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Alarm Raised Over Energy, Population

By Doreen Yu, – Updated December 04, 2008 12:00 AM

HONG KONG – Before an audience held in rapt attention, Minister-Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore painted a dire world scenario, both in the short and the long term.

In a dialogue with former US President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative-Asia here last Tuesday, Lee said he believed the current financial crisis will not be a short one, but whether it will be of medium or prolonged duration depends on what the US economic team tasked to sort out the mess will do in the next three to six months.

“The unorthodox must be considered,” he said when asked about prescriptions to fix the problem.

“The danger now is not inflation but deflation. People feel poor and so they don’t spend. Assets lose their value. You have to put a floor on this,” Lee said, even as he expressed confidence in the economic team that US President-elect Barack Obama has put together, including Larry Summer and Paul Volcker.

The minister-mentor, who had reportedly just gotten out of hospital after implantation of a pacemaker, was uncompromising in his assessment of the global energy situation.

Alternative energy – solar, wind, tides – cannot replace carbon or fossil fuels, he said, since these can only meet about 5 percent of energy demand the world over. The only possible replacement is nuclear energy, which has a lead time of 10 years to implementation.

A $6-billion solar project of a Norwegian corporation is currently in development in Singapore.

He moreover believes that the current drop in world oil prices is only temporary.

“We are in for a spike in oil prices,” he stated, which would mean more coal plants will be put up, which in turn means more CO2 emissions.

As Clinton noted the expected increase in world population from the current 6.7 billion to about 9.5 billion by 2050, Lee said that “population growth is one of the basic problems societies must confront.”

“How many people can the world hold?” he asked.

In response to Clinton’s proposition that the only answer to the population problem is “to send more girls to school,” Lee said that education alone is not enough; there must also be equal job opportunities for women.

Eliciting laughter from the audience that included Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar (Clinton had remarked in his introduction that he “just wants you (Lee) to tell him how to make Mongolia as rich as Singapore”) and actress and UN ambassador Michele Yeoh, Lee said that in many cases women in Asia – particularly Japan, in response to a question from a Japanese – were highly educated but were merely prepped to become “wives of CEOs.”

“They are highly educated but they don’t work. They stay at home and have many children,” prompting Clinton to quip, “Boy, if I had made that statement…”

With more people in the world, “the demand for all resources will grow,” straining these resources, especially carbon fuel, which is finite and exhaustible.

While encouraging energy efficiency measures such as automatic climate controls and efficient lighting for hotels and other buildings, Lee said this “still won’t solve the problem, only delay it.” Even the discovery of new sources of fuel – citing reports from Russia of rich deposits in the Antarctic – is not a solution but merely a delay of the inevitable.

This delay, however, is “a good thing,” Clinton pointed out, “because it will give us some time to figure out what to do.”

Lee was less pessimistic about the issue of water, contrary to the view that water will increasingly become an ever more valuable resource and that more wars will be fought over water than over oil.

Citing the example of Singapore, which used to import more than half of its water from Malaysia but is now practically self-sufficient, Lee explained that the city state retains all rainfall on the island, and waste water is recycled for industrial use. He also cited the importance of fighting pollution, saying that all factories in Singapore are required to treat their waste water before release into the sea or river.

“It (water self sufficiency) can be done if you fight pollution,” and implement technologies that are already available for water resource management. Besides, he added, with global warming, seas will rise, which will lead to more precipitation and thus more water.

Acknowledging that climate change is an inescapable reality, Lee says that “the world must prepare for more adaptation” as a response to climate change, by taking a hard and serious look at the way we live, what we consume, and how we behave.

The two-day Clinton Global Initiative-Asia is a project of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and gathered 11 current and former world leaders, plus leaders of business and industry, education, health, environment and non-government organizations.

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