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In an exclusive interview with Earth.Org, Pascale Laborde, Global Chief Sustainability Officer at Hong Kong-based global health and nutrition company H&H Group, delves deep into what ESG means to the company and how they approach the challenge of navigating the ESG requirements of multiple countries.

In today’s international market, one would be hard-pressed to find a company not taking a direct approach to their sustainability commitments. After all, the modern consumer has become significantly more aware of how they spend their money and where, often taking into consideration the ethical nature of their purchases, and how their money is being used when it changes hands. For example, Capgemini Research Institute’s annual consumer trends report ‘What Matters to Today’s Consumer’ found that 41% of respondents were willing to pay more for a product they believe was made sustainably.

Though sustainability has become a requirement for some on par with quality, it is not only the consumer demand for eco-friendly products that is shaping the industry into what it is today but also government mandates. 

Since 2006, when the term ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) first found its roots in a United Nations report titled ‘Who Cares Wins’, governments of countries across the globe have updated their laws to adhere to a more sustainable framework, setting the stage for a greener market. 

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More recently, the term ESG has largely become associated with corporate transparency in a sustainable market. In fact, law in ten countries including Switzerland, the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, and the European Union, requires what is known today as ESG reporting. Some of the largest investment firms in the world, like BlackRock Inc., for example, have made ESG reporting an integral part of their daily business operations.

H&H Group, a global health and nutrition company headquartered in Hong Kong, is one such company required by law to report on their ESG commitments. However, what differs for them is the fact that they are an international company, with locations across Mainland China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, North America and Asia, as well as a second head office in the UK. This makes their reporting significantly more challenging to accomplish. 

In an exclusive interview with Earth.Org, Pascale Laborde, Global Chief Sustainability Officer for H&H Group, delves deep into what ESG means to them, and how they approach the challenge of navigating the ESG requirements of multiple countries.

“As a global company, H&H Group views ESG reporting as an essential tool to demonstrate our commitment to sustainable and responsible business practices,” said Laborde. 

“We recognise that our stakeholders, including investors and consumers, expect us to operate in a way that minimises negative impacts on the environment and society while delivering long-term value.”

Without established frameworks, however, it can become difficult to determine exactly how ESG reporting should take place. Thankfully, standards have been set by organisations such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which provides ESG reporting frameworks for over 10,000 companies across 100 countries. According to 2022 research from KPMG, the GRI is considered the most widely used sustainability reporting standard in the world. 

That being said, some countries have their own rules, which may or may not coincide with that of the GRI’s. In the case of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange’s (HKEx) Appendix 27 provides guidance on the ESG reporting requirements for companies listed on the Stock Exchange.

“The GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Standards cover a wide range of economic, social, and environmental topics, and are used by companies around the world to report on their sustainability performance.” explained Laborde.

“At H&H, we use both the GRI and HKEx Appendix 27 as part of our ESG reporting framework. We use the GRI’s framework to report on a global level and ensure that we are covering a comprehensive set of topics. We also use the HKEx’s Appendix 27 to ensure that our ESG reporting meets the requirements of the Hong Kong market, where our headquarters is located.”

According to Laborde, ensuring that their ESG reporting is accomplished accurately according to both international and localised requirements is one of their greatest challenges, demanding a two-fold approach (GRI plus any local requirements, such as the HKEx) when dealing with any of their business operations across the world. 

“While we adhere to the GRI standards and HKEx requirements globally, we also comply with other relevant reporting frameworks and regulations,” Laborde explained.

“For instance, our Guangzhou facility meets the local ‘Water Pollutant Discharge Limits’ of Guangdong Province, China. In Australia, we comply with the Modern Slavery Act 2018 by reviewing and updating our Modern Slavery Statement annually.”

 “In addition to this, we work closely with our local teams to ensure that we are aware of any new or changing regulations, and we engage with stakeholders to understand their expectations and concerns.” 

In terms of the reporting itself, Laborde says that complex issues such as greenhouse gas emissions or supply chain management can be a challenge in and of itself, as data can be difficult to obtain and verify. To overcome these obstacles, they implement robust data collection and verification processes, engage with third-party auditors, and invest in technology that ensures accurate and transparent reporting.

“Accuracy and confirmability are crucial aspects of ESG reporting. If mistakes are made, there can be serious consequences, including reputational damage, financial penalties, and legal action. That’s why we take a rigorous approach to data collection, verification, and reporting, ensuring that all information in our reports is accurate and backed up by evidence.” explained Laborde.

As significant as these legal consequences can be, failing to report effectively on ESG requirements can also result in a loss of much-needed investment, simply because today’s investors are looking for more transparent, sustainable companies. 

