Economics Environment

[2880] Is McDonald’s no-straw policy in Malaysia credible?

I rarely use plastic straws for my drinks. I am not religious about it but if I could help it, I would avoid it. I think I started doing so since at least 2010-2011, partly to allay my guilt for breaking a rule I made up when I was in college: use less paper. That is not something easy to do out there in the working world.

But reduce plastic straws is way easier than reducing paper use.

But in the past year or so, I have noticed that it is becoming a trend in Malaysia to reduce straw usage, at least in the greenwashing corporate social responsibility kind of way (don’t get me started on CSR and the tax system).

I figure it might have something to do with a video of a poor turtle having a tough straw stuck in its nostril. The footage showed volunteers struggled to pull the straw out, bleeding the turtle in the process. The turtle seemed healthy afterwards. I would, if I had a piece elongated plastic stuck up my… erm… nose. Wouldn’t you?

While the internet is a powerful tool to spread lies and conspiracy theories of no sense (like how the Ministry of Finance for somehow is banning private companies from handling haj, which is patently untrue), I suppose there are times when it is a tool to do good. Like the no-straw fad.

At McDonald’s several months back, the fast food chain ran a campaign to reduce straw use. When I first noticed it, I gave it a thumb up. But after a while after understanding the new way they give out the straws, I suspect its campaign is utterly counterproductive. Why? Because instead of reducing use, it has the potential to increase its usage instead.

Previously before McDonald’s ran its campaign, straw dispensers were placed in the dining area where customers could take the straws freely. Freely, but usually the number of straws taken would match the number of drinks. Those who would not use straw would simply not take it.

Now, I have noticed McDonald’s have removed the dispensers. What happens now instead is that the persons behind the counter preparing, serving or delivery the meals would automatically place straws into the meal tray regardless whether the consumers would want it. No question asked.

As a result of this change in method, my use of straws at McDonald’s has increased from none to at least one.

I could say no and ask the person behind to counter to take it back, but the whole procedure adds a process that makes the default position as having a straw. Ironically, the previous default position (as in the presence of straw in the tray) before the no-straw campaign began was not straw. The nudge economics here is messed up that it goes against the campaign: it encourages straw use instead by setting up a new barrier to having no straw.

One of those nights when I got off work late, with weary eyes and empty stomach at KL Sentral, I would have no mood to say, “Oh hello, sorry, I do not need the plastic straw.” I would like to just eat and go as quickly as possible. Damn the straws. I would not use it, but it would in the tray and it would go to the trash regardless of use. And this is a person who default position was no-straw: I am now encouraged to use the straw.

Now, imagine those who do not even think of not using the straws. The default yes-straw position just discourages them from not using straws. Or in other words, the default position encourages them to keep the status quo of keeping on using straws.

The economist in me wonders, how much straws are being used now versus before the campaign started. My hypothesis is, ironically, probably more just because of the change in the default position.

In absence of data, I would think to make the no-straw campaign credible, I feel McDonald’s should probably revert to a no-straw default position. That is, do not give the customers straws, unless requested.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

p/s — I have received several feedbacks stating one of two cases: they agree with me about yes-straw default position being practiced, or that they contradict me by stating they would have to request for straws at the counter. Quite possible that some branches are tighter than others with its straw-dispensing default procedure. My personal experience at 3 branches (2 in KL and one elsewhere) is that of the former case.

Environment Personal

[2600] A lament of a tree lover

I do love trees. There is something comforting about trees, especially when I am surrounded by tall buildings most of the times. In the tropical Kuala Lumpur, it also has a cooling effect. That makes the city every bit more livable, never mind the aesthetic value it offers. Imagine large rain trees with the sound of leaves whistling as soft breeze blows through the landscape. Even imagining so is enough to make me smile a bit.

Great trees remind me of a time when I was relatively carefree, when I would lie down in the shade of a tree during summer, sleeping or reading a book or just eating lunch. The memories I associate with trees calm me down. A place without trees is a barren place and a depressing at that.

I can say that I have emotional connection with trees, especially with those within my familiar environs. And I had favorite trees in the past. These favorite trees of mine were where I would return almost daily when the weather permitted to do what a young me would do. I would lie down on the grass, by the trees and just stared at the clear blue skies. The mind would just be empty, uncluttered by equations, reports, personal issues, and only the heaven knows what else. I would be at peace with myself.

