Put a price on the carbon culprit, by Warren Fernandez

By the time your copy of The Straits Times lands on your doorstep tomorrow morning, another 120,000 people will have joined the millions already inhabiting the world’s burgeoning cities. In line with this, poverty is being urbanised, with more and more of the world’s poor inhabiting slums on the fringes of cities.

Painting this sobering scenario, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Dr Noeleen Heyzer, added: ‘As if these cities do not have enough problems, they will also have to worry about the impact of climate change.’

Rising global temperatures that cause sea levels to rise might result in flooding, as well as a higher incidence of disease. The world’s developing cities are likely to be both harder hit and less equipped than richer ones to cope with these challenges.

Little wonder then that policymakers gathered in Singapore last week for the World Cities Summit were agog about the trends toward rapid urbanisation. By 2050, more than three in four people will live in cities, up from one in two today.

The consensus on the way forward called for an easy-to-describe-but-harder-to-deliver mix of good governance, strong leadership, proper planning and tough-minded choices on how to make cities liveable in the years ahead. 2

Mr Jim Clifton, chairman and chief executive of the polling organisation Gallup, summed up the case best. Based on its surveys of more than a million people around the world, Gallup had arrived at a seemingly arcane conclusion: The one thing on most people’s minds at any one time was simply jobs, namely, how to get one, keep it, or make more out of it.

This globally shared obsession with jobs gives rise to an S-shaped curve of needs. It begins with a quest for safety, or the ability to walk a city’s streets without being mugged. Raise residents’ sense of safety and growth would follow, Mr Clifton argued. More people would go to work or play in the city, thereby generating economic activity.

The same could be said for efforts to boost confidence in the city’s institutions or its residents’ sense of well-being. Improvements on these scores would draw talent to a city, and with it would come greater prosperity.

Singapore’s Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan concurred, noting that Singapore’s experience had followed a similar path. The two critical issues that Singapore has had to grapple with over the years have been how to make a living, and how we should live - in that order.

The number of times foreign delegates highlighted Singapore’s success in managing its traffic, overcoming its water woes, or integrating its disparate races, was enough to make local officials’ ears ring. Thankfully, though, they did not appear to let this go to their heads.

Business leaders who joined in the discussions offered some answers. Shell Singapore chairman Lee Tzu Yang touched on the need for smarter mobility as a critical part of any effort to tackle cities’ growing energy demand and carbon dioxide (C02) emissions.

Getting smarter about mobility includes improved efficiency of vehicle engines; smarter usage, such as by improved driving habits; and smarter infrastructure, for example, by using specially developed products such as Instapave that allow roads to be laid at lower temperatures, thereby cutting C02 emissions.

Better planning of cities to minimise the need to travel to and from work, as well as co-locating of transport systems so journeys could be made more seamlessly would also help.

Others noted that cars and aircraft could be built with carbon fibres, making them lighter. Technologies also exist to track and guide drivers to the most efficient routes, thereby cutting their travel.

This prompted panel moderator, law lecturer and environmentalist Simon Tay, to wonder aloud: If technologies, products and services were already available, what was preventing their adoption on a wide scale?

Bureaucratic silos, lack of political will and a reluctance among consumers to change ingrained habits, were among the reasons suggested by those who spoke. No one, however, pointed to the elephant in the room: that colourless, odourless - and therefore priceless - culprit: carbon dioxide.

Consider this: Depending on the size, make and age of your car, for about every 5km or so you drive, you are effectively chucking 1kg of C02 out the window into the atmosphere, where it remains for decades.

If only we could see its effects. In 19th century London, when the dominant mode of transport was horse-drawn carriages, people could see the natural by-product piling up in stinking heaps on roadsides. Before long, this led to a clamour for the authorities to take action.

Today, however, while many agree on the need to curb C02 emissions, consumers in most cities do not pay for the emissions. Nor are they given much incentive to choose lower C02 options. As Dr Heyzer put it, ways to ‘internalise the cost of C02, energy and water usage’ are urgently needed.

Putting a price on carbon emissions will be key. Not only will it ensure that those who put C02 into the air bear the social cost of doing so, it will also encourage businesses to innovate and develop technologies, products and services to minimise its impact.

Solutions to help curb C02 emissions are at hand. Political leaders should not wait for an elusive global agreement on climate change before deploying them.

The writer, a former deputy editor of this paper, is regional director (Asia-Pacific) for global communications strategy with Shell, and a board member of the Energy Studies Institute.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times and has been reproduced with permission from the author.

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