WHEN news emerged that Donald Trump would be the next occupant of the Oval Office, the resultant gasps of disbelief and protests heard the world over reached a deafening roar.
As investor sweat poured and markets faced mayhem at opening bell, the global green movement prepared for an anticipated rollback on climate change. Through the media both social and traditional, environmentalists lamented the blighted future of the Paris climate accord and wondered how far Trump would take his campaign pledge to withdraw U.S. commitment to the deal.
Trump supporters dismissed the concern as over-inflated but here’s the thing: As the world’s largest economy and second biggest polluter, the U.S. is undoubtedly integral to the accord that ambitiously wants to hold the increase in global average temperature to under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Climate champions say that when it comes to adopting policies on sustainability, there can be no escape hatches, and that this means there is no turning back from the Obama administration’s ratification of the Paris deal in September. A provision in the agreement also states that a signatory would have to wait four years to pull out after joining up. So Trump may well have to wait for the next presidential polls before he can erase the U.S.’s signature on the pact.
But many advocates and world leaders supportive of the historic deal are still afraid that Trump’s formal ascension next month to the U.S. presidency would somehow unravel decades of painstaking intergovernmental negotiations. It is not difficult to see why. On Sunday, Trump was heard confirming to Fox News Sunday that he IS taking a second look at the Paris agreement to see if the U.S. should withdraw its commitment to limit environmental output.
“Now, Paris, I’m studying. I do say this: I don’t want that agreement to put us at a competitive disadvantage with other countries,” he said.
He also said that “nobody really knows” if climate change was real and that it was not something “hard and fast”, again setting tongues wagging on the incoming U.S. administration’s climate policy.
To add salt to wound, a quick Internet search drew up this Reuter’s article in November saying that there are legal shortcuts that could allow an early U.S. pull-out from the accord. Although pre-emptive, this was all the fodder scientific theorists needed to fill pages upon pages of doomsday scenarios.
And these concerns aren’t necessarily misplaced. But why the sense of urgency? Because, as this recent Irish Times editorial succinctly suggests, “tomorrow is too late to address climate change”.
People, planet and profit – The dilemma
Trump’s argument on competitive disadvantage is age-old. It boils down to the debate on “people, planet and profit”, a discussion on priorities that has become intrinsically associated with the growth and development of every emerging economy.
In fact, it was this very question that led to the birth of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on March 21, 1994, the precursor to the Paris Agreement. The convention remains central to the global climate change agenda as it represents the first time there was universal recognition of the phenomenon as a growing problem.
The Paris Agreement itself was reached within the UNFCCC framework last year, when world leaders acknowledged the need to accelerate anti-global warming efforts. Apart from committing countries to keeping temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the agreement also seeks the pursuit of efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, all by cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of the century.
Today, of a total 194 signatories, a promising 117 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement, which came into force on Nov 4.
CSR: The long-term solution
Even from a cursory glance at how the discourse on climate change has evolved over the years, one thing remains clear: World leaders are now aware that the “people, planet or profit” dilemma is neither a political zero sum game nor a competition of winners and losers. And while there is no fast solution to this – because you cannot snap your fingers and undo 150 years of industrial pollution – this institutionalisation of anti-global warming efforts show that most of mankind believe that climate change IS real and is imminent.
Governments and corporations now know that satisfying the bottom line cannot come at the expense of the environment, and that global warming has become an unavoidable problem, caused chiefly by human activity.
This week, scientists warned that rising temperatures that melt sea ice in the Arctic will likely reduce the polar bear population, while another report said climate change has curbed winter food for animals, causing the average weight of reindeers near the North Pole to drop significantly. Why? Because Arctic temperatures are rising fast – too fast – due to the alarming build-up rate of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in the atmosphere.
It was once easy to feel disconnected to these stories as although disheartening, they failed to teach us the domino effect of every unsustainable human activity.
But thanks to the Internet, this is no longer an acceptable excuse. For example, Sustainable Baby Steps, a website started by natural wellness advocate Tara, has this simple, easy-to-understand list on the natural and manmade causes of climate change. In the list, Tara suggests that manmade causes include among others, urbanisation; GHG emissions from dirty energy generated from burning oil, coal or natural gas; unsustainable farming (another major source of GHG); and of course an unhealthy dependency on chemicals, from the production of plastics that get dumped into our oceans, to cleaning supplies and food preparation.
Educational sites like Tara’s, along with studies that explain the far-reaching effects of climate change and draw links between unsustainable business practices and the warming of global temperatures, have led to many firms embarking on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes aimed at reducing their carbon footprint in a variety of ways.
Cutting carbon emissions
According to the Air Transport Action Group, the aviation industry is responsible for 12 percent of carbon emissions from all transport sources, having produced 781 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015.
One major company that has actively rolled out efforts to reduce carbon emissions is Japan Airlines (JAL).
As the flag carrier of a country whose people are said to be obsessed with climate change, JAL is determined to take control of its own impact on the environment and has made global conservation a core theme across its daily operations.
By boosting numbers of 787-8/-9 aircraft, known for boasting considerably lower fuel consumption levels than models previously used, the company’s total CO₂ emissions per revenue-ton-kilometer for fiscal 2015 improved by 1.5 year-on-year, contributing to a decline of 14.9 percent from the fiscal 2005 level.
And that merely touches the surface of JAL’s sustainable decisions; by conducting conscious ‘Eco Flights’, the company has already saved around 42,000 tonnes in carbon gas emissions; by implementing 2,900 of the world’s most advanced cargo containers and 1,500 lightweight pallets, JAL has reduced another 6,900 tonnes of harmful CO₂; and through innovative collaboration with Japanese industry, government and academia, the company is helping to produce aviation biofuel from municipal waste, with realization planned for 2020 as we continue to push towards a recycling-based society.