It hurts me whenever I see a tree cut down. Sure, there is deforestation everywhere, everyday but the feeling is accentuated when I see it. There is a feeling within me, almost irrational, that equates such cutting down to torture or killing of animals.

So, it pains me to see trees are being cut down to make way for the construction of the mass rapid transit in Kuala Lumpur. The first trees cleared to my knowledge were those on Federal Hill. I spotted it all the way up from the Parliament tower when I had a short stint there. It is the spot where the tunnel begins. Or will begin.

The latest patches of green succumbing to the monsters that would make up Devastator in the animated series Transformers (not the horrible Michael Bay’s version—he ruined Transformers) are in Damansara. The trees by the road leading to Bangsar from Jalan Semantan are now gone. The trees along the Sprint Highway will be gone soon too. Some have already been cut down.

I know, in terms of carbon accounting, the MRT will probably reduce net carbon emissions even as it cut down those trees (as well as trees for timber from elsewhere). That is good but it still pains me to see these trees being there no more. Between watching a pillar supporting the MRT rail line and a green, lush tree, I prefer the latter.

Also, the dust is nothing to look forward to.

Do not get me wrong. I do love to see a Kuala Lumpur with MRT. I do love intracity trains. Notwithstanding its financial merit and demerit, for better or for worse, a city with a great rail system is nice to live in. I for one do hate driving and the MRT will provide an alternative way for me to move around the city, if I stay in the city by the time the lines are operational. But that does not mean everything about the MRT is a-okay.

There are costs to it and the trees are one of the costs.


[2504] Wrongly freed, wrongly judged

This has to be a case of taking a dim view of justice, where the judgment is too stuck in technicality. The notorious Anson Wong was freed by the Appeal Court. The judges reasoned that the earlier harsh judgment of 5 years worth of imprisonment did not take into account Wong’s guilty plead, the fact that this was Wong’s first offense and the previous judges took into account irrelevant material.

Consider this. Back in 2000, Wong was arrested in the US and sentenced to 71 months of imprisonment for wildlife smuggling. So, first offense Mr. Judge? Really? Yes, first offense in Malaysia but definitely not the first offense if the judge had taken a wider view. Wong is really an unrepentant smuggler. Did the appeal judges take that into account?

As for the guilty plead, the incentive system is perverse. If you know the evidence are mounting against you, and you know that a guilty plead would lessen your sentence, what would be the best course of action? It does not take an economist specializing in game theory to answer that. I am sure Anson Wong knows this. Back in the US, he pleaded guilty exactly because he knew was in it for. Back in 2010 in Malaysia, he knew he was in it for Malaysia. Yet, the appeal judges decided that a 5-year jail sentence is excessive.

Finally, the appeal judges said the earlier harsh judgment took into account irrelevant evidence and sentiment. Did the appeal judges take into account the pillar that Wong is to the illegal wildlife trade industry? His notoriety? His suspicious good ties with wildlife authority in Malaysia?

Why did not the judges take that into account?

This is the Malaysian legal system. It is an outrageous system.

Conflict & disaster Environment

[2332] Sendai and Fukushima are not in Malaysia

Malaysia intends to have an operational nuclear power plant by 2021. Multiple individuals and groups oppose the plan. The opposition is based on multiple legitimate concerns. I believe the biggest fear is the chances of a nuclear meltdown. Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island accident are two examples popularly cited to rationalize the fear.  The latest incident around Sendai that included the shutdown of several plants and an explosion in Fukushima is becoming the third example.

It is wrongly becoming a third example.

While the explosion might have led to a meltdown — the latest news reported that the situation is under control now — the explosion itself was caused by a very strong earthquake that is unheard of in Malaysia.

Really, earthquakes in Malaysia hardly deserve the term. Tremors fits the characteristic better and those tremors hardly cause any damage to buildings, if it does at all.

The very limited possibility — out of this world chances — of Malaysia experiencing similar earthquakes that Japan is used to, and especially to the magnitude that Japan suffered several days ago, negates the nuclear incident in Fukushima from becoming a valid case to back anti-nuclear power position in Malaysia. There are many others examples to cite from, but Sendai is just not one of them.

Sendai and Fukushima are just not a precautionary tale for Malaysia. Anyone who thinks so deserves to be accused of being unfamiliar with Malaysia. To make a parallel out of the incident is to ignore local circumstances, which are essentially different to that of Japan’s.

