~ Archive for Sustainable urban development ~

Increasing importance of desalination as a public service and how net zero transition should evolve to maintain public service delivery

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Desalination is the engineering process of extracting fresh water from salty water, for human consumption or agricultural use.

Given that the seas contain about 97.25 percent of all water on the planet and cover over 70% of its area, desalination of seawater would increasingly become an important source of fresh water for many places.

Climate change is disrupting weather patterns and will continue to do so, most probably resulting in extreme weather events, unpredictable water availability, aggravating water scarcity and polluting water sources. Such detrimental effects exert significant influence on the quantity and quality of drinking water that the future generation require to survive.

We should never underestimate the influence of climate change on our lives, but for the purpose of this article, I will just focus solely on water supply, draw out the intricate linkages between our drinking water and climate change, and how environmental regulations might disrupt some public service.

It can be difficult for some to appreciate their drinking water especially if they are from developed countries. Many from these places, can drink straight off the tap, filter the water through the tap before drinking or boil the tap water for consumption. Plus, people in these places usually have the option to buy drinking water from the groceries or arrange for delivery online.

As climate change persists, one of the resultant effects would be rising sea level. Much of the observed sea level rise is due to meltwater from land-based ice sheets and mountain glaciers, which adds to the volume of the ocean. Thermal expansion, or the expansion of ocean water as it heats, contributes a fair bit to sea level rising. There are other factors at play too but do not contribute as much as what I shared earlier.

Rising sea level are causing fresh water to become salty, compromising the critical water resources that the current and future generation rely on for survival.

In the future, water shortage might produce a slew of geopolitical and humanitarian issues, prompting more countries to turn to the sea and previously useless brackish water sources. Desalination is one way to make fresh water from both saltwater and brackish water.

According to a recent report by Grand View Research, Inc., the global water desalination equipment market is expected to reach USD 25.7 billion by 2027, likely to be driven by rising freshwater use in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The forecasted growth is an indication of the market’s demand for this technology and its end product.

Just to share a little bit more, there are basically two primary methods of desalination, (1) distillation and (2) reverse osmosis.

Distillation is the most traditional and widely utilised method of desalination. Distillation involves heating a substance to its vaporization point, then collecting the vapor and passing it through a cooling system, where it condenses as water.

Reverse osmosis (RO) is a contemporary technology of water filtration. Osmosis is the separation of freshwater from seawater via a selectively permeable membrane.

Technological advancements are lowering the operating costs of desalination facilities, but the issue is that water desalination is energy-intensive, mostly supported by fossil fuels. As a result, CO2 emissions from water desalination are significant. According to estimates from the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance, the desalination facilities now in operation globally release around 80 million metric tonnes of CO2 each year, which form less than 1% of the total global emission.

While I agree that one of the most important steps to preventing additional energy depletion and environmental degradation is to strengthen environmental regulations. I argue that we must also consider how environmental regulation on fossil energy consumption impacts critical functioning of important operations such as desalination, and whether or not; we would be able to switch over in time to other energy alternatives.

Environmental regulations, no matter how well-intentioned, if not thought through carefully, could cause significant hardships to the public. This is especially so when done via a blanket mechanism without deeper consultation with industry experts.

Studies are being performed to determine the practicality of using solar energy to power the desalination plants.

Researchers at MIT and from China, have devised a passive solar-powered desalination system that may deliver more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square metre of sun collecting space. For information, the city of New York consumes about 975 million gallons of water in a single day.

For perspective, let’s say we are able to ideally harvest about 10 hours of sunlight per day, this means that we would be able to deliver about 15 gallons of fresh water per day. With this device, we would need about 65 million square metres of sun collecting space to provide enough water for the people in New York City. 65 million square metres of sun collecting space is roughly equivalent to the size of about 12150 football fields. This is slightly bigger than the Bhadla Solar Park in Rajasthan, India, which is currently the largest solar park in the world.

Such infrastructure requires substantial amount of space even though it might possibly provide an efficient, low-cost water source to off-grid dry coastal locations. One solution is to stack the solar panels on top of each other thereby reducing the total area taken but the installation cost would escalate rapidly.

What I am trying to achieve, by going through this case, is to impart a sense of (1) how much desalination contributes to the total global emission, (2) the amount of energy required to supply a city with fresh water and (3) the space requirement if the desalination process were to draw its power source from solar panels.  With this, it would be easier to weigh and then assess sensibly for oneself, the total amount of effort to reduce that amount of carbon emission from desalination.

It would be far easier to target the top 20% of the greatest carbon emitters if we want to achieve substantial results in reducing Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emission.

By this, most would already have a sense of what I am going to propose which is firstly, to have deeper consultations with the specific industry experts. With inputs from the industry experts, identify the sectors that have significant contributions to human welfare and does not yet have the capacity to switch over to renewable energy sources at the moment.

Once the mapping is performed and the sectors identified, a roadmap could be broken into several pathways, guiding specific sectors with different timelines towards net zero outcome.

Secondly, once the sectors are identified and then ranked according to the national priority and implementation challenges. A strategy could be designed for each individual track while taking into consideration the investment of financial capital, and research and development effort in areas such as technology, manpower, sectorial rules and regulations, energy supply and other resources. Greater flexibility in the choices of energy sources could be extended to certain sectors such as the water sector, to ensure seamless transition to net zero operating environments, without disrupting public service.

Thirdly, at this point, the greater clarity of each sector’s status allows for stratospheric assessment across sectors, mainly to check if there are any competing demands in resources especially in the area of manpower and energy supply. With this, technology could be leveraged, adjustments might be made, and buffers built to ensure resiliency in each system and how they operate in tandem with each other.

Fourthly, mechanisms for adjustments must be weaved into the roadmap to ensure relevancy long after it has started. For example, certain sectors could be allowed to operate off fossil fuel sources for longer period before switching to renewable energy source. However, if the technology development progresses faster than anticipated, then the sector could wean off fossil fuel earlier than planned.

