Yesterday morning Lisa and I took a bus downtown to see the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, give the Singapore Energy Lecture. It was part of a big annual event, the Singapore International Energy Week. We met our friend Walter Blackstock, had a last cup of coffee, and filed into a banquet room, along with about 800 businessmen, to see what the Prime Minister had to say.
His lecture was clear and precise — very different than the rhetoric-filled talk I’m used to from American politicians when it comes to energy. He began by discussing the twin problems of peak oil and global warming.
‘Peak oil’ refers to the idea that oil production, having risen, is bound to eventually fall; of course this idea gains teeth when one believes it will fall rather soon. Mr Lee gave some evidence that oil production will fall in the next few decades, but then pointed out that similar predictions had been made before, and had turned out to be wrong. He concluded in an agnostic vein, and added that there are still huge supplies of coal, which become more useful as gasification technologies improve. What interested me was his use of the term ‘peak oil’, which I’ve never heard from the lips of an American president. But of course, I’ve never seen one speak at an energy conference.
He then noted that even if there are plenty of fossil fuels, burning them leads to global warming. He mentioned the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Cancún, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December. He said that if an agreement is reached, Singapore would abide by it and impose a price on carbon. He said:
“If there’s a global regime to curb carbon emissions, that means that Singapore will have to reduce our own emissions more sharply than we are doing now, in order to comply with international obligations, and we would have to make the carbon price explicit to send the right price signals.”
“At present, we don’t have a carbon tax, but we calculate a shadow price for carbon in our cost-benefit analysis so that Government policies and decision making can be better-informed and rational.”
On the other hand, he said, if an agreement is not reached, uncertainty will continue to prevail about when the problem of global warming will finally be addressed. Given this, he said, Singapore supports the goal of reaching an agreement. He explicitly noted that this was a ‘commons’ problem: every individual nation stands to benefit by being the only one who continues to burn lots of carbon, but if every nation does this, the world will be harmed.
He was not optimistic about an agreement being reached in Cancún; he mentioned how Obama had begun his term in office strongly supporting climate change legislation, but was unable to stick with this intention. Nonetheless, he seemed to indicate that a price on carbon was inevitable in the long term.
He discussed three main ways to reduce carbon usage:
1) switching to sustainable forms of energy production like solar, wind and hydropower,
2) technologies such as carbon sequestration and nuclear power, and
He said that Singapore is “an alternative energy-disadvantaged country”, so option 1) is limited. He explicitly mentioned that most sustainable forms of energy have a low ‘power density’, and again his correct use of jargon pleased me. He said that even if every building in Singapore was covered with solar cells, that would only generate 10% of the necessary power.
He said that the use of nuclear power was an option one cannot afford to dismiss:
“There is often strong resistance in countries – from the green movement, from populations who have witnessed accidents like Chernobyl, and are fearful and anxious about their safety. But if we look at this rationally, without nuclear energy, the world cannot make sufficient progress in dealing with global warming”.
He pointed out that America is beginning to build more nuclear plants, and that Angela Merkel, despite great pressure from the Greens, had put off the closure of such plants in Germany. He said that more plants would eventually be built in Germany, even though it’s “unspeakable” now.
He argued that it is important to start moving forward on this issue, even in a small state like Singapore where any nuclear plant would necessarily be close to densely populated areas. The crucial first step, he said, is to develop the technical know-how and the necessary “culture of safety”. When the moderator asked him whether nuclear power would be introduced during his time in office, he replied:
“I would say possibly during my lifetime.”
He also spent a lot of time discussing option 3), energy conservation. He said Singapore has a pilot program for a “smart grid” that lets households see how they’re using electrical power, and if this turns out to increase their efficiency, this would be adopted more widely.
All in all, an interesting talk.