Economics Environment

[2137] Of 40% cut in carbon intensity may not be something to shout about

Bernama wrongfully reported that the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, put up a conditional offer to cut 40% of Malaysia’s 2005 carbon emissions by 2020.[1] The same goes with the New Straits Times, except it did it more badly by not directly quoting the Prime Minister.[2] This is sloppy reporting. The truth is that it is a conditional cut of 40% to Malaysia’s carbon emissions intensity in terms of GDP within the base and time frame mentioned. Regardless of the inaccuracy, is the cut impressive?

The size of the cut seems big but cutting carbon emissions intensity is a lot easier than cutting outright carbon emissions; a cut in emissions is more expensive than a cut in carbon intensity. Achieving 5% cut as demanded by Kyoto is a lot harder than 5% cut in carbon intensity. The difference is clearer when one takes note that emissions itself can increase even under a situation of decreasing carbon intensity.

A demostration is in order. The most convenient way of showing this is by using intensity per capita as a unit rather than per GDP. In order words, this refers to emissions per person.

Assume that the emissions per person is 2 and there are a total of 10 persons in a neighborhood. The total emissions is therefore 20.

Assume further than emissions per person improves to 1.5 and total population increase to 15. Total emissions gets worse: it is now 22.5.

A cut in emissions will address total emissions. A cut in carbon intensity does not guarantee that.

A concrete example is the United Kingdom. According to the National Environmental Technology Centre of the UK, total emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2005. Carbon intensity? It fell more or less by 40%. [3]

Hence, the act of stressing the difference is not a matter of splitting hair.

Carbon intensity has the tendency to decrease over time due to application of technology. The typical criticism directed at any commitment at reducing carbon intensity is that even without such commitment, carbon intensity will decrease anyway. This is especially true for developing countries where there is a lot of space for technological improvement through by merely copying.

Given this, the Prime Minister’s conditional offer is not something to shout about. China also made an offer to cut carbon intensity and it has been rightly criticized for trumpeting an unremarkable target and then demanding moral authority at the negotiation table in Copenhagen during the 15th Conference of the Parties that ended recently.

(Despite this tendency, Malaysia’s carbon intensity between 1990 and 2004 increased. I suspect a Kuznets curve.[4] The ratio may increase up to a certain level before decreasing. Malaysia after all was industrializing during the 1990s and now, Malaysia is largely done with industrialization.)

It should only be seen as a brilliant diplomatic maneuver and not a big effort at cutting emissions. It is brilliant not just because that the commitment is very likely to be achieved anyway and thus, making the offerers look good, it is brilliant because it makes demand for aid — and making the exercise cheaper than it would — even when the cut in carbon intensity is very likely to be achieved without any binding commitment.

This is not to dismiss the importance of cut in carbon intensity. I myself believe that technology is the answer to climate change but it is important to get the right message across while the Malaysian mass media failed the public miserably.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — COPENHAGEN, Dec 17 (Bernama) — Malaysia has agreed to reduce its carbon dioxide emission to 40 per cent by the year 2020 compared to the 2005 levels subject to assistance from developed countries.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the cut was conditional on receiving the transfer of technology and adequate financing from the developed world.

“I would like to announce here in Copenhagen that Malaysia is adopting an indicator of a voluntary reduction of up to 40 per cent in terms of emissions intensity of GDP (gross domestic product) by the year 2020 compared to 2005 levels,” he said in his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 here, on Thursday,

United Nations data shows Malaysia’s carbon emissions in 2006 stood at 187 million tonnes or 7.2 tonnes from each Malaysian. [Malaysia Announces Conditional 40 Per Cent Cut In Emissions. Bernama. December 17 2009]

[2] — PM Najib says Malaysia is committed to do its best in combatting climate change.

MALAYSIA will voluntarily slash by up to 40 per cent her carbon emission by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who made this commitment yesterday, said the cut was part of Malaysia’s contribution to global efforts to combat climate change. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]

[2] — COPENHAGEN: A roadmap towards realising the 40% reduction of carbon emission per capita from the 2005 level by 2020 will be presented to the Cabinet soon. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]

[3] — [Page 18 and 19. Carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption in the UK. The National Environmental Technology Centre]

[4] — See Kuznets Curve at Wikipedia. Accessed on December 25 2009.