There will always be gaps between policies and operational work therefore effort must be made to ensure sufficient information flow from the ground implementation to policy construct and vice versa.

Once again, I would like to reemphasise that environmental regulations, no matter how well-intentioned, if not thought through carefully, could lead to significant hardships to the public. Deeper engagement and consultations with sectorial experts and practitioners is essential for better policies.

 

Closing the gap between Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting and implementation, and the impact of expanding ESG criteria to include more risks

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This week, I encountered three new ideas for inclusion into Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings, namely mental wellness, responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) and Multi-National Companies’ (MNC) contributions to the stakeholder communities’ social well-being, the workforce’s professional development and other positive initiatives for the countries in which they operate in.

 

On one hand, the media has reported that there is a large gap between the companies’ ESG reports and on-site implementations. The current narrative is that companies are signing a lot of MOUs and pledges, committing to a lot of sustainability goals and submitting a lot of ESG reports with beautiful graphs, plots, charts and content, but these are not translated into real action.

 

We need a lot more capabilities in recognizing, measuring and assessing ESG risks. ESG risks already manifested in many forms such as environmental impacts, workplace safety, fair consideration for employment, diversity and inclusion issues, proper mechanisms for grievances, stakeholder community management, etc.

 

All these combine to increase substantially the workload of the front-line staff. I see that we currently have three ways to go about solving this.

 

First, hire more people with ESG measurement and assessment skills to perform worksite inspections, outsource ESG measurements and assessments to external consultants or inspectors, train existing staff on ESG-related skills and/ or enhance technology capabilities in recognizing, monitoring and assessing ESG risks. These options are not mutually exclusive and can merge to create a variety of additional solutions.

 

Second, we will need the expertise of domain specialists to help with mitigating the identified ESG risks. When I bring up domain specialists, it is not just the technical experts in the area of carbon emissions, waste reduction, sustainable procurement, etc, but also the people who can contribute their skills in improving gender diversity, workplace safety, corporate and community grievances mechanisms amongst others.

 

Third, the entire organization has to be regularly trained to maintain awareness of such issues. The training could be delivered via on-site workshops, video meetings, and online training modules with or without quizzes or a hybrid of all of the above. Additionally, someone must be responsible for keeping the lines in check. It could be the Chief ESG Officer or Chief Sustainability Officer, together with one or more board members or directors with clear sight on these metrics.

 

Without a proper system in place, the entire exercise could become a one-off event and eventually fade into nothingness.

 

Now, we already have a lot on hand and that is just to satisfy reports and audit requirements. Moving forward, we need to put forth a whole lot more effort towards implementation. In reality, true transformation takes time and changing habits requires discipline. This means that we need to focus a lot more peoples’ attention towards this target for a longer period and it is definitely going to be draining.

 

There is going to be even more work if we include mental wellness, responsible use of AI, and MNC’s contributions to the countries that they operate in.

 

At this point of writing, I only have five thoughts about this.

 

One – anyway we already have so much work going on so we might as well pile on these considerations and strike while the iron is hot.

 

Two – adding more considerations at this time when we are not even executing well, could lead to widening the gap between reporting and implementation.

 

Three – increasing the workload at this moment when the supply of ESG expertise clearly lags far behind the demand for ESG expertise, is a sure-fire way to further stress the system and staff.

 

Four – we need more software capability to augment current workforce and ease the burden that is fueling the Great Resignation.

 

Five – public and private sector will need to work hand-in-hand to reach an acceptable equilibrium.

 

Among these five broad elements that I can think of right now, it is clear that they are more or less within the domains of the proposed inclusions i.e. mental wellness, responsible use of AI and MNC’s contributions to the countries that they operate in.

 

Going overboard with the implementations might actually foul up the proposed inclusions. Why? We might disturb the mental well-being of staff if we add on more criteria without considering carefully the additional workload. We could be the cause of more staff layoff during the pandemic because it is cheaper to deploy software capabilities. MNCs might find themselves in a tougher business landscape and may delink themselves from the countries that impose increasingly stringent criteria for business operations.

 

So, should the new criteria be included or not?

 

In short, this is the chicken and egg paradigm whereby we will be stuck in an infinite loop if no actions are taken. As usual, the way to break through the chicken and egg paradigm is to simply focus on one key path, to forge the way forward, with mechanisms in place for future adjustments and calibrations.

 

Some governments would not care less about MNC’s positions at all. Already I see that there is a trend in many countries to deleverage from MNCs; increasingly requiring them to work with local partners, surfacing issues like the treatment of tax and profits, stipulating better data protection within the local R&D community and others. This is not new, but the trend is definitely stronger now and the new policies reflect that.

 

In fact, there are already some that are placing more chips on local enterprises so that they could square off with the MNCs in the future. Policies are being shaped at the highest level to favor local enterprises to build self-resiliency.

 

Some of these MNCs are also facing increasing regulatory pressures from their countries of origin. I observe these patterns with great interest.

 

At the other spectrum, others are encouraging MNCs to establish presence and work in their respective countries. So, there is certainly going to be more shifts of investments and human resources, and this certainly calls for attention as consideration for shaping ESG frameworks.

 

Aside from this, the responsible use of AI is an equally critical topic. To be honest, most of us are already well-aware of how software capabilities can augment human workers and to some extent, replace some workers as well. Especially when work is increasingly translated to digital format, and this makes it so much easier for automation.

 

Digitalization is the perfect pathway for automation in the future, and to reduce reliance on human workforce.

 

One of my friends used to work with labor unions in the United Kingdom and she often surfaces this experience as one of her trump cards when discussions touch on life achievements. Even then, she never wants to find work in this area anymore.

