water is reused and recycled?

'On land, I think we've been very conscious about how we make use of land: Better utilisation of land; we've already done intensification, higher plot ratios and so on.'

So what is lacking are efforts on the energy front.

Said Mr Mah: 'Now we've got to look at energy. How do we save energy? How do we make better use of energy? How can we, can we recycle energy?'

xueying@sph.com.sg


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well done, TM, for starting a website to consider what sustainable development means for Singapore. Just a comment. You argue that sustainable development is an oxymoron. I think this depends on how development is defined. As the World Commission on Environment and Development pointed out, and as you have alluded, at some point, development must switch from being quantitative to being qualitative, so that it is not simply about being more but being better. If development is qualitative, sustainable development need not be an oxymoron.

Winston said...

Hi:

Found your rather interesting blog from tomorrow.sg - nice to see a fellow Singaporean with a concern for the consequences of peak oil!

Having said that, however, methinks you are missing the forest for the trees here in a few ways here.

1) The fact that S'pore is organizing a World Cities summit that highlights sustainable development (SD) is a big step forward. While I have many, many frustrations with the political system back home, such a system certainly makes it efficient in implementing policies, and it is encouraging that MBT and YI are serious in considering a long-term "green" plan. Of course, I am contrasting this to the political intransigence here in the States where global warming is considered to be a clothing brand by certain influential politicians.

2) I have a bone to pick with your idea of SD being an oxymoron. What's your definition of SD, pray tell? Implicit in the generally accepted definition of SD (i.e. the Brundtland version) is the need for population control. That means that there is an awareness of the 200-year old Malthusian consequences that are rehashed by Bartlett. Furthermore, isn't your solution that you suggest (the steady state economy) a form of SD? So, how does that run contrary to your point? :)

3) Yes, more people = more stress to the environment. Totally agree with you on that...unfortunately, given the growth paradigm of the PAP (i.e projecting a population of 6.5 million), it looks like there is no solution for this. I, too, would like to see how it can be a "virtuous" circle. *cough cough hack hack*

[as an aside, I'm more familiar with Commoner's 5 laws of ecology - it's more snappy than Hardin's, and the kids I teach find it easier to remember.]

4) Calling that recycling statement by MBT as "ludicrous" is a bit OTT; maybe misguided would be better. Yes, energy can't be "recycled" per se as you rightly point out due to the 2nd law (maybe he was still stuck on his water analogy in the previous para); but he is spot on that energy saving and a "better use" of energy are important priorities for S'pore's future - it's hardly anything to despair about when MBT has energy efficiency aspects in mind.

Anyway, nice blog and as I said, it's an interesting read :)

Regards,
W.

edmund said...

Well that's what politicians do, make convincing sound-bites that rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

You are unduly harsh. Take the recycling of energy - the automatic rifle using gas expansion from firing a bullet to load the next bullet into its chamber is a good example of energy recycling.

In many of the entropy processes, there are inefficiencies and therefore there are opportunities to exploit these inefficiencies. I view it as using the energy that on top of the purpose which it has been expanded for.

For clarity, perhaps the minister should have chosen a better word to "recycle".

TM said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Anonymous #1, you are correct. There is some confusion with regard to the terms "sustainable growth" and "sustainable development". I was alluding to Mr Mah Bow Tan's incorrect use of the term "sustainable development" when in fact he meant "sustainable growth", or "quantitative growth" - that is, growth which is material and resource intensive.

Winston,
1) There have been many "earth summits", "environmental summits", "sustainability summits" and "green summits" in the last 30-40 years. What have they achieved? Our population and consumption continues to grow and the planet is in a worse state than it was back then. We cannot hope to solve our problems if we don't tackle the root causes of overpopulation and overgrowth. Scientists have been warning us about these issues since the 1970s and governments have been ignoring them.

2) Yes there is some confusion. See my comments to #1 above. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development is too vague: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

I believe Herman Daly got it right when he wrote: "sustainable development" therefore makes sense for the economy, but only if it is understood as "development without growth"—i.e., qualitative improvement of a physical economic base that is maintained in a steady state by a throughput of matter-energy that is within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Currently the term "sustainable development" is used as a synonym for the oxymoronic "sustainable growth." It must be saved from this perdition. http://dieoff.org/page37.htm

4) Efficiency is a good thing I agree, but it has not slowed our overall consumption. Instead of looking at efficiency alone, it's also important to consider our total consumption. Look at the graphs here http://sgentropy.blogspot.com/2008/06/singapore-pm-lee-hsien-loong-reveals.html

Anonymous #2
The example you gave is not recycling. To recycle means to reprocess for reuse. The pressurized gas propelling the bullet cannot be "recycled" after it is dissipated.

Also, you are confusing efficiency with recycling.

Winston said...

TM:

Thanks for responding. Not to quibble too much, but such summits can be rather effective at local and regional scales, especially with receptive governments. Take the EU response to Kyoto for instance, where carbon emission aims have largely been met. Perhaps you are thinking of the US governmental response, or lack thereof, to Kyoto over the past 11 years...? And are you also thinking the S'pore govt will NOT take the results from this summit in its policy formation & implementation?

Another issue that I would ask is have you considered the private sector response to such summits? You seem to only consider a people/government dialectic, but doesn't sustainability also include an economic response as well? There is a global market for renewable energy that, coupled with $140+ oil, will stimulate large-scale research and investment into this. We've already reached the point where ERORI for PV cells makes it profitable to mass-produce them, and it is very encouraging to see the No.1 market for PV being China.

Even here in the States - in California and the Southwest especially, there is a tremendous opportunity for renewable energy that is (thankfully) being taken recently with wind in SoCal, Solar (both PV and direct) in AZ and NM. In any case, I do know of a quasi-governmental agency back home that are keen on such "green" initiatives; lets hope that similar action occurs, although I will not hold my breath on that.

Anyway, I have different (i.e. dissimilar but not converse) views on Daly's definition of SD (as well as on Jevons' paradox), but it's the 4th of July weekend here and I'm off. Hopefully we can pick up and discuss this when I return. :)

Regards,
W.

kaon said...

RE: "recycling energy"
I don't know how physics-literate MBT is, but I would give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he (or his advisers) means the various ways of using or recovering highish-entropy forms, that were previously directly dissipated.

Eg:
Regenerative braking instead of friction/resistive braking for cars / trains / elevators...

Heat and humidity recovery in air-con/ventilation systems.

In a broad sense, all these also come under efficiency improvements.