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The World Economic Forum has said the climate adaptation market could be worth US$2 trillion per year by 2026 – a great opportunity for the private sector, writes Judy Cheung.

By Judy Cheung

The latest UN climate change conference was meant to focus on translating promises into action – reducing emissions, adapting to global warming, financing such programmes and compensating vulnerable nations for loss and damage.

But world leaders at the 2022 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) could not figure out how to achieve all three elements – mitigation, adaptation and finance – even though the conclusion was delayed to the morning of November 20.

Key actions to achieve peak carbon emissions were missing from the final version of the text, as were clear commitments to phase out the use of fossil fuels. Even key provisions for Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement on a carbon market were removed.

On the other hand, COP27 did advance some areas – a loss and damage fund has been agreed upon to compensate developing countries suffering from climate change. However, the details of how it will work remain vague. Unless these are agreed, it could be reminiscent of the broken promise of US$100-billion climate finance by 2020 made at COP15 in Copenhagen.

Another key outcome of COP27 is the progress made on Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement to enable bilateral deals on the international transfer of emission units with less oversight from the United Nations. Various countries, including Japan and China, welcomed such a move and expressed interest in taking part in a carbon market under Article 6, besides their domestic offset markets.

Nevertheless, decisions on Article 6.4 about the implementation of an open international emission credit trading market, with the public and private sector taking part, have been deferred to next year. This hinders private investment in carbon-related projects due to the uncertainty about key rules and fewer investment options.

Opportunities for Private Sector

There were more voices at COP27 asking the private sector to step up in areas of technology, innovation and finance. The private sector offers more flexibility and resources in various climate-related projects, while the market has huge potential to channel financing and investments. All the key outcomes set during COP27 come with opportunities for the private sector.

The need for more public-private partnerships to speed up climate-related projects was highlighted during discussions. Policymakers in various jurisdictions are already trying to create investable markets. The US government has announced the Energy Transition Accelerator as a new public-private effort to catalyse private capital to speed up the transition to clean energy in developing countries.

The Africa Carbon Market Initiative was also inaugurated at COP27 to fund African carbon credit projects with high integrity.

Closer to home, in October 2022 the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing launched Core Climate, an international voluntary carbon marketplace to connect private capital with climate-related products for carbon credit trading.

It is a sign of a growing regulatory interest in voluntary carbon market development, which provides opportunities for investment in low-carbon projects and for private companies to buy offset credits.

With more funding for climate-related projects, especially those focusing on scaling up adaptation efforts, investors expect adaptation – including the upgrading of electrical grids and weather-resistant building materials – will soon be profitable.

The adaptation industry also covers flood protection infrastructure, nature-based solutions and cyclone early warning systems, as well as financial technology, supply chains, and insurance.

The World Economic Forum has said the adaptation market could be worth US$2 trillion per year by 2026 – a great opportunity for the private sector in terms of business innovation, engagement, financing and investment.

Challenges to Private Sector

With developments come not only new opportunities, but also increasing challenges and risks, particularly greenwashing and climate-related risks of which the private sector should be mindful.

With more and more companies setting a net-zero emission target and labelling themselves as green businesses to attract investors, one of the key messages of COP27 is zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing. The UN Secretary General set up a High-Level Expert Group to make 10 recommendations on clear standards and criteria, highlighting the importance of integrity, transparency and accountability to avoid any form of greenwashing.

The recommendations include net-zero pledges with stepping-stone targets and concrete plans, public disclosure of data and information on net-zero transition in a way that allows comparison with peers, and establishing credibility through plans based on science and third-party accountability.

The expert group also stresses that city, regional, finance and business net-zero plans must not support a new supply of fossil fuels, and, by 2025, must not contribute to deforestation through their operations and supply chains. Stricter rules and standards are called for to avoid greenwashing and to ensure high-quality credits in the carbon market – which leaves the private sector with plenty to do.

Another challenge to the private sector are the risks posed by extreme weather and the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Hong Kong climate advocate Judy Cheung at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.

Hong Kong climate advocate Judy Cheung at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Judy Cheung.

Policymakers in jurisdictions such as the European Union and the United States are tightening up rules on climate-related disclosure, requiring more details and wider data coverage, including scope 3 carbon emissions. This creates momentum for stakeholders in embedding such information into decision-making by assessing climate-related risks and companies’ climate resilience.

That indirectly encourages and at the same time challenges the private sector, in enhancing their practices in managing climate-related risks.

This article first appeared on Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

About the Author:

Judy Cheung is a consultant providing climate change and sustainability-related services to financial institutions. She is also one of the co-founders of Climate Sense, which is a local advocacy group focusing on climate change education.

She is focused on green and sustainable finance, sustainable cities and energy transition, which she believes are indispensable for moving towards a low-carbon economy. At the same time, she hopes to support more local young people to take part in climate action and mobilise the momentum of local climate advocacy.

“Experiencing even the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the consequences brought by the climate crisis may be exactly what global leaders and negotiators need to accelerate the climate agenda,” writes Chin Chin Lam.

By Chin Chin Lam

It is vital to reflect on the progress made at the 2022 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), which was hosted in Egypt last November.

COP27 carried an important agenda to actualise previously made climate pledges and to deliver solutions to developing countries on climate adaptation and loss and damage. A historic deal was reached to create a loss and damage fund to offer compensation to the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

But apart from this, the progress made in climate negotiations and actions was disappointing and, frankly, quite underwhelming.

You might also like: Did COP27 Succeed or Fail?

The COP27 venue in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh generated controversial headlines itself, with some people calling it a simulation for participants to experience the real-life situation of food and water scarcity caused by the climate crisis. Others were discontent with some of the very much non-soundproof negotiation rooms, and the poor arrangements of transportation to the venue.

Chin Chin Lam at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022

Chin Chin Lam at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Supplied.

As someone who attended the conference last year, I unfortunately agree with the sentiments above, in addition to the lack of general hygiene and quantity of washrooms, especially in the Covid-19 era. However, the difficulties of holding one of the largest two-week international conferences in a developing country must be recognised.

When compared with COP26 host Glasgow, Scotland, the disparities between a developed and developing country host are clear. One must be reminded that the reason for such disparity in hosting the annual COP event extends to why developing countries are suffering so heavily from climate injustices.

Developed countries have contributed the most to the current climate crisis through mass industrialisation, which grew their economies, while developing countries suffer the effects of global industrialisation and stolen resources through historic colonialism. Experiencing even the “tip of the iceberg” of the consequences brought by the climate crisis may be exactly what global leaders and negotiators need to accelerate the climate agenda.

The COPs are two-week conferences where global leaders, delegates and civil society from around the world meet and push forward the Paris Agreement, an international treaty negotiated at COP21 that outlined a commitment to keep the mean global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5 degrees, thus reducing the effects of the climate crisis.

An example of parties at COP negotiations going through texts and debating on the wording chosen. Some discussions on a few words can take hours. Photo: Supplied.

An example of parties at COP negotiations going through texts and debating on the wording chosen. Some discussions on a few words can take hours. Photo: Supplied.

