Message for US this week: Go green or be owned by China

Posted on 29 January 2011

The world is hot, flat, crowded… and innovation flocks over to the East.

By Fang Shihan

Get naughty and go green at the same time: here's a vibrator powered by the sun. LIBIDA.COM

SO YOU think you’re going green. You’re eating tofu, you’re building your little attap house in the park while thumbing your nose at pretentious ‘campers’ using plasticky environmentally-unfriendly tents.

You may even have started using vegan condoms and/or solar vibrators. But according to Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman, who recently spoke at the University Cultural Centre in NUS, that’s far from being part of a Green Revolution.

That’s just a party.

Of course we’ve all heard the same tired story before. How we can be greener and cleaner; how companies like BP and Exxon Mobil pay lip service to environmentalists while they slowly pollute the sea and whine about not having an off-day (check); how governments must ‘care’ more for mother earth instead of focusing on narrow nationalist interests.

Do I hear you yawning? Yeah, curse those green tree-huggers and their moral high ground.

But what if being Green now meant something concrete: quantifiable in jobs, dollars, and cents?

That was the take home message this week, both from Friedman and Obama, the latter in his state-of the union address.

There is economic and political sense in Green. In Friedman’s words:

“The country that masters Green technology first will control the future of energy production.”

Renewable energy too was mentioned nine times in Obama’s speech, more than twice that of the word “China”, which was mentioned 4 times.

“Clean energy technology”, he says, is “an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Yet he cautions that China and India were real competitors for those coveted jobs (the U.S. unemployment rate still stands at a worrying 9%) and China surprisingly, appears to be even Greener than First World USA, scoring vegan brownie points by hosting the world’s largest private solar research facility.

Wait. Really? Those Chinamen? Those sidewalk-spitting, money-grubbing, melamine producing, known-for-being-unethical Chinamen?

Green has ceased to be merely a moral issue. Being the first to own sustainable energy production knowledge, is very concretely monetary and in today’s world, he who hath the dollars, hath the power to shape the world order.

There needn’t be such a disconnect. Gone are the days when the Greens were those who a) wanted to show that they could afford to care about the planet, or b) wanted to show that they had a moral upper hand over capitalist oil-guzzling, meat-eating creeps.

If the drive for renewable energy is powered by business and innovation instead of angst, then there should be no reason why green companies and toxic toy makers shouldn’t exist side by side, in a country that is generally friendly towards businesses. Exactly like China today.

“If only we became China for a day”, laments Friedman, noting that America just needed a kick in the butt, top-down, to start the downward price spiral for green energy.

Commodities like coal and oil can only increase in price as demand increases but technology-based green energy sources like solar and wind power, can only decrease in price as their take-up rate rises.

So how does Singapore fare in the race to create the next Green Google?

Chris Tobias is the managing director of Forward, an enterprise dedicated to sustainability focused projects. He relocated business operations to Singapore, anticipating significant traction in the region in areas like cleantech, food security, and climate change.

In the U.S. you have entrenched industry stalwarts holding up progress, and even in ‘green’ countries like New Zealand there’s a death-by-consensus snailing visionary projects. Singapore is gratefully without many of these obstacles,” he said.

Another innovator, Darrell Zhang, founder of local startup Optiras Pte Ltd, builds energy optimising solutions. His company was funded under a scheme administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF) starting 2010.

“Three out of seven of the NRF-Appointed Incubators offer funding for cleantech-based projects and it definitely bodes well for the potential of this space” he says.

But he also adds that Singapore still lags behind America in terms of innovation, partly because startups here lack mentorship.

Innovation seems to be drifting out from the West to the East. If I could hedge a bet, I’d say Green energy, a sector heavily driven by innovation, would emerge not from the mature startup market in America, but from a country in the grant-rich East with the right ecosystem.

Winning the race to export green energy will determine which powerhouse will win the global economic war. Why? Because Green has ceased to be merely a moral issue. Being the first to own sustainable energy production knowledge, is very concretely monetary and in today’s world, he who hath the dollars, hath the power to shape the world order.

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