Saving our ocean
Considering that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, 96.5 percent of which is held in our oceans, it’s more than a little concerning that roughly eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into these waters each year. According to Stemming the Tide, a study released by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, just five countries – China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines – are accountable for 60 percent of this waste.
“At this rate, we would expect nearly one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in our oceans by 2025 – an unthinkable number with drastic economic and environmental consequences,” says Nicholas Mallos, Director of Ocean Conservancy’s marine debris program, giving the issue a far more sinister perspective.
One company making waves in the conservation of our waters is Adidas, a multinational corporation that designs and manufactures fashionable sportswear.
A recent collaboration between the sportswear giant and a non-profit organisation called Parley for the Oceans has resulted in the world’s first performance sportswear made entirely from recovered ocean plastics.
Since 2013, Parley for the Oceans has been reclaiming plastics that have accumulated on the shores of the Maldives, passing it to London-based designer Alexander Taylor, who then recycles it into the iconic Adidas shoes.
“A designer can be the agitator and the agent for change,” Taylor says. “He must be entrepreneurial in spirit, seeking out collaborators to reach amazing solutions which outperform and offer truly viable alternatives to current methods.”
The new Adidas footwear is made from 95 percent of ocean plastic and 5 percent of recycled polyester. Approximately 7,000 pairs have already been made available to purchase, with plans set to boost that number in 2017, when Adidas and Parley for the Oceans plan to significantly hike sustainable production.
Investing in renewable energy
According to Ecotricity, the global population consumes the equivalent of 11 billion tonnes of oil in fossil fuels each and every year. Approximately 29 countries worldwide source more than 90 percent of their energy from fossil fuels, including coal, oil, petroleum, and natural gas – all of which, are of course, finite resources.
The World Atlas notes that rates of consumption are rapidly rising within developing nations, particularly Singapore and India, over the past 10 years.
With the threat of peak oil and a global petroleum crisis hanging above like a foreboding shadow, we are in desperate need for global companies to reshape their energy policies.
“If we really want to help the world’s poorest families, we need to find a way to get them cheap, clean energy,” wrote Bill and Melinda Gates in an open letter earlier this year. “Cheap because everyone must be able to afford it. Clean because it must not emit carbon dioxide – which is driving climate change.”
Singtel, a telecommunications company based in Singapore, is doing what it can to promote sustainable energy sources. Since 2009, when it drove the Pasir Ris Telephone Exchange – a grid-tied Photovoltaic System constructed by 192 photovoltaic panels – Singtel has employed several renewable energy sources in Singapore, seeking to reduce its reliance on electricity from the grid.
Since then, the company has supported the 2011 Bukit Timah Hill Radio Station, powered by 100 solar panels and three sustainable turbines; it has helped install a 30kWp Solar photovoltaic plant at the Pulau Ubin Microwave Station; and it stood behind the 2014 Seletar Satellite Earth Station, complete with a solar tracker to harness as much solar power as possible on a daily basis.
“To address climate change…we look at mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions by improving our energy performance and efficiency,” Singtel notes.
“We are committed to reducing our operation’s contribution to climate change and have invested in ‘greening’ our networks and in alternative energy.”
Save water, save energy
According to the World Population Clock, the world’s current population is growing at a rate of 1.13 percent per year, amounting an annual population change of around 80 million. Because of this, many parts of the world are experiencing freshwater stress – a factor that’s only intensified by the effects of climate change. When you think that we already owe two million deaths a year to a lack of clean drinking water, the forecast that half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress is almost too dark to believe.
But fact is, there simply isn’t enough water to go around.
“Water – and its use in industry, agriculture and the home – is a universal investment theme that offers opportunities across diverse supply chains, industries and geographies,” notes Fidelity International.
“Although water is a renewable source, the rate of water use and demand growth is increasingly threatening to outpace the rate of water renewal…The challenge for the global water industry is to mitigate and manage the risks that can threaten water supply…”
One global mover seeking to do just this is the Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), a multinational hospitality organisation with more than 5,000 hotels across almost 100 countries.
Knowing that almost 40 percent of hotel water is typically used in showers, toilets, taps and kitchens, the company has formed a valuable partnership with the Water Footprint Network (WFN), installing low-flow fixtures such as faucets, toilets and showerheads to reduce water consumption.
Building on initial progress made in its 2013-17 target to reduce overall water consumption by 12 percent per room, IHG works alongside the WFN to relieve the world’s most water-stressed regions.
And these are just a few key measures being taken by some of the globe’s most dynamic companies to ensure the safety and security of society, and our damaged planet. These initiatives are promising to say the least, as they signal a shared belief that CSR is no longer an ethical choice but rather a moral obligation. And so is committing to the Paris Agreement.
But we are on the right track. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a number of top companies in Asia – the leading source of global emissions – and corporate leaders from Australia to Japan, said they will stand firmly by their commitment to the Paris accord, regardless of what path the U.S. under Trump takes.
One of those leading the charge is Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer, and home to plantations associated with illegal deforestation and the slash-and-burn activities often blamed for the region’s annual haze problem.
The undertaking from this Southeast Asian nation, as well as that of its regional neighbours, represent the light at the end of a long, smog-filled tunnel towards the future of sustainability.
As Nur Masripatin, climate change director at Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry, says: “Each country must contribute to the global effort.”
** Some corporations featured in this article are commercial partners of Asian Correspondent