Often at negotiations – where some rooms are quiet and comfortable – parties can debate for hours on a single word or phrase to be included in a decision text. The irrelevant, minute details are so focused on, the party representatives can lose their focus of the bigger picture and the real critical demands beyond the walls of their meeting rooms.

Progress is slow, and there is a clear [dis]connection to the outside world and a lack of urgency to help countries which are already suffering devastating impacts due to the climate crisis.

(I am writing “[dis]connection” in the format negotiators use when deciding on how to word agreement texts).

Apart from the lack of urgency, there is also a [dis]connection between the narratives portrayed in the pavilions and through the protests of civil society and those discussed in the negotiation rooms.

At the Pakistan Pavilion – in mourning after devastating floods in August caused the deaths of over 1,700 people and impacted 33 million – the simple yet powerful texts of “The Lost and The Damaged – Pakistan’s Climate Catastrophe” and “What goes on in Pakistan Won’t Stay in Pakistan” provoked grief and heartbreak among many participants of COP.

The Pakistan Pavilion at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Chin Chin Lam.

The Pakistan Pavilion at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Chin Chin Lam.

Through various protests and demonstrations at COP27, the cries of civil society echoed throughout the venue. The voices of marginalised indigenous communities, whose livelihoods and cultures are deeply connected to and dependent on nature, were among the loudest last year.

The demands from the next generation were equally roaring, greatly enabled by the first-ever Children and Youth Pavilion at COP27. Yet the urgency of those calls for rapid climate action was not reflected in the negotiation rooms.

As witnessed at COP27 last year – and from personal experience – people are more likely to take real ambitious action while experiencing the impact of the climate crisis first-hand. The plethora of youth climate leaders I met at COP27, including Marciely Ayap Tupari from the Brazilian indigenous community of the Amazon Forest, and Salote Nasalo of Fiji, were determined to lead climate action after witnessing their own homes severely affected by the crisis.

I am also reminded of the record-breaking extreme heat Hong Kong witnessed last summer, sitting in my room without an air-conditioner (to reduce my carbon footprint) suffering from heat exhaustion, and determined to advocate for more temporary heat shelters in Sham Shui Po.

All the while feeling frustrated with the lack of climate adaptation and resilience policy and action in Hong Kong, further amplifying the risks for vulnerable groups – such as residents of subdivided units, the elderly, people experiencing homelessness, or outdoor workers – who are already suffering from the consequences of extreme heat caused by climate change.

Street cleaner in hong kong

A street cleaner. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Therefore, it is crucial to amplify the voices of civil society at COP, and enable them to have a greater say in high-level negotiations at the conference. This is important to bridge the gap between the currently [dis]connected negotiations and the people who are beyond the walls of the meeting rooms, in hopes of forming more ambitious climate actions and decisions.

There is great power in empathy, a core value of the design-thinking process which is essential to identify the best solutions.

Empathy can be gained through experiencing the consequences of climate change through storytelling, strong imagery or words, and demands echoed by civil society from around the world. It is something that the Pakistan Pavilion, countless protests and youth leaders successfully delivered at COP27, despite most not having a seat at the negotiation tables. The power of people and their efforts must be continued for COP28 next year.

COP28 will be held in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and will conclude the first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement. The global stocktake is a two-year process that happens every five years, and is essential to assess, collectively, the progress of the implementation of the Paris Agreement and address opportunities for enhanced action. COP28 is assumed to be more mitigation focused, as countries review their carbon reduction progress.

Global Day of Action Protest at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 12, 2022. Photo: Chin Chin Lam.

Global Day of Action Protest at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 12, 2022. Photo: Chin Chin Lam

Civil society will continue to share stories, make voices heard, and demand global leaders and negotiators not only to better represent marginalised communities already suffering from the climate crisis, but also, to apply pressure for faster and bolder action.

With the success of the first-ever Children and Youth Pavilion at COP27, COP28 should expect the voices of the next generation who are protecting their future to be even louder. This was also reflected by the Minister of Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates, Ms Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, who expressed her desire to expand youth participation in the COP proceedings.

To also bridge the gap between the [dis]connection of Hong Kong to the international climate conference, it is hoped that Hong Kong will officially send delegates, especially youth delegates to participate in next year’s COP28.

Furthermore, it is hoped the city will take much more ambitious climate action to keep the goal of the Paris Agreement – 1.5 degrees – alive, and to ensure that citizens and local communities have the capacity and adequate infrastructure to adapt to the extreme weather events and climate disasters that are already happening.

Featured image by UN (Flickr)

This article first appeared on Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

About the Author:

Chin Chin Lam is an urban planner and a youth climate advocate who is determined to transform Hong Kong and other cities worldwide into sustainable developments. Her passion extends outside of her professional work, and she is actively involved with several youth-led, professional, and non-governmental organisations such as YOUNGO, the Youth Constituency of the UNFCCC, Hong Kong Institute of Planners, WalkDVRC and CarbonCare InnoLab.

Chin Chin is also the founder of the Community Climate Resilience Concern Group, which advocates for better climate adaptation facilities for residents of inadequate housing, and the founder of social media platform Urban Acupuncture Hong Kong, which aims to push the agenda of sustainable urbanism to the next generation of city shapers.

Carole Saint-Laurent, Head of the Forest and Grassland team in the Centre for Conservation Action at IUCN and co-founder of the Bonn Challenge, discusses the importance of data tracking and monitoring for restoration pledge success, tying to the launch of their inaugural Restoration Barometer Report. The Barometer is a restoration tracking tool already used by more than 20 countries to monitor and report on restoration progress across all terrestrial ecosystems, including coastal and inland waters. Its widespread adoption is key to the success of large-scale restoration efforts to protect biodiversity. 

When COP27 drew to a close, many were left feeling disheartened by what they saw as an incomplete accounting of the climate crisis and necessary actions to combat it. “We’re not meeting the targets, we’re not meeting the timetables,” said Professor Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist with The Brookings Institution who followed the talks closely. And in many ways, she’s right. 

The convention elicited concern for its slow-moving progress in tackling the crisis from those of us at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), although we were pleased to see the potential of nature-based solutions recognised. The clear recognition will provide Parties with a robust and much-needed framework to harness nature’s ability to address climate adaptation and mitigation. 

We were more eager still to see what the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal would bring and after days of negotiations, the restoration community was rewarded with the largest land and ocean conservation commitment in history. The Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework contains 23 targets that participating countries have committed to achieving by 2030, including the conservation of at least 30% of all land and water on Earth. 

While this news is worthy of optimism, much work must be done to bring these commitments from pledge to action—and with no time to spare. We’re living in a time when our survival depends on the success of global efforts to protect nature, yet we are losing it at an unprecedented rate. Of the more than 150,000 species assessed to date by IUCN’s Red List, more than 42,000 are threatened with extinction. Even more harrowing, 32% of the world’s forest area has been razed; more than 85% of wetlands are gone; and 50% of coral systems are in peril. 