 

Societies are carefully propped up by myriad of intricate constructs, one of which is for people to be gainfully employed with meaningful work that pays enough for daily expenses, mortgages, other debt commitments and some more. Integration of AI without proper consideration on its impact on the larger ecosystem, can lead to unbalancing the society’s pillars.

 

We need more transparency and to encourage greater participation in crafting and co-creating this future that is jointly owned by all people.

 

Gamification of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education

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Photo by Christina Morillo

 

Our educational system, as well as the way our society has evolved, has conditioned people to become more disinterested in science and technology education. Fewer individuals desire to study engineering and mathematics, which I strongly believe will be a major issue in the future.

 

In fact, many governments have already identified this issue and started working on it for quite some time.

 

Social media platforms have influenced our attention span and modified the way we receive information. Fewer people are reading books. Some merely read the headlines of articles and may skim through a portion of the piece before quitting halfway through.

 

In fact, it is recommended that content creators limit their pieces to no more than three paragraphs and no more than 500 words.

 

Video commercials must be no more than one minute long and must be able to capture people’s attention within the initial three seconds.

 

Professional development books are increasingly shorter, and many are encouraged to pepper pages with condensed summaries throughout the book, which is why the very popular Idiot’s Guide series have those little summary pop ups every few pages.

 

This loss in attention changes how information is collected and consumed and, as a result, affects how teaching and learning take place.

 

How often has your focus wandered during a meeting or a conference, and a phone check has become the norm? Most things receive only a fraction of my attention.

 

Students who listen while texting divide their focus between where their bodies are and where their brains are. The most recent adaption of short attention span instruction may be found in videos that are now available on Tik Tok and Instagram.

 

There is only one notion, one idea, and one instruction and no reading required, which is why these social media platforms are huge hits with the younger generation.

 

In a recent ranking survey done by an East Asian country, they ranked South Korea has having the best mathematics education system, followed by Singapore and the third place goes to Japan.

 

This East Asian country used to consider themselves as the best in providing mathematics education, but they’ve determined that their ranking has fell. They considered this a major issue and are putting their best people to work with the private sector, to develop a proposal to rectify it.

 

Still, research is being done by the best to further improve their position and one of the latest ideas is to introduce gaming to teach science, mathematics and programming.

 

I saw the latest research on teaching with games, and it allows players to immerse themselves in a Role-Playing Game (RPG) with attention-grabbing storyline that’s paired with beautiful graphics. Players will be able to solve interesting puzzles and fight fantastic battles with enemies throughout the game, and somehow all these actions are performed by solving programming scenarios.

 

By the end of the game, you are supposed to be able to understand the logic flow of programs and how to sew together the different syntaxes to achieve your desired programming outcomes.

 

It’s really quite fun and research is being done to quantify its relationship to improving users’ programming proficiency while keeping their attention on the game.  I think that the research results should be released in about two to three months’ time.

 

I believe that within a few more years, we will no longer need to type syntaxes in order to program. Long gone will be the days whereby you’ll feel cool to be able to type in long strings of words, press “Enter” and then strings upon strings of neon green colored fonts on black background scrolls endlessly down the computer screen. Think Matrix opening and ending scenes.

 

Anyway, if you think that’s cool, you’ll most likely might be considered as outdated by the younger generation.

 

Graphical programming is unquestionably on the rise, and more parts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will eventually be merged with programming languages, making it easier to program in the long run.

Smart grid and renewable energy must support the agricultural sector, not destroy it

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Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn

 

A smart grid is a digitally enabled electrical system that collects, distributes, and works with data on all electricity providers and consumers’ behaviour in order to enhance the efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of power delivery.

 

Smart grids generate massive amounts of data, which may be examined using data analytics and with machine learning, converted into valuable insights. Weather conditions, demand and supply records, and location are all examples of data metrics. 

 

With this data, operators may make smarter judgments about the transfer of energy from one location to another, proactively ensuring supply and minimising waste.

 

Southeast Asia is definitely a rising smart grid industry that is making tremendous progress and offers big advantages for customers as well as significant potential for suppliers by the end of this decade. 

 

Countries in Southeast Asia are growing rapidly and extending their web of electrical grid to more communities. With more foreign capital inflow and a growing middle-class, it makes perfect sense for governments to build smart grid roadmaps with implementation strategies. 

 

Outside of China and India, Southeast Asia has the greatest expected GDP growth rate of any emerging smart grid market. These strong GDP growth rates, however, are not assured and might pose structural, political, and social difficulties to Southeast Asian countries.

 

According to Global Climate Scope, Southeast Asia would invest up to $14 billion by 2030 to achieve universal power access, with distant microgrid systems serving 75 percent of the off-grid population.

 

Already, there are significant hurdles to crafting policies to tackle connection costs, network costs, maintenance cost while ensuring a healthy amount of return of investments for investors, suppliers and operators. 

 

Actual construction is another set of obstacles as some of the Southeast Asian countries might have to cough up the manpower and expertise to undertake huge infrastructure projects to lay underwater cables between islands, provinces and states.  

 

In the roadmap of some Southeast Asian countries, the administration had planned for the smart grid to enable single proprietors and individual business owners to sell a small quantity of power generated by their own entrepreneurship to the grid via a smart meter.

 

This can potentially be another issue if the pricing is not done right and could impact the agriculture industry. 

 

Agriculture is critical to the economy’s survival and growth. It’s the foundation of everything that motivates humans to survive. It not only produces food and other basic resources, but also presents job opportunities. Yet in many countries, agricultural workers are leaving the sector. 

 

According to the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), their projections show a steady drop of agricultural workers. It revealed that in 1976, 65.8 percent of Indonesian employees were employed in the agriculture sector. 

 

However, in 2019, it fell dramatically to only 28%. Part of this reduction might be attributed to agricultural employees moving to other industries, particularly to the service sector. The service sector workers accounted for 23.57 percent in 1976 and 48.91 percent in 2019.