In a survey by PWC, 79% of participants agreed that the way a company manages ESG risks and opportunities is an important factor in their investment decision making, while 49% of investors expressed a willingness to “divest from companies that aren’t taking sufficient action on ESG issues.” Furthermore, 59% said a lack of action on ESG issues would likely cause them to vote against executive pay agreement, and a third said that they had already taken this action.

With investors, consumers, and governments demanding a more transparent and sustainable market, effective ESG reporting would appear to be an essential component of the modern business strategy. Though the waters can be difficult to navigate, adhering to ESG standards is a necessity, requiring the most accurate understanding of both global and country-specific requirements.

“Effective ESG reporting on a multi-national scale requires a deep understanding of local regulations and frameworks.” said Laborde. 

“Collaboration with stakeholders, a robust data management system, and regular reviews are key to navigating ESG requirements successfully.” 

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In an exclusive interview with Earth.Org, Matt Reid, co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based KIN, a 300-seat sustainable food hall and omnichannel food app, explains the idea behind the company and discusses how we can reduce the food industry’s – as well as our own – environmental footprint by changing the way we eat.

Climate change is the single biggest threat facing humanity. Climate impacts are already harming communities, habitats, and ecosystems around the world and there is no sign of them slowing down anytime soon. Faced with the harsh reality that global warming will keep bringing devastation in the years to come, many of us can feel overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness. But as much as the climate crisis is the result of decades of mispractice and reckless human actions, every single one of us has the power to do something about it.

One way to do this is by changing how we eat.

“We need to be eating local, low-carbon impact, humanely. We need to control the amount of waste we generate. We must develop kitchens that are circular, not linear. And, most importantly, we need transparency over what we’re doing,” KIN Founder and CEO Matt Reid told Earth.Org.

The food industry, from production and processing to distribution and consumption, is responsible for a fair share of global emissions. Production alone accounts for about 25% of annual global greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere while transporting ingredients and food products accounts for nearly one-fifth of all carbon emissions in the food system. Not to mention that roughly one-third of the food produced that is intended for human consumption every year – around 1.3 billion tons and valued at US$1 trillion – is wasted or lost. This alone would be enough to feed 3 billion people. But that is not all. 

Every day, hundreds of millions of single-use containers, cans, trays, and cutlery are thrown away around the world. Despite being an essential component of the food sector and the only solution we have to facilitate food transportation, food packaging waste is also one of the most harmful aspects of the industry. 

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Clearly, there is a multitude of challenges that need to be addressed, and changing these dangerous trends will require not only a long time but also a collective commitment from all parties involved. As KIN co-founder and CEO Matt Reid put it, we need a “systemic solution”.

In Hong Kong, Reid is trying to address these issues by completely revolutionising the food industry, with the goal of shaping a concept that can be replicated around the world and inspiring people to make more sustainable food choices. For him, tangible changes can happen by changing the way we eat. However, just like he said, we need to rethink every single feedback loop of the system if we want this to work. 

The goal of KIN is not just to push for a change in consumers’ food habits, for example by switching to a plant-based diet or cutting on takeouts to reduce plastic waste. Rather, the concept revolves around the idea of rethinking every single step of running a restaurant, with the ultimate goal of making the whole process as sustainable as possible.

In an exclusive conversation with Earth.Org, Reid explained how he came up with this revolutionary idea, the challenges he faced along the way, and what it takes to make a significant impact.

How Do We Change the Way a City Eats?

Inspired by the vision of creating a movement to change the way people eat and an extensive background in fine dining, Reid decided it was time to deliver Hong Kong’s first real, sustainable, transparent catering system. 

“As a restaurant operator myself, I saw first-hand that the food industry is in crisis,” explained Reid, adding that he felt he could do more to address everyday food and not just the elite few that eat fine dining. “After opening over 40 restaurants, I realised that we need to apply what we have learned there to the mass consumption of food.”

I need to not put down my other business so perhaps just felt I could do more and address everyday food not just the elite few that eat fine dining.

Seeing the environmental impacts of running a restaurant or food business, the question inevitably arose: “How do you change the fuel in the existing system?”

The best place to start is by sourcing the most ethical ingredients, taking into account not just their origin but also the environmental footprint linked to their shipping – from packaging to transportation. 

KIN’s ingredient charter establishes transparency throughout the supply chain and includes principles that ensure responsible supplier and ingredient selection are not merely based on cost. The company is committed to building relationships directly with the farmers and food producers, allowing them to have conversations about the ingredients’ origin and ultimately increasing transparency and accountability.

In Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million people that relies on imports for over 95% of its food supplies, the challenge lies in finding the most sustainable, ethical, yet also the closest farmers and food producers to cut on transportation emissions. To tackle this, KIN sources its ingredients responsibly via carbon-mitigated transport and from within the APAC region. For example, the company gets its king salmon and yellowtail tuna from fish farms in New Zealand and Australia, respectively. Sushi, one of KIN’s signature dishes, is produced exclusively with these two types of fish. Both partner farms are BAP and ASC certified, proof that they adhere to a good aquaculture standard that reduces negative impact on the environment. 

“Sourcing fish from well-managed farms helps us preserve our oceans,” explained Reid. 

Once the ingredients are sourced, the next step is turning them into recipes that not only taste good but also reflect consumers’ choices.  

Every week, the team at KIN seeks out various restaurants and chefs from all over Asia to collaborate with. These restaurants entrust KIN with recipes of their signature dishes that in-house chefs recreate using the high-quality ingredients it responsibly sourced. Today, KIN works with 45 brands and has developed more than 200 recipes from a single traceable supply chain. 

“If you think about it, fashion has been doing the same thing for years by recreating trendy items,” explained Reid. “The difference is that, if needed, we’ll change the ingredients of the brand’s recipe to ensure the lowest possible carbon impact and the highest level of humanity.”

Located in Taikoo Place, a commercial building complex in Quarry Bay, east Hong Kong Island, KIN extends brands’ reach to more customers through its omnichannel food app and physical space. The location choice is no coincidence. Building a food court in an area that comprises a vertical community of office workers and domestic residents allows the company to reduce food delivery zones, as walkers are solely responsible for deliveries.

KIN food halls; Hong Kong; Matt Reid

At its first flagship ecosystem in Devon House, Taikoo Place, KIN’s expansive space spans 18,000 sq. ft. with 300 seats, a 18-tap bar, and show kitchens. Photo: Dennis Lo.

“We can be the solution to make food for delivery more environmentally friendly by building a network of kitchens we can get to work with delivery platforms,” said Reid. 

“We find out what the most popular food brands in a specific area are, we cook these for them and hand them to the delivery person in charge in compostable packaging. This way, they don’t have to travel long distances to reach a specific restaurant or fast food but can instead operate in a more restricted area.”

Another great asset is the KIN Food Halls app. Powered by a learning algorithm that identifies what consumers want the most, the app allows the company to adapt to demand in real time, removing unpopular recipes and thus also avoiding the purchase of unnecessary ingredients.

“Supermarkets put stuff on the shelves that they know consumers and going to buy. We want to do the same but with cooked food,” explained Reid.

If you visited KIN’s 300-seat venue, you would notice that nothing is left by chance. Aside from the food itself, pretty much everything in the building, from furniture to the plates and bowls in which the food is served, is made with recycled and up-cycled materials. Bench surfaces are made with up-cycled circuit boards, tabletops are manufactured from six different types of up-cycled food waste materials, and lamp shades are made from recycled Longjing tea leaves.

Particular attention is also paid to circularity and waste management, with composting rules and return policies for their compostable bowls that benefit the consumer while helping reduce the daily amount of waste. The KIN team is also constantly communicating with its suppliers to ensure that they ship their goods using the least amount of packaging possible. 

KIN Food Halls Taikoo Hong Kong

Photo: Dennis Lo.

The Future of KIN

Recently, KIN has partnered up with Hong Kong’s Chinese International School (CIS), to offer more than 1,400 students a sustainable lunch prepared with healthy, low-emission ingredients.

Reid recently spoke at Hong Kong’s first student-led Sustainable Food Summit, an event co-hosted by a student environmental group at CIS Drop in The Ocean (DITO), The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS), and sustainable food consultancy Grassroots Initiatives that aimed at elevating the conversation about the sustainability of school food.

Marc Briol, a chef at KIN, joined two other chefs to create a sustainable, low-carbon dish suitable for inclusion in a school lunch menu. 

Besides schools, the company is looking to partner up with more malls, office buildings, and businesses around the city to ensure that a “reasonable percentage” of the food served at these locations comes from the KIN kitchen. It also plans to join forces with more Hong Kong supermarkets to buy ingredients that are going off or end up not being sold and reduce food waste, which represents about 35% of the territory’s total municipal solid waste.

Moreover, businesses that decide to partner with KIN receive a detailed report at the end of the year with details on the footprint of their orders, a way to raise awareness about the huge impact of choosing more sustainable food options and “engage the whole company in a net-zero strategy, one of the biggest challenges in the sector.”

“If we do that,” Reid said, “we will have sold the original strategy of systematically changing the system.”