You might also like: 10 of the World’s Most Endangered Animals in 2023

And as critical as this framework is to reverse the decline in our natural world, it is not the first key moment in the history of ambitious restoration agreements. When the Bonn Challenge launched in 2011, it was heralded as a major achievement in restoring the world’s degraded and deforested lands. Diverse countries signed on to undertake restoration goals that would contribute to restoring 150 million hectares of forest landscapes by 2020. The 2014 UN Climate Summit endorsed and expanded this target to 350 million hectares by 2030.

Bold ambition is necessary but, as those of us working in this world know, pledges alone are not enough. The real challenge lies in the implementation. While there are significant advances being made in all parts of the world, the scale and extent of restoration efforts are still falling short of what’s possible and needed. Without a course correction, the Global Biodiversity Framework will meet the same resistance.  

There are many reasons for this, including the lack of adequate funding and the political challenge of taking the long-term view needed for effective restoration. The most critical aspects of unlocking action at the necessary scale are the need to better capture, understand, and communicate progress – along with what’s driving it. This is why monitoring and tracking restoration programmes are key to large-scale restoration success. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Restoration Barometer was created with this in mind. 

Countries can use the tool to track and display progress on a public dashboard in a quantifiable and demonstrable way. It breaks down the milestones of a restoration programme to identify the actions, policies, and other building blocks that led – or didn’t lead – to results. Decision-makers can then take that information to prioritise and scale-up future action. 

The Barometer provides opportunities for countries with established programmes to forge partnerships, secure additional resources by having their work validated, attract international donors, and scale efforts. Ministries leading the restoration efforts in Mexico, for example, have said that showcasing the positive impacts of their work helps to shore up political support and domestic funding allocations for restoration projects. 

We need to empower countries and other leaders to build their own restoration stories. To date, 22 countries are using the Barometer to track progress on restoration targets across all terrestrial ecosystems, including coastal and inland waters. It will also soon include progress being made on company restoration pledges. Restoration is an ongoing process that has yet to reach its full potential, and this is its key moment.

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity

I started my career as a quantitative researcher, so looking at data and human behaviours and thinking about how we can combine them to understand how to fix problems and build better products and services has always been at the heart of what I do. Now having moved into the climate space, I feel strongly that data must underpin our climate action and approach to mitigating the climate crisis. But we won’t achieve this by just collecting terabytes of data, and then locking that data in organisations for decades until it becomes obsolete. Data needs to be made accessible and utilised through effective collaboration. But how do we break out of these silos and into a model where openness is the norm? 

It’s important to remember that the significance of data is what you do with it. Data equips us with the vital insights we need to assess different choices, take evidence-based decisions, and strengthen storytelling. With climate change, each of these elements is critical to accelerate informed action. When we establish policy, data must be front and centre of enacting evidence-based decisions and incentivising progress. However, we are currently facing significant barriers in reaching these goals. 

When it comes to climate action, we now find ourselves with a short and rapidly shrinking window of time to make the significant changes that we need to halt global warming. The only way we can work at the speed required is to move past our ‘silo mentalities’ and aggregate efforts. When we talk about climate change, whilst each country will have its own manifestations of climate crisis, the causes are global, and the actions of those on one side of the planet can have disastrous impacts on those on the other. We need to learn from each other. And not just by sharing climate data, but also through sharing knowledge of technologies, as well as effective policies to support pro-climate innovation and behaviour change. Some of those answers we just can’t get to on our own. Learning from each other, and with each other, needs to become the norm. 

Thinking about climate change as a global problem and how collaboration can help us can mean we address these challenges more effectively. But what does this mean in practice? Let’s say policymakers are looking to define policy that supports sustainable commercial transport. By breaking down our silos, we can piece the puzzle together and build cohesive insights, both within and beyond the climate sphere. Manufacturer and retail locations and logistics data can be overlaid with data on regional consumer behaviour, road networks, electric vehicle (EV)-lorry battery capacity, and infrastructure for electric charging. This then allows us to understand the delta between the goals we want to achieve against what we currency have. And when doing this, it’s not just the analysis itself which is valuable – the act of partnering and collaborating across industries and sectors to jointly solve problem solving with a climate end goal in common is invaluable. It’s not easy to do, but it is invaluable, and having diversity of voices so we can understand how those changes might impact different parts of society is critical to successful adoption of better climate practice. 

From our perspective at Subak, the world’s first accelerator for climate not-for-profits, whilst we’re early in the process, we’re already starting to see some great outcomes. We’re supporting early-stage organisations who can think in these agile ways and work collaboratively to find new and interesting answers.

Take the issue of emissions, for example. One of our members, Ember, focuses on how we can support the shift from coal to clean energy. Their analysis combining key findings of modelling by the Climate Change Committee, Energy Systems Catapault’s (ESC) modelling for Good Energy, and National Grid’s energy scenarios, along with their understanding of green energy technologies, was a key influencer of the government’s ‘UK to zero-carbon power by 2035’ plans, including our world-leading coal and gas phase-out goals.

Another one of our members, Climate Policy Radar, recently launched the alpha of their policy platform at the COP26 UN climate summit. This is aggregating climate policy information from around the world so that policymakers don’t have to go hunting to find out what others are doing and potential best practice in this space.

Taking a data approach in climate action that factors in impact when choosing where to invest can be invaluable as well. When looking at climate finance, for example, we often find that investment is disproportionately put into areas that are the most profitable, rather than those that have the greatest climate impact. By looking at the data we can identify where these gaps are, and open conversations to address that.

This is also one of the reasons that a not-for-profit model is so important, because it inherently removes that profit incentive and forefronts climate impact. At Subak, each not-for-profit organisation that joins as a member signs up to share some of their data publicly through the Subak Data Cooperative. And it’s not just not-for-profits who can get involved. Whilst that is the focus of our accelerator, when we think about the big problems that need solving, we know that some of those solutions will come from for-profit organisations as well. This is why we also support climate positive for-profits who would like to make their data available through our data cooperative. That’s how it should be. This is a global collective problem: we need all hands on deck regardless of business structure. This is a place for all working to climate benefit to come and share, regardless of what type of organisation they have.

We’re trying to crowdsource a global solution to gigantic problems. To do so, we need lots of aggregators who help us to have an idea of what we’re dealing with, so then we can suggest solutions that are applicable in global contexts. 

Ultimately, collaboration and openness is crucial to tackling the climate crisis in all aspects of climate action, including data. We need to urgently accelerate this data sharing, openness and cooperation to inform effective policy making and behaviour change. Truly working together to share tools, data and infrastructure must be inherent to climate action moving forward.

It’s been nearly a century since the first World Animal Day was held in 1925. The goal then was “to raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe.” Today, the message is the urgent need to re-evaluate our relationship to, and care for, the myriad species with whom we share this planet.

We stand on the precipice of the sixth great mass extinction, with a million species facing the abyss. Habitat destruction and the expansion of human land use for industrial agriculture and urban development has wiped out entire ecosystems. Climate change has bleached our coral reefs. One study estimates there is more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish.