 

When farm owners are able to sell the power generated by their own renewable energy devices such as solar panels, windmill, etc to the grid, they might consider giving up farming entirely. These farm owners might find it financially feasible to install more renewable energy devices and sell the electricity instead of rearing animals, performing soil maintenance and taking care of agriculture produces. 

 

In other parts of the world, a growing number of farmers and ranchers are supplementing their income by capturing the wind that blows over their land and converting it into electricity. In addition, new renewable alternatives are becoming accessible.

 

NPR reported in the United States that farmers in the Midwest both support and oppose major solar generating ventures on farms. Some people make significantly more money leasing land than they do cultivating crops. Others are concerned about the loss of productive land.

 

Leaving the situation entirely to market forces, will have the farm owners to simply choose the option that yields the highest return, but this might further jeopardise the agriculture sector in years to come.

 

Renewable energy sources and smart grid must be able to support core sectors like agriculture, not destroy it. 

Quick thoughts about 2021 and moving forward

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Like many, I left 2021 with a lot of thoughts but I’ll try to summarise. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the main things that keeps me awake at night. I don’t think that AI is going to reach the intelligence level of humans yet, but at the current level of development, it certainly has the potential to replace a lot of people in their jobs. 

 

Many organisations employ roles that involve retrieving, processing and sending information. Any processes that involve digital data, are at risk of being replaced by AI. At the moment, some of the latest startups are able to take on work that used to be done by a much larger company. 

 

As company structures become leaner, some say that the gap between the top management and the workers will become greater. On the other hand, I think it’s going to be closer. I think that the coming period will be very testing for top management. This will be especially so for management that thrived on the old management models.

 

The availability of AI tools, freely available knowledge on the web and a workforce that’s more educated than ever before, will equalise the playing field. The coming generation will be drastically different from the earlier generation. I’ve already witnessed children as young as five years old, doing simple computer programming, producing videos, discussing in detail about the human body’s anatomy and its functions, etc. Imagine what they can achieve in the future.

 

The workers of the next generation will increasingly challenge their seniors and supervisors, believing themselves to be equal if not better. Leaders will no longer be able to rely adequately on past experiences or knowledge to secure their positions. The younger generation, with the help of AI tools and internet hive mind, will only measure success according to current results. 

 

I’m guessing that in the mid to longer term, different types of company structures might become popular. One possibility could be in the form of cooperatives. Cooperatives are formed on the principle of participatory governance, and its structure encourages the sharing of resources among members and a democratic style of management. This form of enterprise might become more popular when more power shifts towards content creators, professional service providers and original thinkers. 

 

Chasing after money is outdated. The trend right now is for money to chase after original contents. Copycats will be second class to original thinkers. In the increasingly digital age, it’s only going to be easier to sieve out the original thinkers from the copycats and blockchain technology could be a huge part of that movement. If you remembered, BMW wasn’t a top car maker until it decided on the strategy to be original and cutting-edge. The same will apply to companies and maybe even countries. Money will chase after the original thinkers. 

 

Places that rely on immigrants to grow their economies will experience immense pressures. Incentives to work overseas will diminish when work-from-anywhere arrangement becomes common. Cryptocurrency might make it worse.  If any one of the cryptocurrencies becomes the common standard for global transactions, then why the need for the British Pounds or the US Dollars? The concept of growing the economy with immigrants will become outdated.  

 

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) trends will also destabilise many companies, to the point that some might no longer be able to carry on with their businesses. The same fate will fall on some of the companies in both developed and developing countries. Sustainability of business will depend on the willingness to drive operational and contractual transformation. 

 

All these trends, together with the development of blockchain technology might affect the relevancy of today’s government models. The current government models are already facing immense pressure of being relevant in the face of a changing landscape. Reinvention for relevancy is needed more than ever. Creativity plus vision for the future is critical to charting pathways. 

 

Anyway, I think it’s going to be very exciting in the future. I can’t wait to witness how the technology of the future will shape the next episodes. I think that the future is going to be exciting for problem-solvers.

How climate change could bring humans and animals closer, and intensify the spread of zoonotic diseases

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Climate change is changing the natural behaviour of many plants, animals and insects, and this actually has major implications on the human population as well. Studies are showing that due to climate change, the dry regions will become drier and the wet regions will become wetter. 

Overall, most of the places around Earth are steadily heating up and some places are at risk of running out of water. Based on new data inputs from the natural environment, climate models’ results are slowly converging to roughly about the same prediction outcomes as to where the liveable locations are on Earth. Even the birds have begun to change their migration patterns in response to climate change.

This is a serious concern because firstly, cities are going to be denser as more people start to move into urban areas. Secondly, new urban environments are going to sprout up in places where it is going to be more liveable and less affected by climate change. Thirdly, animals might also seek out the same liveable spaces to ensure their livelihoods. 

Animals will want to seek out places where they can find food, water and safe living spaces. When forest area reduces, there is a high possibility for the animals to forage beyond natural greenery. Inevitably, we could eventually find that we might have to live even closer to the animal kingdom than we previously thought.  

City people have poor animal husbandry practices, if any at all. Combined with high density living in urban areas, the social distance between humans and humans, also animals and humans, could only get less and less as the years go by. We are being led by our nose into a future whereby the spread of zoonotic diseases will only intensify. 

I was running through several climate models and showed particular interest in tying the results to the population density model. Just take a brief look at the following visualisations. 

The density of the blue spots is an indication of the population density of any country. If you look at the visualisations that are presented for Jarkarta, Indonesia, it looks like it could do well with some decentralisation. Indonesia has a lot of land spaces (white areas) but everyone chooses to congregate in Jakarta. 

The Indonesians made their choices which I am sure are certainly based on practical reasons but there is a serious need for decentralisation. The density of the red spot indicates hyper densification and West Jakarta is growing steadily to match the likes of Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. 

These cities are real living proofs to how dense a living space can become. 