Featured image: Capsule48

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Over the last decade, there has been growing awareness about climate change as communities around the world come to terms with the devastating effects of this phenomenon. Regrettably, this ubiquitous awareness hasn’t evoked long-term sustainable actions from most indigenous communities, especially in the Global South, where people often struggle to understand the basic tenets of climate change in relation to local realities. This pervasive ignorance about the causes and effects of climate change has resulted in an erroneous characterisation of what climate change is and isn’t, largely because contemporary climate change advocacy often fails in contextual climate storytelling.

While conventional climate change storytelling models could be influential in their own way, they are subject to varying interpretations, dependent on individual circumstances, which often differ from place to place and person to person. Hence, most indigenous communities lose the opportunity to deploy pre-existing local knowledge to create corresponding local climate change actions. This is because contemporary climate change discourses are often unilaterally framed within Western contexts with unintelligible niche semantics and outright climate change scaremongering; these discourses rarely acknowledge the place of native belief systems in climate change storytelling, where customs and age-old traditions are the key artefacts around which everyday life revolves.

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For these societies in the Global South, indigenous native belief systems reinforce the dynamic interplay between human psychology and local culture and their mutual influence on each other. For instance, traditional African societies are beholden to the native humanist socio-cultural ideology of Ubuntu, an African collectivist ideology that advocates communal well-being over individual wants. Ubuntu prescribes that every individual be responsive to the needs of their communities and that the community is in turn obligated to look after his or her needs. Therefore, every issue is primarily viewed through the altruistic prism of communal well-being before anything else. Contextually, climate change actions, when viewed through the ideological lens of Ubuntu, offer a narrative of meeting society’s collective needs while protecting a shared patrimony: Earth.

In this context, an effective climate change storytelling approach would be one that is creatively woven around the moral tapestry of appropriate doctrines within local cultures, taking advantage of the power of inherent social influences within each native culture to inspire communal agency and spur impactful climate change action from all members of the society rather than a few outliers. 

Indigenous climate storytelling also acknowledges local customs and beliefs and lucidly establishes how communities could be advancing their collective advancement by protecting the environment as a common patrimony, demonstrating the adjacency of climate risks to members of the society rather than an abstract event that happens elsewhere.

For instance, the native concept of Umuganda in Rwanda aptly captures the place of indigenous ideology in climate change advocacy and actions. Umuganda is a traditional practice whose raison d’être is to ensure communal well-being. Here, members of each community organise themselves into sub-groups of about 50 households (Umugundu) to carry out interventions within their immediate community. Today, the Rwandan government has institutionalised Umuganda, and its citizens come together on the last Saturday of each month to undertake interventions that include environmental sanitation, the laying of sandbags against erosion, tree planting, rehabilitation of stormwater channels, or any other task the community deems necessary. The economic and socio-ecological impact of Umuganda is significant; it reinforces social harmony and fosters behavioural change that benefits the environment. It has also become an opportunity for climate change information dissemination in each community. Umuganda evokes active participation from everyone across different social strata of local communities, including the Rwandan President and his cabinet members.

Indigenous cultural ideologies like Ubuntu and its equivalence are so entrenched in nearly every indigenous community in the Global South that they are often seen as the principal symbol of authority and power in these communities, one so potent that all members of each community are by default bound by its ‘invisible’ bands of communalism. They stir emotions that birth corresponding actions and behaviour within their respective societies. 

Although the goal of climate change storytelling might be the same across different cultures, these stories told through the lens of indigenous cultural artefacts like Ubuntu have the potential to enthrone and sustain a culture of collective agency and inspire long-term action – one that’s easily transferrable across generations. This is exceedingly probable when these stories are told in a peculiar language that speaks to the behavioural and cognitive peculiarities of each local culture, customs, and beliefs; this has the potential to pass the message across faster, and the beliefs and behaviours within each society offer members the levers with which to navigate and achieve pre-set collective environmental goals. 

While the concept of climate-positive dissonance might inspire a few people, the idea of individualism is considered self-serving in most indigenous communities, which advocate mutually supportive behaviour that prioritises group agency over individual enterprise. Consequently, socio-ecological realities like climate change are best appreciated when linked to core pre-existing indigenous belief systems, that guarantee cognitive consistency; while avoiding the tension, conflicts, and psychological imbalance that come with the sort of dissonance, climate activists often preach.