Those of us who have been active in animal welfare and environmental campaigning have seen the ominous warning signs for decades. And yet our leaders are still taking us down the same destructive path. The greed of the multi-national agricultural, food processing and distribution corporations, with their insatiable demand for growth and ever more profit, is poisoning the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Ironically, our way of life is killing us. 

And when it comes right down to it, we are in this predicament precisely because of our mistreatment of animals. 

If we had more respect for animals, we would not destroy their habitat. We would not risk the massive biodiversity loss and damage to ecosystems on which both depend. We would not push billions of sentient creatures into an industrial farming system that not only causes untold misery, but also increases the risk from an ever-expanding list of new and deadly zoonotic diseases – apparently including the current COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world. And we would not take wildlife from their natural habitat, to abuse and misuse, driving entire species to the edge of extinction, purely for our own, mindless amusement.

It’s clear, if we are going to survive, we need to change our ways. 

I was heartened recently by an example of how this change can be brought about. 

In April to June this year, an organisation I have supported for some time, Animals Asia, completed the biggest operation ever undertaken by a bear rescue organisation – transporting 101 endangered Asiatic black bears halfway across China to Animals Asia’s rescue centre in Chengdu. 

The bears had previously been farmed for their bile, which is extracted from their gall bladders using invasive and painful techniques, for the financial benefit of their “owner.” But eight years ago, a new “owner’ took over the farm, and he decided he didn’t want to be part of an industry that caused these beautiful creatures such pain and suffering. 

He reached out to Animals Asia, who have been working to end this abominable practice for many years, and now, eight years on, after many legal and logistical hurdles were overcome, the bears have finally been brought to sanctuary, where they now can feel soft ground and grass beneath their paws, possibly for the first time in their lives.

This monumental event could not have happened unless the new owner hadn’t had a change of heart. It could not have happened without the support of the local community, and the local authorities, who approved and monitored the move. Both of them placed their trust in Animals Asia to safely undertake this operation, and to properly care for these bears for the rest of their lives. And it most assuredly could not have happened without the support of thousands of people, all around the world, who donated to ensure these bears could have a better life. 

It demonstrates that the only way to achieve lasting change is to engage and work together with all stakeholders involved in the practices that affect animal welfare – even with those who may hold wildly differing views to our own. It can be a long hard road. It takes courage, tenacity and respect. But it can be done. It must be done. 

world animal day, animal asia, moon bears Photo courtesy of Animal Asia.

Change occurred when this farmer felt kindness and put it into action. He saw these bears for who they really were – individual, sentient creatures, as capable of feeling pain and emotion as we are. Perhaps when we start to see chickens, not as an input for cheap protein production, but as quirky, robust, social individuals, or when we perceive rare and endangered species and the ecosystems that support them, not as impediments to development, but as essential elements of a healthy planet, or when we value a pig, not for the weight of her slaughtered carcass, but for her wonderful intelligence and unique, individual personality, only then will we manage to save ourselves, our earth, and all the species we share it with, from what seems to be becoming an inevitable annihilation.

To begin, we need to set our kindness into action. Compassion is the only cure for what ails us.  

If you love animals, don’t eat them. 

James Cromwell, American activist/actor.

Jonathon Porritt- When it comes to understanding the true nature of Net Zero by 2050, I have one huge request: could everybody please stop flourishing their particular “get out of jail free” cards – whether that’s a nuclear card, or a hydrogen card, or a 100% renewable electricity (100% RE) card. 

There are no get out of jail free cards. We’re trapped in an energy-intensive way of life, driven by frenetic consumerism, causing massive damage to both people and the planet, and putting at risk the very future of humankind. There is no energy-based solution to this meta-impasse; the only way we’ll avoid an accelerating slide into civilisational collapse is by transforming that suicidal way of life. 

Energy is a sub-system of that much bigger economic system – though it is, to be sure, the most important sub-system. And the most important aspect of that sub-system is EFFICIENCY.

Whatever combination of supply-side options we may have settled on by 2050, it’s the efficiency with which we acquire and use every one of those units of energy which matters most – not whether those units are renewable, nuclear or hydrogen. I find it deeply disturbing that almost all supply-side evangelists (whatever their fix may be) fail to mention this. Could that be because it’s so much more difficult to make money out of what Amory Lovins first referred to more than 40 years ago as “Negawatts” (i.e. avoiding energy use altogether through efficiency and demand management) than it is out of generating Megawatts? 

This article focuses on the nuclear get out of jail free card. But before ripping that to shreds, I want to do the same, in passing, for the 100% RE card. 

When it comes to Net Zero strategies, I’m fully on board with the imperative of electrifying everything we possibly can (generation, heat, transport, manufacturing, etc), and then ensuring that as close to 100% of that required supply comes from renewables. However, the environmental footprint associated with such a dramatic transition in our energy systems is enormous – and it concerns me that so many 100% RE evangelists fail to recognise this.

What do solar panels, wind turbines, electric motors, batteries, magnets, heat pumps, LEDs, electrolysers and so on (as well as all the “enabling” technologies on which this hardware depends such as computers, smartphones, smart meters, massive server farms and so on) all have in common? An increasing dependence on digging up the Earth for a variety of still-abundant raw materials (lithium, vanadium, graphite, platinum, etc), for what are called “rare metals” (cobalt, tungsten, tantalum etc), and for an even rarer family of 17 “rare earths” with incredible magnetic, catalytic and optical properties. Without these, there can be no 100% RE revolution. 

When you realise that 95% of those rare earths are mined in China, and that China controls an even greater share of the production of all rare metals- not just in China but around the world- with an already horrendous environmental and social balance sheet, we should be very concerned about the massive projected increase in demand for these raw materials on which a 100% RE scenario depends. 

Consider for a moment the unfolding drama around the death of the Internal Combustion Engine – which everyone now accepts is a question of when, not if. Both governments (including the UK, with its accelerated timetable to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030) and the big car companies (in both the West and in China) are now on that path. The future of ground-based transport is all-electric. 

Let’s celebrate that – not least from the perspective of improved air quality. According to the latest research, tailpipe emissions are a massive contributor to the deaths of more than eight million people every year

But we still have to be realistic about what this entails. An EV in China (where roughly 60% of electricity is still generated in coal-fired power stations) is not as big a decarbonising deal as people imagine, especially when transmission losses are taken into account. Additionally, every new EV still requires a huge amount of raw materials and energy in its manufacture. 

From a Net Zero, thermodynamically-literate point of view, we should already be thinking about setting a date for reducing the number of privately-owned vehicles from today’s 1.1 billion (of which only about 3% are currently EVs) to as low a level as possible. That’s the transition we should really be planning for; instead, we take it for granted that the number of car sales will just tick up every year. 

This is a huge challenge. To make it even remotely acceptable, from a political point of view, all subsidy and public sector investments should be directed into integrated mobility systems, better public transport and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructures. Just like Negawatts offer an infinitely superior way forward than Megawatts (of any description), so an NV strategy (No Vehicles) is an infinitely superior way forward than an EV strategy. 