Just for information, a study found that at least 500,000 species of mammal virus are estimated to have the potential to spread in human populations, but the vast majority are currently circulating in wildlife, largely undescribed and undetected by disease outbreak surveillance (Carlson, Zipfel, Garnier, Bansal, 2019). Birds can also be carriers of diseases that could harm humans. Now, there is a growing body of evidence and research also showing that bird migratory patterns are changing due to climate change. It is subtle but surely happening. 

I zoomed into birds because countries are going to find it difficult to close its borders to this class of animals. This visualisation was produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and helps us to better appreciate the migratory pathways of birds. From this, we can see that it is possible for avian disease outbreaks to spread from as far as Russia to Australia and vice versa. 

While governments are busy tackling the negative effects of the Covid-19 virus, certain parts of Europe and some East Asian countries are signalling red alerts for the appearance of Avian flu such as H5N5, H5N8 and H5N1. 

H5N1 is a type of influenza virus that causes a highly infectious, severe respiratory disease in birds called avian influenza (or “bird flu”). Human cases of H5N1 avian influenza occur occasionally, but it is difficult to transmit the infection from person to person (Taken from WHO). 

H5N8 is a subtype of the influenza A virus and is highly lethal to wild birds and poultry. H5N8 is typically not associated with humans; however, seven people in Russia were found to be infected in 2021 (Taken from Wikipedia). 

H5N5 virus is a type of highly pathogenic avian influenza that is supposedly replicating among domestic ducks and wild birds that share the same water. Such new subtypes of influenza viruses may pose pandemic threat (Li, Lv, Li, Peng, Zhou, Qin & Chai 2021).

There are already 6 avian influenza outbreaks in Europe this year. Now, health officials have stepped up to warn that large scale infections are possible if many variants appear during the same window period. 

While this is not an immediate danger at the moment, governments and planners around the world should keep tabs on such developments and find ways to grow sustainably and safely. 

 

References

Carlson, C. J., Zipfel, C. M., Garnier, R., & Bansal, S. (2019). Global estimates of mammalian viral diversity accounting for host sharing. Nature ecology & evolution, 3(7), 1070-1075.

Li, X., Lv, X., Li, Y., Peng, P., Zhou, R., Qin, S., … & Chai, H. (2021). Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (H5N8) Virus in Swans, China, 2020. Emerging infectious diseases, 27(6), 1732.

The rise of seawater level and how it impacts coastal landscape

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Heat waves, flooding, ice storms and drought are some of the many currently foreseeable scenarios that many countries will face in coming decades and many experts are attributing this to climate change. 

Many reports have repeatedly highlighted the risks and its potential impact to the lifestyles of those who are living along the coastal areas. Aside from the usual narrative that focuses just on the rise in seawater level, many experts are also trying to understand how the rise in seawater will impact livelihoods and how tolerable communities will get before they start to exhibit migration behaviours. 

Property values in most coastal real estate markets do not reflect this risk at all. For better appreciation of the challenge, I highlight a study that was performed on the USA market and it showed that more than 300,000 of today’s coastal homes, with a collective market value of about USD$117.5 billion today, are at risk of chronic flood in 2045—a timeframe that falls within the lifespan of a 30-year mortgage issued today (Dahl, Cleetus, Spanger-Siegfried, Udvardy, Caldas, 2018). 

The last thing that most planners might want is mass panic that is caused by frequent media reporting on high sea water level rise scenarios. This narrative only creates anxiety and confuses homeowners and migration patterns.

Forecasts serve as guiding beacons, and are built with predictive analytic techniques that depend heavily on historical records and other highly-correlated factors. It cannot be ignored but we must also understand that the predictions can change when the current condition changes.  

We could stay passive throughout the entire 20 years period and wait for the potential future to arrive. Or we can refer to these forecasts for science-based policy making, create tools to better understand our environment and also contribute what we can to help the environment on other fronts.   

Understanding how tolerable communities are to changing climate is a tiny shift in research perspective but if it is taken up by the reporting platforms, it could serve as a balancing voice by enabling a slightly more in-depth understanding of how flooding interacts with natural terrains and built environment elements and even perhaps spark more research on how one could live with water. 

Because of my background in sustainable urban development, I’ve always been quite interested in understanding how climate change will affect coastal communities and low-lying islands. One of my research interests is Guam island which is about 540 km2 and its highest point to mean sea level is about 407 m. I like the island’s profile because it is quite similar to about 40% of the island countries that are existing currently. 

This was a modelling that I recently performed on Guam island and when based on extreme scenarios, we can see that the flooding could become really bad: 

Year 2040: 1.8 ft = 0.54864 metres

Year 2060: 3.9 ft = 1.18872 metres

Year 2080: 6.69 ft = 2.039112 metres

Year 2100: 10.47 ft = 3.191256 metres

Based on the visualisation presented by the modelling, it is clear that the communities that are living in the perimeters will be most affected. The entire area that I’ve highlighted in blue represents the potential land loss if the seawater level rose to around 0.55 metres. The modelling showed that this could be possible by 2040. 

In another scenario, we can see that the situation becomes even worse when the seawater rises to about 3.2 metres. Most of the outlying land area get consumed and it is assumed that this would take place by 2100. 

This gives me a better understanding of how the seawater will interact with the outermost perimeter of Guam island and certainly sets me rethinking about the much coveted coastal living. 

So far, I’ve not seen much research on how the rise in seawater level will affect the geotechnical profile of the subsoil strata inland. If it does weaken the inland clayey strata, high-rise buildings that are built on soft ground might be at risk. Planners might have to delve into the intricacies of subsoil conditions to augment current urban planning methods – arranging for higher rise buildings to be built on stronger foundations that comprise mainly of rocks and granite. 

I’d be very interested to learn more about this area.  