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Can you list an example of one interaction between society and the environment that benefits them both? This is the question that Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, asked her students at the beginning of Botany 101. In many ways, Braiding Sweetgrass is a response to this question. The book is an epic project that puts indigenous and scientific ways of knowing in conversation with each other. It is at once a memoir, a historical cultural narrative, and a hopeful manual in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises. Throughout the book, Kimmerer intertwines her experiences as an indigenous woman, her ongoing project to reclaim lost indigenous ways of knowing, and her long career as a practicing bryologist (a botanist specilising in the study of moss and bryophytes), culminating in a celebration of humanity’s historical reciprocal relationships with the rest of the living world. Braiding Sweetgrass encourages this awakening within a wider ecological consciousness. 

Braiding Sweetgrass is first and foremost a project of revival. It is a project that works to decolonise the roots of modern science. For example, when European settlers first colonised North America, they embarked on a systemic erasure of indigenous ways of study and learning. Western science in many cases supplanted indigenous ways of knowing up to the modern day within mainstream understandings of land, ecosystems, and resource preservation. At the same time, the nature of the scientific method means that things like ethics and morality are excluded by necessity from scientific lines of questioning, even while many issues underlying climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and global social and material inequality stem from the intersection of nature and culture. Therefore, we cannot rely on ‘unbiased’ scientific ways of knowing alone in order to address these issues. 

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer explains the difference between science, indigenous wisdom, and learning as the difference between looking and listening. Where on the one hand, science encourages us to observe, be specific and unbiased, on the other hand, indigenous teachings encourage us to listen, recognise, and be led by what we study. 

Braiding Sweetgrass introduces us to this way of knowing by framing understandings of nature in terms of gifts. Potawatomi teachings, for example, instruct learners that each being (plants, animals, rocks, rivers, lakes, etc.) has a gift to give, and that it is our job to listen to that being, and learn what its gift is. For beings like edible plants, their gift is food. Edible plants are amazing gift givers, and turn inanimate material into energy that is shared with other beings. 

The first chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass is Kimmerer’s retelling of the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people, and other iterations of this story are told by indigenous people across the Great Lakes region of what is now called North America. It is the story of skywoman, a pregnant woman living in skyworld that suddenly fell through a hole in the floor. The hole allowed light to reach the world below. As skywoman fell, the animals living in the world below saw her and rescued her. A flock of geese flew up and cushioned her fall. The world she landed on was made completely of water, and so she took refuge on the back of a turtle’s shell. The animals wanted skywoman to have dry land to live on, and so they took turns diving to the bottom of the water to fetch mud. None of them could, until the muskrat eventually reached the bottom of the water, grabbed a fistful of mud, and drowned while swimming back to the surface. When the muskrat’s body reached the surface, skywoman took the mud from its paw, and danced in gratitude for the muskrat’s gift. As she danced, she kicked the mud around until it spread out and became land. 

This is the Haudenosaunee creation story about Turtle Island, nowadays known as North America. After skywoman created this land, she planted seeds throughout it, so that when she gave birth to her child, they could thrive in this new world created in a partnership between skywoman and the animals. 

The story of skywoman is full of reciprocal gift-giving. 

For example, the animals gave skywoman the gift of mud (and therefore land) and in return, skywoman cultivated the land with every known plant species. This creation story is an amazing way to frame how Braiding Sweetgrass wants us to understand our place on the world. That the world is full of gifts for us, but equally importantly, that we are full of gifts for the world. Many non-indigenous people struggle to imagine ways to live in harmony with the environments that they inhabit, but indigenous people everywhere have endless examples of this kind of living. Braiding Sweetgrass invites us to inhabit such examples from Kimmerer’s life and studies. 

The author invites us into what she calls “the web of reciprocity” wherein ecosystems are vast networks of gift giving – from producer to herbivore, herbivore to carnivore, plant to human, and human to plant. Gifts, and gift-giving, are core to to the idea that Braiding Sweetgrass presents in terms of how we currently frame concepts like sustainability in the climate movement. To Kimmerer, sustainability implies preserving systems that allow for us to extract resources in perpetuity, whereas reciprocity implies that the Earth is a being that cares for humanity, and humanity has the capacity and responsibility to care for the Earth in return. 

A core example of the human capacity to give gifts to the world in Braiding Sweetgrass has to do with a concept called “the honorable harvest,” which is a way of procuring food that in turn bolsters an ecosystem’s resilience. The Anishanabee people, for example, depend on manoomin (or wild north american rice) for sustenance. Manoomin grows along wetlands, and so in the late summer, when the wetlands flood, Anishanabee people go out in boats to harvest it. Their harvesting technique results in about 40% of the manoomin harvested being ‘lost’ or dropped back into wetland habitats. 