All that said, we’re still going to need a huge increase in the amount of electricity required to get to Net Zero, and that’s where nuclear industry leaders play their own get out of jail free card with growing enthusiasm – principally because they continue to assert that it’s simply not possible to get to a Net Zero world by relying on efficiency, renewable electricity, storage and smart grids. That assertion is hotly contested by a growing number of academics and NGOs, whose case gets stronger as both solar and wind get cheaper and more reliable, with improving utilisation rates every year, especially from offshore wind. Even the International Energy Agency now acknowledges the impact of this unfolding revolution, even as it keeps on having to revise its projections for renewable electricity’s share of total global generation – with what has become deeply embarrassing regularity. 

There are few (if any) independent commentators forecasting a similar increase in nuclear-generated electricity. The bottom line here is very simple: large-scale nuclear reactors have essentially been priced out of the market. Very high construction costs are invariably exacerbated by extensive delays, ensuring that private investors will have nothing to do with new nuclear. No reactors are being constructed anywhere in the world without massive government subsidy – the exact opposite of renewables where “subsidy-free” solar and wind are becoming the norm in countries all around the world. 

Faced with that market reality, the nuclear industry continues to argue that subsidies for nuclear power are a necessary use of taxpayers’ money because only nuclear can provide the kind of baseload power on which the stability of electricity grids depends. This was once absolutely correct, but no longer. Back in 2015, the then-Chief Executive of the National Grid, Steve Holliday, spelled out the writing on the wall for those still looking backwards rather than forwards in terms of energy systems: “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated.” 

Because nuclear power can’t be switched on and off, the National Grid’s historical distribution system is based on an “always on” assumption for nuclear. As more and more variable renewable electricity becomes available, the costs of this highly inflexible baseload become more apparent. In both Germany and the UK, it is commonplace for there to be more electricity available than is needed – meaning that operators of those wind farms and solar installations have to be paid to switch them off. As is persuasively argued by the International Energy Agency, power system flexibility is now an absolute priority if we are to reap the full benefits of more decentralised generation and demand management technologies. And it’s been convincingly demonstrated by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission that large-scale nuclear power plants entrench more costly, inflexible distribution systems. 

I see this as a classic case of incumbent technology standing in the way of more innovative solutions to achieving a Net Zero economy, locking in consumers and businesses to increasingly outmoded ways of providing energy services. 

Large-scale nuclear power has the same sort of 20th century feel to it as the internal combustion engine: no longer necessary and increasingly unaffordable. But the industry is nothing if not adaptable, and has been busy crafting a whole deck of alternative get out of jail free cards: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Advanced Nuclear Reactors, and even a variation on the industry’s favourite card of all: nuclear fusion! Boris Johnson is particularly enamoured of these alternatives, and remains committed to investing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds into these still speculative propositions. 

In a way that has become standard for all “nuclear renaissance” announcements, the level of hype around SMRs keeps on ratcheting up. In the UK, we’re told that a prototype will be ready by 2029, creating 6 000 jobs over the next five years; that this prototype will be delivered at a bargain basement cost of £2.2bn; that it will be the first of a programme of 16 SMRs rolling off a production line at two a year; that this will earn the UK economy more than £50bn, and will in time create a massive export potential of around £250bn, creating 40 000 jobs over 15 years. 

No other industry is allowed to get away with such fantastical moonshine! The reality is that there’s no design available as yet, even though the Government has already invested millions in Rolls-Royce’s outline plans. There are no agreed sites for deployment. There are no customers, and without the Government guaranteeing an order book of up to 16 SMRs, it’s highly unlikely that Rolls-Royce will even complete the design phase, let alone start investing in such an ambitious production line.

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It fascinates me to see the dogged determination (desperation?) with which politicians hang on to these still entirely unproven technologies – all of which have been “in design,” in one way or another, over many decades. What is it (ideologically and psychologically) that allows them to go on preferencing speculative nuclear innovation, with breakthroughs promised at some indeterminate point in the future, over the burgeoning pipeline of market-ready innovation in solar, wind, storage, grids, demand management and so on? 

And what is it that allows them to stay so complacent about the problems of nuclear waste and decommissioning – which I explore in some detail in “Net Zero Without Nuclear”? The fact that the only proposed “solution” for the management of high-level nuclear waste is a Geological Disposal Facility (which will not be fully operational here in the UK until 2075, according to the Government itself), probably explains why the nuclear get out of jail free card includes no icons for nuclear waste, nor any reference to the price-tag of £130bn for decommissioning existing reactors here in the UK over the next 85 years, according to the Government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. 

The vast majority of environmentalists I’ve known and worked with over 45 years are passionate about the concept of justice between generations as well as justice within each generation. However, the simple truth of it is that anyone who continues to support nuclear power has, in effect, set aside that concern about intergenerational justice. It’s young people, as future taxpayers, who will bear the massive costs associated with the processing and storage of nuclear waste, as well as the ongoing liabilities regarding the decommissioning of existing reactors. 

With the best will in the world, that’s how new nuclear looks to me today. No longer necessary. Increasingly unaffordable. Morally indefensible. So let’s tear up that nuclear get out of jail free card.

However, as I’ve already said, we should simultaneously be tearing up the 100% RE card. In terms of delivering a Net Zero economy, 100% RE is undoubtedly the way to go – but not as some heedless technofix that allows politicians to continue to avert their eyes from the much deeper, systemic problems that now confront humankind.

 

I can’t remember a time before I worried about climate change. I ran for office at age 22 – on a platform largely focused on clean energy – because of that Millennial passion and righteous impatience. But after serving one term as the youngest Massachusetts state legislator, I realised we needed bigger thinking. I set out to wrap my mind around the comprehensive picture of solving climate change, answering the question of what could truly add up. How can the US tackle climate change?

I had studied engineering in college, alongside public policy, so I have an odd but useful perspective to analyse what has to happen to tackle climate change and what has a chance of making it happen. This synthesis was published as The 100% Solution in March of 2020, but I’ve continuously tried to figure out how to do impactful outreach to build better understanding and consensus around climate change solutions.

Climate change is often framed as a political problem, the solution to which is simply building the “political will” for bold action. But I realised that perspective ignores several crucial realities: 

First, that climate change impacts will worsen until we solve the problem 100% (in fact until we get into net-negative emissions) so we need to move as fast as possible even if that means not waiting for larger societal change; 

Second, that two-thirds of current emissions come from rapidly-growing middle-income countries (China, India, Indonesia, etc) where no amount of political will can overcome the basic economic fact that their population can’t afford clean infrastructure at today’s prices; 

Third, that more effective messaging is needed to reassure voters in the US that solving climate change does not in fact mean sacrifice.

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Physically, climate change doesn’t come from our lifestyles. Driving, heating our home, etc – these lifestyle activities are powered by equipment. The equipment we use is what determines greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, most of the equipment is based on fossil fuels. We could cut back on driving, heating, etc, and still be adding GHGs to the atmosphere because we rely on systems that use polluting equipment. And adding any net GHGs annually is incompatible with solving climate change, because warming is tied to levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, not one year’s rate of emissions. We won’t see an end to warming until 100% of net emissions are eliminated.

