29 April 2009

Singapore's Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD) has unveiled its blueprint for sustainable development. You can download it at: http://app.mewr.gov.sg/data/ImgCont/1292/sustainbleblueprint_forweb.pdf

My impressions? In short, it is inadequate and myopic. It is another step on the road to diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. (See also: New Scientist article)

In spite of the blueprint's laudable efforts and lofty goals to maintain sustainable growth (an oxymoron really) and to promote green living standards, one topic that is sorely missing is any discussion at all about the future availability of dense energy sources, namely fossil fuels, to implement the "four-pronged strategy".

Energy is required for water recycling, purification and desalination, for waste management and recycling, for public transportation, for the construction of green buildings, etc. The big question which is not answered in the blueprint: where will we get the energy to carry out these activities in the next 20 years?

Sure the blueprint talks alot about energy efficiency and technologies, but they should focus on total overall consumption instead. If total overall consumption keeps growing, a finite resource like oil or natural gas will eventually be depleted regardless of how efficiently it is consumed per capita. See charts below.

Sources: EMA, Singstat and E2Singapore

The blueprint states:

In the past 10 years, households in Singapore consumed 64% more electricity, 21% more water, and generated 21% more solid waste. (p.40)
Will technology save us? No, because firstly it will likely result in greater consumption of energy and resources according to "Jevons Paradox," named after the 19th century English economist who observed that the increased efficiency in consumption of a resource tends to increase overall consumption and demand. Secondly, technology runs on energy. All forms of alternative energy depend on energy inputs from shrinking reserves of fossil fuels during the manufacturing process, and due to reasons of complexities of scale, diminishing energy returns, low energy qualities and energy interchangeability challenges, alternative energy supplies can never fully replace fossil fuels. Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, co-chairman of the IMCSD, has acknowledged this fact in the Business Times (28 April 2009, p.32):
"If you ask us whether we can really change our economic structure and replace all the fossil fuels that we import with alternative energy - not possible."
Considering that surplus energy is required for growth and complex societies like ours to function smoothly, how shall we live after peak oil if alternative energies are not viable substitutes?

The Export Land Model developed by geologist Jeffrey Brown and others forecasts that the top five net oil exporting countries of the world (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway, Iran and the UAE), who presently account for half of the world's net oil exports, will cease to export any oil by 2030 because of rising domestic consumption in their own countries and declining field production. In other words, they will have ZERO oil surpluses for export by 2030; they keep whatever they have for themselves and the rest of the world gets nothing. Actually, we don't even have to wait till 2030 to experience the painful effects because the model projects that their oil exports will be halved by 2015. If you think about that for a minute, the implications are profound and far-reaching; we're talking about distressing adjustments to the way we live, eat, work and play for the next 10-20 years.

Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, defines a city as "people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life." Singapore certainly fits that description. Because of our excessive reliance on transient supplies of fossil fuels for food and electricity, densely populated cities like Singapore are by nature unsustainable and abnormal in the history of civilisation. William Catton, author of Overshoot, characterises this aberration as a "phantom carrying capacity" - that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources [fossil fuels] become unavailable.

I am a little amazed that our sustainability blueprint for the next 20 years would exclude any major discussions of future energy sources. Just like the Ministry of Trade and Industry's "Energy for Growth - National Energy Policy" report, the sustainable blueprint has been disappointing. IMCSD has failed to connect the dots between the economy and the ecosystem by erroneously believing "that growth and environmental sustainability are compatible and mutually reinforcing (p.78)" and by neglecting any studies on future energy availability.

Fellow Singaporeans, brace yourself for a tumultuous future.

The only viable long term solution? Stop growing. Relocalize and embrace a steady state economy.


Anonymous said...

Growth per se (qua the individual wanting to improve his/her lot in life) is not the problem, problem is with public clerks expounding nonsensical strategies to pursue ever-rising GDP without any attempts (let alone awareness) at understanding the real and impending crisis that will soon befall us all, and a public blissfully ignorant of any need to think independently and critically on the pertinent issues you've raised here, imported talents and what not (forget about the incestuous intellectual class nurtured in local academia).

Nevertheless, I have enjoyed reading your blog very much for its wonderful insights and wealth of references to back up your arguments. Pls keep up the excellent effort, even though I doubt very much the bulk of the Singaporean "Bell Curve" could care much of what you have to say.

TM said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous.

Steve said...

Thank you for this lucid exposé of the true non-resilient situation Singapore finds itself in: with a population the Size of Denmark, but with hardly any land to grow food on and no fossil fuels. Population density is higher than the majority of London boroughs.

Two questions must be raised to the highest level: how are you to create a resilient food provision system and resilient energy provision given the expected effect on energy availability Peak oil entails.

Keep up the good work!