However, this practice is not done on accident: as the Anishinabee harvest manoomin, they also actively seed the wetlands for the next year’s harvest. The honorable harvest in this case is a means of reciprocal gift giving to the manoomin plant. It exists in many forms throughout the world, but underscores a culture of care within indigenous communities. Where every plant has a purpose, or ‘gift’ to give, ensuring and harbouring biodiversity is equally important and beneficial to more-than-human and human communities, stewardship is humankind’s gift in return. Braiding Sweetgrass presents this way of knowing ecosystems as an integral part of “the gift economy,” where gifts become more valuable the more they are given. 

In another chapter, Kimmerer narrates a scientific study on the merits of the honorable harvest, which found that the honorable cultivation of plants does indeed benefit the plant in the long run, either by freeing up space for the plant’s offspring, or by distributing seeds to appropriate niches. This is just one instance where Kimmerer is able to merge indigenous and scientific ways of knowing, creating a multifocal lattice for us to use in the face of the unfolding climate and biodiversity crises. 

Braiding Sweetgrass as a whole is a rare book that feels hopeful, relevant, and full of love. In her same botany 101 lecture, Robin Wall Kimmerer asked her students if they loved the Earth, after they responded with a resounding “yes”, Kimmerer then asked her students if they thought the Earth loved them back. Her students did not know how to respond to this question because, if the Earth loved them back, it would presuppose an idea that the Earth as a being had come to know everyone personally. This question lies at the core of Braiding Sweetgrass, it is a book-length lesson that ultimately reassures its readers that the Earth does, in fact, love them back. 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer

2015, Milkweed Editions, 408pp

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Microalgae are becoming increasingly important due to their potential for human health and environmental sustainability. These unicellular organisms are rich in nutrients and active compounds that can display a wide range of biological activities. Up-and-coming research is unveiling the multiple potentials of algae in areas such as biomedicine, bioremediation, or treatment of contaminated waters. This is the case of the EU- funded project Algae4IBD, which is investigating how microalgae could help prevent diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Many people, including bio-technologists, industry, and policymakers, are becoming increasingly interested in microalgae. The more we learn about them the more they seem to prove to have extraordinary potential. These unicellular autotrophic organisms can provide an enormous variety of applications and services, ranging from feeding people and animals to being used as biomaterials such as bioplastics, bio-fertilisers, biofuels, or bioactive compounds for cosmetics and medicine. They can even be used in bioremediation to treat contaminated waters. Their applications are so wide that I have been working with microalgae for 14 years and I am still discovering new prospects to use these remarkable microorganisms.

Microalgae can be found all over the planet and even in different extreme environmental conditions, such as high temperatures or salt concentrations, low acidity (pH), or in the presence of high contaminant concentrations. To cope with these extreme conditions, microalgae produce metabolites that can display a wide range of biological activities. These metabolites can have antioxidant, antibacterial or anti-inflammatory effects, and even the ability to kill tumor cells. 

Given this, the application of microalgae in the pharmaceutical industry is obvious. They have recently been the focus of researchers looking for new bioactive compounds or inspiration for the design of new pharmaceutical drugs. Algae are also very interesting nutrient sources in themselves. They could also be considered functional foods that can help us prevent diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 

IBD is characterised by chronic reoccurring inflammation of the digestive system and can include symptoms such as diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, and strong abdominal pain. Some of the biological properties of microalgae, particularly those with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, prebiotic, and pain-modulating activities, could help fight IBD’s symptoms improving patients’ health and quality of life. 

This is in fact what I am researching at CCMAR, as part of the EU-funded project Algae4IBD. Through our research, we have been able to prove that some algae strains contain these anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Now, we are in the process of identifying the compounds responsible for this and isolating them in order to characterise their chemical composition. But this can take between a year and a year and a half, sometimes even longer.

From my experience, a large part of the interest in microalgae arises also from the fact that the production of these organisms can be environmentally sustainable, helping to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and enhance carbon capture. Microalgae live in both fresh and seawater and need a steady supply of light, CO2, nitrogen, and phosphorus nutrients to grow. Coincidentally, wastewater, especially that from agriculture, is rich in such nutrients, which means that it can be used to grow microalgae. This is a cheap and sustainable technique that benefits algae production and contributes to the wastewater treatment process.

Incorporating microalgae production into our current value chain has the potential to propel our society forward, improving human health but also our lives at many other levels. 

Using Algae4IBD as an example, at CCMAR we analyse algae for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. These algae are locally grown by NECTON, S.A, a microalgae producer in Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region. For them, this initiative could mean a new business opportunity and a reason to enlarge their portfolio of microalgal species and applications. In places where sunlight is abundant, like in the Algarve region, encouraging new microalgae production ventures could help create new businesses and jobs.