So think instead: we could enjoy these lifestyle activities in the same amounts as today, but switch to non-polluting equipment. Drive EVs instead of fossil fuel cars. Use solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal instead of coal and methane power plants. It’s not a political problem, but an engineering problem. This solves the third issue above, of messaging to the US public – to tackle climate change in the US means replacing polluting infrastructure with clean infrastructure, not changing our lifestyles. If people internalise that it’s not a sacrifice, they’ll be more supportive of climate action.

But you and I can’t individually affect what type of power plant a utility uses. And many of us in the US – not to mention most people in developing countries, where a majority of emissions come from – can’t afford EVs at their current costs.

The answer is collective action. While climate change is an engineering problem, it requires political action to solve.

Instead of feeling personally responsible for our “carbon footprint,” we need to think of our responsibility as doing whatever we personally can to influence governments and large companies to take action at scale.

Scientists say we need to cross into net-negative emissions around 2050. So very quickly, we have to make all the necessary clean equipment cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. From that point on, not only will middle-income developing countries be able to afford clean infrastructure, it will be the cheapest option and so decarbonisation will become inevitable.

The US federal government (and other large government or company entities in industrialised countries) can achieve that through investments that demonstrate the first full-scale units of emerging technologies, and by creating incentives or mandates or using public procurement to drive a fast early scale-up in manufacturing to bring down costs. We require a massive scale and rapid pace of hands-on industrial policy, comparable to the New Deal, the WWII manufacturing boom, and the Apollo Program.

Our responsibility is to impress upon our political and company leaders both the urgency for bold action and the massive economic benefits (not sacrifice!) that bold and immediate action would create. What better way to put people back to work post-pandemic than by investing massively in industries guaranteed to last well into the 21st century? Shifting the narrative is important, and that’s on us as climate activists to get better at. The Sunrise Movement has made a great start, tying climate action to New Deal-style job creation and equity. We need to get more specific, though, and paint a picture for wary voters of how their energy costs will go down in the long run, how their daily activities will be largely unchanged, and how we can use domestic action that lowers clean equipment costs to drive a global solution and export affordable clean energy to the world.

I think climate activists’ allies need to hear more of this messaging as well, because a lot of them are disengaged, feeling that “we’re doomed.” More specific, ambitious, and accurate messaging can give them hope. We’re not doomed, we simply need to focus our sense of responsibility on driving the collective action that can solve the problem 100%.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, is a former Massachusetts state legislator and lifelong climate activist. See SolomonGR.com.

There is no structure within the whole sphere of human governance that can deliver us the global biophysical integrity which we now require. The new intertwined relationship between humans and the Earth is now a permanent arrangement…so we must protect the Earth now and in the year 2100, 2500 and the year 3000. At present, we have no mechanism to guarantee success in this extraordinary undertaking, so we must create it. 

The governance structures we have built, principally the 195 nation states and a meeting room called the UN, are not fit for purpose for the protection of a biosphere. In order to restore and protect a planet’s natural systems we must have a full time dedicated specialist in charge, laying down universal biophysical boundaries and enforcing them.  Our nation states, being competitive, hegemonic, built to provide safety within their borders and oversee the flow of human goods and services to their peoples, are not the answer. When it comes to protecting a biosphere, they are part time short-term under-funded amateurs. No wonder a terrible result has ensued since the 1972 Stockholm declaration, signed by all countries, that ‘nature’s assets must be safeguarded’.

So we currently have a structural error of governance. In terms of our power, technology and potency of destruction of the environment, we as a race have moved past this particular administrative unit. It is as simple as that. We are too strong a destructive force for a group of disparate, distracted, geographically constrained amateurs, called the nation states, to handle. 

Instead, our global race must now afford our greatest asset, the living planet, a global specialist protectorate. Human governance structures are fluid undertakings, a bit like ants building an ant’s nest. They work for the conditions of their time. They deliver functions of utility of their time and then when they no longer work, they must be left behind and new structures built. Now, because we are so powerful that we must protect a global asset, we must build a global structure that delivers this particular function of utility.

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This new specialist authority must sit above the nation state, where there is currently a complete void. The UN has no executive or regulatory power over the nation state. If you are mentally drawing a diagram in your mind, put the UN to the side of the nations. For all the excellent work the UN does, on a small budget of only $10 billion annually, it is at the end of the day, just a meeting room of  the Westphalian nation state system.

The calls for a new higher level structure are everywhere you look. David Attenborough has said ‘unless humanity comes to a co-ordinated view of its relationship with the planet, it’s going to get worse and worse’. The World Economic Forum and HRH Prince of Wales, in laying down a ten-point plan for the circular bio-economy (October 2020) argued in point 7 that regulation and policy must reach the global level. Numerous academics, including Prof. Klaus Bosselmann of Auckland University, have argued ‘that matters of a planetary issue require a single polity, however inchoate’. In his 2009 speech, famed American ecologist Paul Hawken called for a new operating system within the next few decades. The World Bank too, has stated that feeding 9 billion people and reducing the pressures on the environment will require radical changes in global governance.

But the truth of the matter is that we have no global governance. Global governance must include actual regulatory power over all the human organisations underneath it, including the nation state. 

Entering global governance and putting a specialist authority in charge will gain us an immediate and material betterment of nature and an improvement in the human condition. Additionally, it will also effect a step change in the profile of human-induced existential risks that we face in this pivotal century.  Many commentators (e.g Martin Rees, Head of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and Toby Ord, Fellow of The Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University) argue that from the already high base layer of risk including nuclear war, climate change and environmental degradation, are coming the even greater risks of artificial intelligence, dystopian outcomes and biological warfare. So our step into global governance using our shared commonality of the Earth’s protection is extremely timely, as it will pave the way for further governance evolution capable of further reducing this terrible existential risk profile. 

Let us imagine that we have just created a Global Planet Authority (GPA). What actions would it take to protect the planet?  It would build a global transaction fee-based tax system that taxes the biophysically profligate and places taxes on specific externalities such as carbon and landfill. It would operate a global ozone monitoring system with automatic shutdown capability of any factory in the world producing ozone-depleting gases. 

GPA would place all rainforest under its global protection, so that no rainforest is lost anywhere in the world. The current GDP of the Amazonian-facing nations is $3 trillion. The GPA would be able to pay, for example, $300 billion a year for 10 years to all the people of those nations, so they directly benefit from the executive order that affords the amazon rainforest global protected status. In oceans, all the high seas of the world would fall under the GPA’s protection and 60% would be made no entry. The Arctic and Antarctic would be sovereignty free, that is, no country can claim ownership of the waters of the Arctic or the land and waters of the Antarctic. Mobile marine reserves would track migrating whales and large fish within coastal areas, and deep-sea trawling would be immediately banned worldwide. Our fixed nitrogen and potassium use for fertilisers would be materially reduced whilst overseeing an agroecology program that restores soil and maintains our current caloric output of essential grains. And of course, through a series of low risk actions, the GPA would take us safely to 300 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent units in the troposphere by 2050. In short a GPA would deliver a far superior range of biophysical outcomes, ones highly unlikely under the current system.