References

Dahl, K., Cleetus, R., Spanger-Siegfried, E., Udvardy, S., & Caldas, A. (2018, December). Using the Quantified Risk of Sea Level Rise and Tidal Flooding to Coastal Real Estate Markets as a Tool for Engaging Communities and Financial Actors. In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts (Vol. 2018, pp. PA41D-1359).

Measuring and reducing carbon emission through sustainable life choices

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When something is labelled as “zero carbon,” it indicates that it does not emit carbon at all. Some eco-friendly homes are considered as being zero carbon, for example, because they have their own renewable and clean energy sources, such as solar panels, and hence do not rely on fossil fuels to provide electricity.

 

“Net zero” is synonymous with “carbon neutral.” Because it is still a relatively new phrase, you may hear it used interchangeably with other words when discussing matters related to sustainability. However, as governments and enterprises throughout the world embrace net zero objectives, organisations such as the United Nations and the Science Based Targets Initiative are beginning to agree on a definition.

 

When a company or organisation claims to be “net zero,” it means that they have reduced their emissions as much as possible in accordance with what scientists prescribe.

 

Carbon offsetting reduces CO2 from the environment in both net zero and carbon neutral scenarios. That removal must be permanent and accredited or licenced in order to be considered. Carbon off-setting projects can range from local tree planting to sponsoring projects that empower developing-country families to minimise their reliance on fossil fuels. Reforestation, replanting, and conservation are some examples. Alternative investments can be made in programmes that minimise greenhouse gas emissions, such as improving cattle feed that helps to reduce cow methane output.

 

Is it possible for us to be truly zero carbon in the way we live? We might need to reduce our reliance on modern electronic equipment. Instead of reading digital books on electronic tablets, we could opt to read hardcover books printed with papers that were produced from sustainably-sourced timber. Instead of hopping onto your car for that short trip to the grocer, we could opt to hop onto our skate-scooter or bicycle, maybe skateboard? Instead of chugging at the game-controllers, why not play a game of chess, a good old board game or card game with your spouse, friends or family? 

 

One good first step is to understand how much carbon our lifestyle is generating so that we can better understand the impacts of our activities and make changes accordingly. I discovered a carbon calculator that is made by Singapore’s SP Group and you can use it to measure your carbon emission. 

First of all, I must highlight that from the looks of it, it is just a simple modelling exercise because the owner also did not declare the sources of the database that they use to build the model. It’s more for improving awareness of sustainability and green living and I think it’s good enough for that. The calculator will take you through a series of questions to which you must answer as truthfully as possible, in order to generate the annual carbon emission of your family. 

 

So here’s my test score for carbon emission. 

The results are quite interesting and did not deviate far from my expectations; it stated that my emission is lower than an average Singaporean which I believed to be quite accurate because I really make a lot of conscious effort in my daily activities to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. I am aware of this because in my monthly utility bills, there’s comparison between my monthly utility expenses with the average of all my neighbours’ monthly utility expenses.

 

Most of the time, I consume much less electricity (approximately 30% to 40% less) than my neighbours, maybe because I do not dabble with bitcoin mining and play video games. Maybe, I do not know. But in reality, there really are those who consume a lot of electricity with bitcoin mining operations, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. These people will configure their highly customised bitcoin mining machines by rigging it with super coolants, plus their endless rounds of video and computer games while waiting for the bitcoins to drop into their pockets. Sometimes I accept their invitations to join the online games but I quickly get angry at myself (not at them) for spending my time in this manner.  

 

At first, my eyeballs literally popped out when I heard how much they spent on utility bills given the number of family members in their household. Each of their monthly household utility bills are easily in excess of what I consume in 7 to 8 months. Still, it’s their lifestyles, everyone has the freedom to choose what they want to do. At times, I feel like it’s almost futile for me to explain why it’s prudent and environmentally-friendlier to keep such activities in check because it usually ends up with replies like they are able to afford it so why not? 

 

Other times, I’d try to come from other angles, explaining about how everything is a zero-sum game and also on the point about the limits of resources. At times, I get replies that are similar to the responses I get when I used to explain about the pending extinction of sharks due to shark fins harvesting. For this, I hear replies like, “Oh, the sharks are going to be extinct so we better eat as many sharks’ fins as we can.” Nowadays, what I hear more often is, “Oh the fishes/ salmons might be extinct soon so we better eat as many fishes as we can.” 

 

If things get priced more expensively, they’ll say they can afford it, so what? If you explain that things are going to disappear because of over-consumption, they’ll say it’s better to buy it up as fast as possible. I know how excruciating it can be to respond to such arguments because they usually do not care about the larger environmental picture.  Their perspective is more self-centered and incline towards consumerism. You need to appeal to their thinking to achieve a win-win outcome. 

 

There is however a third approach to convincing people about the detrimental effects of certain human activities on the environment, i.e. to explain how pollution directly impacts the human population. I almost laughed out loud when I saw a published article that explained how pollution is linked to shrinking penises. That article was actually based on the book “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race” by Dr. Shanna H. Swan. I highly recommend that you read this book when you have the chance to do so.  

 

Anyway, back to my carbon emission score, I’ve always thought that I was already doing quite well environmentally, especially when this calculator showed that I scored 5,696kg CO2/year, compared to the average Singaporean’s score of 8,280kg CO2/year.

 

However, it seemed like I had to reduce my emission to less than 3,000kg CO2/year in order to be really environmentally-friendly in their terms. Just my commute alone already comprise 67% of my carbon emission. Even if I reduce my other activities like utility consumption, waste, food consumption and spending habits to literally zero, I still would not be able to go below 3,000kg CO2/year. 

 

The greatest impact will come from changing the way I commute and this could be achieved by switching to public transport, changing to an electric vehicle or riding a bicycle/ skate scooter/ skateboard. 

