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March 15, 2011 1:47 AM | Comments (0)

There’s plenty of information and commentary on the ongoing crisis in Japan, so I won’t go into that. What I will delve into is what will happen after all this is over. [Disclaimer: I am not a scientist, and hope that my terminology is accurate for the purposes of this post]

Re-assessment of nuclear technology

Nuclear technology is still arguably ‘clean’, but given the human tendency of risk aversion, especially when great catastrophes have recently occurred, Governments would likely put nuclear projects on hold, especially if the reactors are located near fault lines. Citizens in countries like Germany, already opposed to nuclear energy, will protest with an even louder voice, and politicians all around the world will listen to their electorate - especially when elections are near.

Countries and companies that stand to lose out would be the ones that promote and export nuclear technology, such as France. Until current fears abate, the citizenry living within a 3km20 to 30km radius of a nuclear plant may live in uncertainty, and (from a Singaporean perspective!) the land value is unlikely to go up. Obama and his energy secretary will have to review their endorsements of nuclear energy, at least for now.

Rise in other forms of energy generation, particularly green power

The world is growing and needs more energy every day. If nuclear energy is no longer the popular option, then Governments will increasingly turn to alternative sources within their means. Advocates of alternative sources of power will seize this opportunity to sell their solutions. The more educated, well-off and conscience-driven populaces will prefer green power, and companies seeking to hone their corporate social responsibility credentials are likely to capitalise on this.

However, I wonder what less developed countries will do, as their population swells and demands more energy. China is flush with cash and power hungry, but remember that its Beijing residents felt the tremors all the way from Japan. India, with less developed infrastructure, may adopt a different approach. Both countries have not been known for a particularly strong environmental record.

Status quo for countries mainly using nuclear power

It isn’t cheap to set up a nuclear power plant, so countries that are already dependent on nuclear power are unlikely to take down everything and rebuild alternative power plants, even though that could technically be classified as a ‘sunk cost’. At most, extra safety measures will be put in place, with public education and early warning systems. Government agencies will have to inspire confidence among citizens that their nuclear plants are safe and able to withstand natural disasters.

Lately, there has been lots of interest in ‘green’, sustainable energy. However, many of us are going green for less than altruistic reasons. As Barack Obama put it during Al Gore’s endorsement of him, the former Vice President had done much to raise awareness of climate change, but “there’s nothing like US$4 a gallon gas to get your attention.”

Going green today means saving greenbacks, and - oh, incidentally - the environment. From a practical point of view, as long as behaviours are changing it shouldn’t matter, but ideally we should also understand how our consumption habits affect the world around us. Education is important, but so are the societal norms with which we live by.

As a motorist, I’ve seen my own petrol bills increase over the past year. Previously I paid just over S$40 for a full tank of petrol. Now I’m paying S$70-80. I wondered what the Americans were so upset about - we’re still paying more than they are. But they have to travel longer distances and have been accustomed to relatively low prices. And they have a weak economy and dollar to grapple with.

Similarly, I’ve heard laments about how Malaysian petrol is subsidised while Singaporeans pay the full price. But I agree with our National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan that ‘cutting petrol duties and giving out subsidies are not the answer to soaring global oil prices’ (source). We should modify our own lifestyles first. It would however be nice to see examples of how some of our own leaders are doing this.

Rich Singaporeans who flaunt their wealth by driving big cars can jolly well foot the bill instead of complaining. I’ve found it ironic that some who can afford to buy a car would jam up the roads waiting outside ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) gantries just to save a dollar. Car manufacturers should also think twice about flying their hybrid cars across the world for celebrity clients.

Of course, in other cases it’s not so clear-cut. Parents may drive an MPV or a SUV to ferry their brood about. Others may depend on mobility for their livelihood. Some of us can make changes more easily. As a student, I took a school bus or car-pooled with neighbours. If my parents couldn’t fetch me home - no big deal. There was public transport.

If things get too costly for me, I’m prepared to move back to public transport as well, even though it takes more travelling time. For years I’ve wanted to switch to a Toyota Prius or another hybrid car, because I was interested in using less fuel (and also because I am a geek who wants to hack it). However, the earlier models were expensive and out of our budget, although in time it would’ve paid us back in savings. It was too difficult for me to justify. But now, surging petrol prices are making such solutions more attractive for many of us.

We aren’t in want of technology. There are a myriad of green solutions and incentives, depending on the unique nature of each region. In California, where some of my relatives live, those who drive a hybrid car and have obtained a licence, may drive on the ‘Diamond lane’ which breezes them past other lanes with heavy traffic. This has led to a huge demand for hybrid cars, particularly the Prius.

There is also greater civic awareness of the importance of reducing waste, such as cutting down on electricity and water usage. Some of these initiatives bring about cost savings, but to practice this consistently also requires an active citizenry which I find strong in many Americans, and dormant in Singaporeans - to say the least.

But of course, California has its own set of problems. For one, its public transport system is less developed than ours, which is why many citizens feel handicapped without a car. Another issue is public safety. Once, I wanted to take the public bus so as not to make my relatives drive me downtown, but was warned not to as it was dangerous. So we in Singapore have some things to be thankful for.

Similarly, there was a big issue in Singapore about supermarkets charging for plastic bags, whereas in other developed countries it has long been normal to bring your own bag, or pay for one. It is good to have campaigns promoting re-usable bags, but the day we no longer need a campaign for something is the day we have succeeded.

Change is not impossible. But beyond inventing new green solutions and policies, we have to change our own attitudes first. It is probably our ‘kiasu’ mentality, general lack of awareness and ingrained apathy about how much difference our actions can make in this world, that has contributed to demands for short-term solutions.

[Disclaimer: I am still a public servant, at least for the next week or so. However my job has nothing to do with petrol prices.]

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