With these new boundaries in place, humanity’s response would be exceptional. Capitalism would respond to clear pricing and regulation, GDP would grow but with hugely reduced industrial metabolism and we would all share in our joint achievements of biophysical restoration, benefiting the poor in particular. Our long term potential to flourish as a race would also remain intact. 

So how do we enter global governance? Who do we ask? Is there someone to call? Is there someone to lobby? No, the only way of entering this void is if we, the people of the world, decide to move there and build the structures we want. It is our own permission that we seek, and fortunately we can now undertake the first act of global self determination. Let me explain.

The act of creating a nation state is called an act of national self determination. A large group of people get together and in effect, allocate a small part of their personal sovereignty in such numbers that the new governance structure is created. The people are saying “we choose to create this governance structure and abide by its rules.” The acts of national self determination were so numerous in the first half of the 20th century that the right to self determination was written as a central tenet in the charter of human rights at the founding of the UN. 

Jumping forward to the present, for the first time ever, we can gather as a global race and allocate our personal sovereignty en masse at the global level. This is because 5 billion of us are now online and connected. We really have arrived at an exceptional point in human history. We can enter global governance by our own free will, in the same manner humans have always advanced- as the people.  The power that we yield is that we are the system. For example, we can close down the world economy by not working in order to force the new governance body to come to be. One could argue that COVID-19’s ‘economic shutdown’ could well be a warm up event.

Only 50 million people govern and enforce the primary institutions of all 195 nation states.  This is composed of 25 million people administrating the highest offices of the judicial, operating and executive arms of state and a total of 21 million soldiers. At 5 billion on line and connected, and 50 million representing the ‘opponent’, we are 100 to 1…and this is the median ratio of the most famous acts of national self determination of the last 250 years. And it will be the ratio that sees us enter the global sphere. 

THE ACTION: Because we live in the 21st Century, we will allocate our personal sovereignty by way of a biometrically valid and secure global vote for anyone 13 years and over. It will probably require 2-3 billion votes. Teenagers will be eligible to vote, as they have always been active at revolutionary points of human history, and they have the most to gain. We will write a constitution for a Global Planet Authority, charge it with delivering global biophysical integrity, set up its biophysical board and ensure it has excellent internal governance systems to give it sufficient but limited power..

I believe that it is no coincidence that this capability for a step change in human agency has arrived when we are also running Earth’s systems for the first time. 

It is easy to say, “this is not possible” and cross one’s arms and look stern and huff. But let us remind ourselves that in 1770 there was no USA, in 1850 no Canada, in 1875 no Germany, in 1943 no India and no People’s Republic of China, in 1960 no Singapore. Their leaders, their visionaries, their people, that is, all our forebears, stepped into the governance voids of their time, under what were often very difficult circumstances, to create semi-permanent human governance structures (nation states) they deemed necessary to ensure their progress. 

I am convinced that if the likes of Washington, Pankhurst, Gandhi, Mandela, and Sun Yat-sen were alive today, they would say to us, “GO!”, recognising that we must create a new governance structure designed specifically for the task at hand.  

And we must. We must advance our governance to be fit for this new era: our most valuable global asset must be afforded global protection by a global race.

 

Hong Kong discards between 4-6 million disposable face masks every day. The bulk of these discarded face masks are sent to the landfill along with the general waste. Based on the estimation that each face mask weighs two to three grams, the face masks disposed of at landfills every day would weigh some 10 to 15 tonnes. However, a significant number end up polluting the environment, including drains, streams, and beaches and end up in the sea. According to the Hong Kong Secretary for the Environment, KS Wong, these face masks are not suitable for recycling. She says, “Since disposable face masks, including N95 masks and surgical masks, are made of composite materials of different kinds and metals which are difficult to be separated, they are not suitable for recycling or discarding in recycling bins to avoid contaminating other recyclables.” How can the world achieve a “zero waste” future?

The global figures are approximately 1 000 times more at 15 000 tonnes of masks a day. The bulk of the discarded face masks are either incinerated or sent to the landfill along with municipal solid waste (MSW).

The sustainable management of increasing quantities of wastes such as MSW, Industrial Wastes, Agricultural Wastes, Construction Demolition Waste (CDW) etc, is a global challenge. MSW generation will increase to 3.40 billion metric tonnes by 2050 from around 2.01 billion tonnes currently as per a World Bank report. In 2016, 12% of the world’s MSW was plastic, of which the world produced 242 million tonnes. It is estimated that only 13.5% of today’s waste is recycled and 5.5% is composted. 

Plastic waste is choking our oceans, yet our consumption of plastics is only increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic has added significantly to this crisis due to the sudden increase in the consumption of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). An estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide–equivalent (CO2-equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions were generated from solid waste in 2016, which is about 5% of global emissions. Without improvements, solid waste-related emissions are anticipated to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050. 44% of all MSW is food waste (contributing 50% of the GHG emissions from rotting) and 33% of all MSW is disposed of in open dumps and/or burnt. 

The global distribution of population compared to the percentage of waste generation shows China and India to be major contributors (together accounting for 36% of the world’s population and 28% share of MSW generation), followed by the USA (4% world’s population contributing 12% of the waste). Such disparities are likely to be further exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, South Asia is one of the hardest-hit regions by the outbreak, with India recording nearly 9.8 million cases. The pandemic outbreak in the South Asia region is not only harming public health through community transmission but is becoming a huge liability in terms of its environmental impact. The healthcare waste management system of the South Asia region is the least developed among the World Health Organization regions.

Delhi, the capital of India, generated about 371 tons of biomedical waste per day in June 2020. This was an increase of 1 400% from May’s 25 tons per day. Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, generated about 247 tons of infectious medical waste per day in July 2020, but was able to safely handle less than 10 tons per day of it. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, generated 206 tons of biomedical waste daily in July, a steep increase from 3 tons per day before COVID. Similar trends of infectious medical waste generation due to COVID-19 have been observed in other countries of the South Asia region.

While the prospects of a zero waste future may look utopian in light of the above scenario, it is not as difficult as we are made to believe. Hong Kong has performed abysmally against its own target as per the 2013 Government-issued “Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022,” which  set out a comprehensive strategy to reduce waste and increase recovery and recycling. A recycling fund of HKD$1 billion has not made a significant dent yet and the draft mandatory waste charging scheme proposal that was stuck in the legislative process for almost a decade was recently dumped. However, the experience of neighbouring Taiwan and South Korea is highly encouraging. South Korea adopted a waste charging policy back in 1995 and observed that the overall waste disposal rate dropped by 17% by 2001 and by 40% by the year 2010. The recycling rate increased to 60% in 2010 from about 16% in 1995, and the economic benefits of the recycling industry increased from HK$1.7 billion in 2001 to HK$7 billion in 2009. The “Per Bag Trash Collection Fee” system, adopted from Taipei, has worked well in Seoul, which is now a global model for recycling. This illustrates the fact that modern societies driven by rampant consumerism need to pay for their environmental footprint – be it in the form of a carbon tax or waste charging system. The detrimental effect of our lifestyles driving climate change can only be tamed by such a ‘user pay’ model and implementation of circular economy principles by producers and manufacturers.  