Alternatively, I could also try to plant trees to offset my carbon emission. In this case, the calculator stated that about 283 rain trees are needed to absorb my annual emission. So, this means that if I planted about 190 trees (67% of my carbon emission), I would be able to offset the carbon emission resulting from my commute. One highlight is that the results will not be immediate because trees take time to grow. I remembered planting two fruit seeds and it took about 5 to 6 years to reach about 3 metres in height. A rain tree also takes about 5 years to produce about 550 kg (1210 lb) of green forage (Staples, Elevitch 2006). So, while I am waiting for the trees to grow fully, I would need to continuously plant more than 190 trees per year to offset the carbon emitted during the wait. 

 

It is certainly faster to achieve results by switching my ride. The question is; is taking public transport or switching to an electric vehicle really good for the environment? Are the alternatives always better? Many bus operators have already started to replace their bus fleets with electric buses. It seemed like it would make even more common sense to use public transport powered by batteries. The media narratives portray electric rides as the all-time saviour and public transport as the carbon neutral choice, combing the two is perceived as a sure-win solution.

 

The question on my mind is, don’t electric vehicles harm our environment in any other ways? What about the metals that’s being used to manufacture the batteries? Do metal mining operations degrade the soil condition in our ground or maybe affect the social lives of those who live around the mining activities? Could it be that we are making choices based on the lesser of two evils principal? If that’s the case, can we push ourselves further to find solutions that elevates us beyond this state?

 

In my recent research on a Southeast Asian country, I discovered that tin mining operations in certain parts of that country have destroyed large tracts of mangroves. In doing so, they have also significantly reduced the population of shrimps in that region. The shrimps depend on the mangroves for food and as natural habitat. Interestingly, the communities living around that area used to make good money by harvesting these shrimps and grinding them with chilli paste to produce spice condiments. 

 

Ever since the tin mining operations started, more people realised that it is more profitable to be involved in tin mining than catching and farming shrimps. The locals know that mining is bad for the environment, but they have no alternative, plus they can get up to $10 a day from tin mining which is double what they would get working in the agriculture industry. Plus, more people from other places also started to travel to this region to find work in the tin mining trade. All these further complicates the sustainability of the local ecosystem. 

 

I know that it is a highly sensitive and complicated issue therefore it is not realistic to simply adopt a “regulate and ban” approach. It involves livelihoods, social issues, business licenses and to a large extent, the votes of the people and all these requires a careful calibration between the public, private and people factions to deliver a balanced solution. Easier said than done, I rest my case.  

 

More importantly, the idea that I want to bring across is that everything is connected, literally a zero sum game therefore it would be prudent to carefully explore alternatives to fossil fuel.

 

References

Pollution Is Shrinking Penises, Scientists Warn. (2021, 03 23). Men’s Health. Retrieved 10 27, 2021, from https://www.menshealth.com/uk/sex/a35911756/small-penis-pollution-fertility-sperm-count/

Staples, G. W., & Elevitch, C. R. (2006). Samanea saman (rain tree). Species profile for Pacific Island agroforestry.

Echo chamber risk and the role of middle management in information flow

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I kept encountering the phrase “Echo Chamber” this week and even though I know what it stands for, I can’t help but to look up its meaning on Wikipedia. On Wiki, it defined Echo Chamber as,

Echo chamber (media) An echo chamber is “an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.” In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal …

 

Just think about it, recent history is replete with examples of leaders being entrenched in their own interpretations of truth, particularly when circumstances turn against the company. Instead of responding logically to the cautionary signals all around them, they dig further into their echo chamber, listening to the deputies that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

One of the most dangerous aspects of echo chambers is that they lead to a lack of creative ideas, similar viewpoints, and identical concepts. On an organisational level, I seriously think that this can limit our chances for progress and stifle constructive discussion.

Now, with the vast quantity of information available on the internet, I don’t really think that it is difficult to obtain “evidences” that support a committee’s viewpoint. The challenge, and very useful one indeed, is to discover dissident ideas and views that do not correspond to your own point of view and build these insights into our strategy, and this can only be achieved by deliberately seeking out people and groups that are not so similar and also maybe from other industries.

The risk is, deputies or middle management might tend to form committees that comprise people who more or less mirror the views of the head honcho. Importantly, these middle managers represent the company’s culture by encouraging and implementing appropriate beliefs and behavioral patterns throughout the organisation.

Fundamentally, the flow of information in an organisation is also controlled by middle management. They are privy to crucial information and gossips (important too!) and it is up to them to communicate (or not) the critical information to the appropriate supervisors or departments. Failure to surface critical information can sometimes lead to the fall of the leader or worse, the organisation.

Perhaps leaders could also consider to be more purposeful in surrounding themselves with advisers who are competent, logical, confident, and genuine in order to counteract this Echo Chamber risk, otherwise they risk slipping into this fatal communication gap.

One good example would be Nokia; its fall from being the world’s finest mobile phone firm to losing everything by 2013 has become a case study that professors and students in business management classes have examined. Not only did they formed an echo chamber, they also fostered a very toxic work environment. According to a study (Vuori & Huy 2016) with 76 Nokia top and middle managers, engineers and external experts, they discovered the following about Nokia:

  • Nokia was plagued by organisational anxiety at the time;
  • The anxiety in the organisation was rooted in a culture of toxic working environment filled with terrified middle managers;
  • Top executives frequently intimidated middle managers by accusing them of not being ambitious enough to achieve their objectives;
  • Middle management was afraid to reveal the truth for fear of getting sacked;
  • Middle management lied to top management because they believed stating the truth was pointless; top management lacked technical knowledge, which affected how they could judge technology limits during KPI formulation; in comparison, Apple’s top management were all engineers;
  • Middle management were hesitant to openly admit that Symbian, Nokia’s operating system, was inferior;
  • Top executives were terrified of losing investors, suppliers, and consumers if they admitted to Apple’s technological superiority;
  • They were aware that developing a superior operating system capable of competing with Apple’s iOS would take several years; and
  • Rather than committing resources to long-term aims such as building a new operating system, Nokia management chose to create new phone handsets to meet short-term market demands.