However, despite the advantages and potential of many microalgae, only around 87 production ventures exist in Europe. Another 213 European companies cultivate solely spirulina, a highly-nutritious type of blue-green algae that grows in both salt and freshwater. This is due to business constraints that hamper the industry’s development. Production costs are high, even for highly productive species, and drying the produced biomass is exceedingly expensive, raising the final product cost. 

Tubular photo-bioreactor at Necton’s facilities. With new photo-bioreactors andadvanced monitoring of cultures, microalgae can be cultivated under controlled
conditions. Credit: Necton

Tubular photo-bioreactor at Necton’s facilities. With new photo-bioreactors and advanced monitoring of cultures, microalgae can be cultivated under controlled conditions. Photo: Necton

Microalgae cultivation also requires specific light conditions. To provide enough light for the algae to grow, production systems need to be shallow (like open lagoon systems or raceways) or made from thin tubes of glass or polycarbonate.  This means that microalgae production takes up a lot of space, which makes it hard to install production facilities in crowded places, like big cities. To top this off, governments still choose to support conventional agriculture over microalgae production, although the sustainability of microalgae production can be higher than that of vegetables and other crops. 

Another constraint are EU regulations. From the tens of thousands of algae species known, only around 20 are produced and commercialised at an industrial scale, and 6 species of microalgae are allowed for human consumption. And getting new species approved is highly time-consuming and overly expensive. This is problematic because although microalgae have many beneficial properties, species can be quite specific. Some microalgae like Spirulina can contain a protein content of up to 70% of their dry weight. Other are rich in omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which can only be found in marine oily fish, which in turn obtain them from phytoplankton (the microalgae). 

Despite all of this, algae research is advancing fast, and the potential applications of algae are growing. Soon microalgae could be essential sources of proteins, pigments, vitamins, or fatty acids. However, in order to push forward our findings, we have to expand our horizons, dive into the research of new species, and work hard to protect the biodiversity of our oceans.

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The climate crisis is underscoring pre-existing global inequities. Often, the most disadvantaged are left with little voice, being spoken for rather than listened to or championed. While privileged individuals in wealthy areas can be much-needed allies, it is essential to centre the opinions and wishes of those most impacted by climate change and its effects.

The history of humanity is a history of injustice. Racist colonisation and imperialism. Extreme capitalism. Ecological destruction. Across the planet, the consequences are still felt to this minute. People – particularly, those most impacted – deserve to be furious about, and to criticise, the horrific past injustices that have arisen from and contributed to the inequitable systems with which we still live. And it is important to learn from the past to move forward in the most just and fair manner possible.

But, as much as we wish we could, nobody can change the past. We can only work with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. 

Even for the most informed and educated among us (which in itself is a type of privilege), it is not exactly simple or straightforward to conceptualise, execute, and maintain 100% equitable solutions that benefit each and every person – and creature – on Earth equally.

The world has witnessed disastrous attempts at this. Looking back at history, one could argue that the entire 20th century was a terrifying “social experiment” demonstrating why communism and other currents of thought prevailing during that time, while being idealistic theories, simply do not work as intended in practice. 

In any case, often, it is educated people in rich countries and regions with the highest HDI (“human development index”) scores who speak on behalf of those most hegemonised by humanity’s history of injustices. Including when speaking about the current climate crisis. Somewhat ironically, these well-meaning people are typically the ones who have benefited the most from history and the status quo.

Undoubtedly, those holding privileged positions of power and wealth can be much-needed allies. But, as previously mentioned, good intentions can slide into speaking for the world’s most disenfranchised and marginalised, rather than listening to and championing them.

Or, as exemplified by a Karl Marx quote, included at the beginning of Edward Said’s Orientalism: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” Relatedly, communism was a theory popularised by the intellectual bourgeoisie, not the proletariat whose interests they felt the need to represent.

The point of this piece is not to (dis)favour any political or economic system. Extreme capitalism, as currently and historically experienced around the world, has only intensified pre-existing inequalities.

As many know, the climate crisis is also a social crisis, underscoring and exacerbating obvious inequities. Not just in who is most impacted by environmental disasters but in whose voice carries the most weight. 

While environmental, grassroots non-profits are serving the world’s most disadvantaged (often in the “Global South” or Indigenous communities), and doing fantastic work, the founders and board members of these organisations (especially the larger ones) usually come from positions of relative privilege and power.

Empowering people is not simply powerful people helping the less fortunate. Everyone has power. But humanity’s – aforementioned, well-documented, and rightfully well-criticised – history of injustices has resulted in a world order and societal structures where only certain forms of power are valued and listened to.

We know that even the most progressive human communities will never be perfect. There are as many nuanced views on how best to improve a community as there are people living in it.