For a ‘zero waste’ future to be realised, the first step has to be for policymakers to change their mindsets. Each component of the municipal solid waste stream is recyclable. Food waste and organic matter can be composted, metal, glass, and paper have well-established re-use. Its the waste plastic that has been a big challenge given its volume due to low density and capacity to pollute the environment. While recycling disposable face masks is not easy (nor is plastic waste), it is not impossible. It has been demonstrated that much of such waste plastics can be converted back to fuel oil through catalytic thermal pyrolysis, used in lightweight plastic aggregates for use in concrete, or melted and reshaped into plastic products like bricks, blocks, and plates. Only with such innovative ideas can the world hope to achieve a ‘zero waste’ future. 

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Figure 1.(a) Composition of Municipality Solid Waste and (b) Methods of disposal (Source: Datatopics.worldbank.org).

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Figure 2. Share of Global Population against waste generation (Source: recyclinginternational.com).

Between 2011 and 2013, China consumed 6.6 gigatons of concrete – more than what the US used in the entire 20th century. Since the integration of China in the world economy, the consumption of materials in general and construction material in particular, has been driven by the growth of China’s economy. An indicator of this growth is the consumption of cement. Since 2010, China’s consumption has increased from 2.05 billion tons per year to 2.35 billion tons with a high of 2.7 billion tons in 2014. In the same period, the world consumption of cement has increased from 3.64 billion tons to 4.65 billion tons. How can the construction industry green itself?

Interestingly, the global consumption has remained more or less unchanged from around 2014 (including China) with a reduction in China’s consumption being made up by the increase in developing countries. Cement is mainly used in making concrete, which requires about 8-10 times more raw materials in the form of sand and aggregates. Thus, the consumption of 4.65 billion tons of cement implies mining, transportation and use of around 33 billion tons of aggregates per year. This makes concrete by far the most used material at about 35-40% of all material consumption by mankind, second to water. Global consumption of cement is expected to double by 2060 as per a 2018 OECD report, which has significant environmental implications. 

Economic Contraction Due to the Pandemic

Hong Kong just declared its second-quarter figures which show a contraction of the economy of 9.1%, matching that of the first quarter’s contraction year-on-year. Most of the developed countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and the members of the EU are projected to undergo unprecedented double-digit quarterly contractions in the current calendar year compared to pre-COVID-19 2019. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest projection for the annual growth rate of world GDP is around -4.9%. The projection for 2021 is 5.4% year-on-year which barely makes up for the overall contraction due to the pandemic.

Besides tackling the immediate health sector demands, the first challenge of the pandemic for governments everywhere was to provide support for those who were affected by lockdowns and lost their jobs. The next task was to kickstart economies. Very early on in the pandemic, many people realised that it presented an opportunity to rebuild the world economy to be more resilient and sustainable. 

After every major disaster, we try to rebuild in such a way to make societies less prone to the damages from similar or worse future shocks. In the case of the pandemic, every country should be looking to invest in its public health system to prevent or mitigate the effect of future events. Clear links have been established between the emergence and spread of new pathogens and anthropogenic causes. 

Therefore it makes sense that actions to address risks of future pandemics take into account those needed to address the climate crisis as per recommendations of experts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

GDP is Inadequate

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures the monetary value of all goods and services produced by an economy. It has become the universal measure of the economic prosperity of a country and even the world since after the second world war. 

In a recent article, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz proposed a dashboard of customisable indicators to guide the economic policy of nations based on his work since the great recession of 2009. He quotes American senator Robert Kennedy who once said “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” A poignant illustration of how badly flawed GDP is as an indicator of social well-being is illustrated by the abject failure of the US in managing the pandemic compared to countries such as Vietnam and New Zealand, both with much lower GDP per capitas. The fact that it doesn’t measure sustainability, the value of community-led non-profit initiatives or wealth inequality makes GDP a deeply flawed measure of overall social wellbeing which is far more important than just income and wealth. 

Stiglitz’s dashboard proposes that indicators can be different for different countries by emphasising the issues most important for the people such as health, education, employment, environment and sense of security, similar to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the UN. While GDP would be one of such a group of indicators, environmental sustainability would have critical importance as this has a much larger impact on what happens on a planetary level.

Risks of Inaction and the Opportunity for Building Back Better

The World Economic Forum in its 15th Global Risks report highlighted two stark facts. One was that for the first time since the survey started being conducted in 2005, climate change-induced extreme weather, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, climate action failures and man-made environmental disasters were the top five global risks in terms of likelihood. In terms of impact, climate action failure, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises were among the top five risks. The only other non-climate risk was weapons of mass destruction. None of these climate-related events featured in the top global risks a mere 10 years ago in the same survey. 

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A figure of a Global Risk Landscape that shows the Impact versus Likelihood of a given risk factor on a scale of 1 to 5. The higher a given risk factor measures on each axis, the worse it is. In the latest survey, Climate Inaction and Extreme Weather events top the charts (Source: Global Risk report by WEF)

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff in November 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. For some, the pandemic becomes an opportunity to profit while for others it is humanity’s chance to make a strong beginning towards a resilient and sustainable future. EffortsIt will need something akin to the ‘New Deal’ implemented by President Roosevelt after the Great Depression or the ‘Marshall Plan’ implemented to rebuild Europe after World War II will be needed, but with a green agenda that puts sustainability at the heart of all decisions. In the current context, the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ on a global scale will fit that bill.

Green Construction should Lead the Industry

An effective way for economies to create jobs and recover growth is to revive and accelerate the building and construction sector, particularly public-funded large infrastructure projects. This brings us back to the question of the consumption of materials like cement and aggregates and their large carbon footprint and potential damage to the environment. 

The UK has declared a climate emergency and has mandated by law to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, however a Construction News of UK report says that the construction industry is still using conventional ‘dirty’ concrete instead of available low-carbon ‘green’ alternatives. The government must enact regulations and set an example through public infrastructure projects that use these alternatives. 

The existing carbon credit system and a low carbon tax of 16 pounds per ton don’t seem to be incentive enough to get contractors to switch from high carbon ordinary Portland Cement to, for example, blended cement. While a landfill tax and aggregate levy has been beneficial, concrete construction requires the use of low-carbon quotes (estimates used in the tendering process to give bidders who use low-carbon alternatives a chance to compete), Environmental Product Declarations, standard measurements for the carbon in a building, a higher carbon tax, and whole life cycle design for sustainable construction practices to take root. With trillions of dollars being invested in the form of stimulus packages, there couldn’t be a better time to enforce these changes on a global scale that would have profound long-term effects.

Every sector of the world economy holds such opportunities to address the climate crisis.The world is at an important inflection point – a fork in the road. A lot rides on the decisions that are made by policymakers, leaders and the corporate world this year. Building back better led by a more green construction industry and frameworks that measure social welfare and health instead of GDP is the best way not only to get out of the current crisis but create a resilient and sustainable future.

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