Nokia’s demise was precipitated by a series of poor decisions, yet none of the company’s errors were unavoidable. I think that there are several lessons to be drawn from the demise of this technological behemoth.

Reference(s):

Vuori, T. O., & Huy, Q. N. (2016). Distributed Attention and Shared Emotions in the Innovation Process: How Nokia Lost the Smartphone Battle. Administrative Science Quarterly61(1), 9–51.

 

Turning a crisis into an opportunity: Crippling effects of increased level of carbon dioxide and global temperature on hydroelectric power plants in tropics and subtropics regions

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Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

 

Written by Zeng Han Jun

A recent survey showed that there is a slight shift in people’s interest in favor of renewable energy. According to this survey, governments should consider exerting more influence in raising environmental consciousness and bridging the gap between people’s desires and realistic energy alternatives (Zhang, Abbas,Iqbal, 2021). Popular renewable and clean energy options include hydroelectric, geothermal energy, wind energy, solar energy, etc.

 

By bridging the gap between people’s desires and realistic energy alternatives, the government could realise people’s expectation and also reduce the burden on our environmental ecosystem, but it is also important to note that operationalising, has its fair share of challenges. For example, in the United States, there is general consensus among some people that harnessing wind energy could be one of the solutions to alleviating the energy challenge. Among those who agreed, some have the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) mindset and do not want any of those power plants near their homes. 

 

Some cited personal health issues and environmental degradation, while others say that the construction will destroy the view from their houses and devalue the properties in the vicinity. All these concerns stand in the way of implementation and of course, I have to agree that these are indeed issues that should be addressed accordingly and dealt with properly. 

 

In the tropics and subtropics regions, we could be witnessing other increasingly challenging issues stemming from global temperature and carbon dioxide increase, its effect on the natural ecosystem and this might possibly disrupt the operations of hydroelectric power plants.  

 

Let me explain why.

 

As the global temperature and carbon dioxide increase, we might discover that it becomes more difficult to maintain biological control on the proliferation of aquatic weeds in many parts of the world (Baso, Coetzee, Ripley, Hill, 2021), more so in the tropics and subtropics. The tropics and subtropics region are located in parts of the world in which the sun is directly overhead at least one day of the year and is found within a band on either side of the equator from 23.5°N, and 23.5°S. These aquatic weeds can grow rapidly to cover the entire surface of lakes and rivers, some even setting deep roots and form strong lateral connections to each other as well. 

 

As mentioned earlier, these growing aquatic weeds might cause operational difficulties for hydroelectric power plants. It could lead to reduced throughput and eventually cause severe blockages. Hydroelectric power plants that are situated in Southeast Asia, would be at the greatest risk. Southeast Asian governments must anticipate these types of obvious problems and develop an integrated and multi-phased roadmap to tackle the upcoming challenges.  

 

So, do not naively assume all types of green are good. Some types of green when left unchecked, can contribute to severe environmental and commercial consequences. 

 

One of the problematic aquatic weeds is the water hyacinth species. This species grows very fast and some even flower under the right conditions. Many in fact think that it is very beautiful.  It  has a rapid growth rate in warm temperatures (Mitan, 2019) and can potentially cover the entire lake if left unchecked. This prevents sunlight from reaching the bottom of the lake and disrupts the lake ecosystem. In other parts of the world, local communities have tried to use pesticides to control aquatic weeds. Some tried to introduce insects such as weevils to feed on the water hyacinth to slow its growth but such methods also have its consequences.

 

Apart from meeting the issue head on, central and local governments could also try to mitigate the risk by transforming/ retrofitting the affected hydroelectric power plants to harness other forms of renewable and clean energy. It is more cost-effective to install alternative renewable energy devices on infrastructures that can already receive, store, transform and transmit electricity. 

 

Also, it is worthwhile to explore tapping on the creativity of the private sector to transform the issue into revenue-generating ideas such as collecting aquatic weeds, processing it and mixing the by-products with polymers to create fabrics that can be used for weaving garments thereby paving way for sustainable fashion. Or, the aquatic weeds could be harvested, processed and strengthened with chemicals to produce furniture thereby giving birth to sustainable furniture. Additionally, the private sector could also explore processing the aquatic weeds into edible food for humans, animal feeds and fertilisers, and export the final products to other countries (Oa, & Cf, 2015).

 

By including additional later stages such as breaking down these final products with pyro technology then harvesting the by-product as fertilisers (Ramirez, Pérez, Flórez, Acelas, 2021), the government, with the help of the private sector would be able to close the loop and further develop the entire idea into a circular economy. This can help to create new jobs, improve the economy and certainly goes well with the media.  

 

There are many ways to tackle the issue. The main enabler is to have a properly designed, integrated and multi-phased roadmap to guide the entire transition. 

 

References

Baso, N. C., Coetzee, J. A., Ripley, B. S., & Hill, M. P. (2021). The effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration on the biological control of invasive aquatic weeds. Aquatic Botany, 170, 103348. doi:10.1016/j.aquabot.2020.103348

Oa, S., & Cf, O. (2015). Utilization of Treated Duckweed Meal (Lemna pausicostata) as Plant Protein Supplement in African Mud Catfish (Clarias gariepinus) Juvenile Diets. Fisheries and Aquaculture Journal, 06(04). doi:10.4172/2150-3508.1000141

Ramirez, A., Pérez, S., Flórez, E., & Acelas, N. (2021). Utilization of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) rejects as phosphate-rich fertilizer. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering, 9(1), 104776. doi:10.1016/j.jece.2020.104776

Zhang, Y., Abbas, M., & Iqbal, W. (2021). Perceptions of GHG emissions and renewable energy sources in Europe, Australia and the USA. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. doi:10.1007/s11356-021-15935-7

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