Factors Contributing to Climate Crisis Marginalisation

Like the mental health realm is shifting towards centring lived experience, we should amplify the voices and experiential realities of those bearing the worst brunt of the climate crisis. Those who typically face multiple and/or intensified forms of adversity, discrimination, and exploitation due to their intersecting roles, attributes, and identities, e.g., based on a combination of the following factors:

A 2021 Earth.Org article titled “How Marginalised Groups Are Disproportionately Affected by Climate Change” outlines how economic, global, racial, and generational disparities influence which populations within which areas are particularly at risk of experiencing climate change’s most severe effects.

Many vulnerable nations and populations are found in the Global South. And, generally speaking, most “developing countries” are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Africa in particular is unfairly hit, especially when we consider that it contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Africa and South America each emit just 3-4% of the global share. Even the entirety of enormous Asia, home to China, India, and many other highly populated nations – both developed and developing – and 60% of the world’s population, contributes only 53%.

Per capita carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from fossil fuels and industry. Land use change is not included. Image by Our World in Data.

Per capita carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from fossil fuels and industry. Land use change is not included. Image by Our World in Data.

Disadvantaged populations within poorer areas, such as those found in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and South America, along with producing fewer greenhouse gases per capita, are also far less equipped to deal with the ramifications of environmental issues and disasters. 

The World Economic Forum writes that the 74 lowest-income countries emit just one-tenth of emissions, “but they will be most affected by the effects of climate change.”

Another marginalising factor is gender. UN Women has called the intersection of two worldwide issues, gender inequality and the climate crisis, “one of the greatest challenges of our times.”

Due to structural inequalities, women and girls around the world have fewer human and legal rights, and less access to virtually all resources. These include land, natural resources, education, information, funding, public participation and decision-making processes, healthcare, and relief assistance.

You might also like: How the Climate Justice Movement Could Solve Global Gender Inequalities

80% of those displaced by the climate crisis are female. Globally, women are more likely than males to experience poverty. They are also likelier to face domestic violence – exacerbated by stress-inducing situations, such as those brought about by climate change. And, compared to men, women rely more on at-risk natural resources for their livelihoods (while at the same time being less likely to own these resources). 

On top of these realities, women are typically the ones occupying caregiving roles within their households, looking after children and the elderly – two other vulnerable populations. 

And as brought up in this piece, ecological hardships are multiplied for women who are poor, disabled, Indigenous, and otherwise marginalised and disadvantaged.

Final Thoughts

To move forward with the most equitable climate solutions, it is important to learn from historical and ongoing injustices. And diverse voices are essential for healthy democracies. But respecting the request for “nothing about us without us,” in terms of decision-making, requires us to listen to the opinions and ambitions of those with lived experience, including that of climate change’s worst impacts. Doing so can help us rectify the social inequities and injustices that the world’s environmental crisis has so far highlighted.

You might also like: What is Climate Justice and Why Is It Important?

In an exclusive interview with Earth.org, Vipop CEO’s Lenia Perez discusses the devastating environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry, why sustainability matters and how her company is working to improve the sector while simultaneously empowering women and promoting diversity.  

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production has doubled from 100 to 200 billions units a year. Simultaneously, garment usage lifetime has decreased by 36% overall – and of all fashion items discarded, only a very small portion is recycled, leading to more than 90  million tons of clothes-related waste each year estimated to be worth about US$500 billion. 

The environmental impacts fast fashion generates stem from a variety of factors, from the monstrous amount of water required for production – around 93 billion cubic metres annually – to textile dyeing, which is responsible for about 20% of global wastewater.  

Nowadays, the fast fashion industry generates more emissions than the aviation and shipping industries combined – the equivalent of about 10% of annual global carbon dioxide output.

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Online shopping has revolutionised the industry and brings an added $26.7 trillion in profits each year. But between over-packaging and the energy required to ship goods across the globe have only added to the sector’s environmental footprint.

As consumer’s expectations in terms of price, speed, and convenience rise, the fast fashion industry is set to keep growing at an unprecedented rate in the coming years, with related emissions expected to increase by 50% by 2030

Fast fashion is both an economic and sociological phenomenon that has grown to epic proportions. What we cut in costs for garments is borne twice over by the planet, but with the climate crisis worsening day by day and experts warning that we are running out of time to reverse the course, it has become more important than ever to change our regulations and behaviours and turn to more sustainable options.

We spoke about these issues with Lenia Perez, CEO of Vipop. With values such as sustainability, quality, and craftsmanship at heart, the Hong Kong-based fashion brand is dedicated to “shining a light on sustainable handcrafted works in consumer fashion.” They work with international artisans whose products and businesses reflect these values in a bit not only to “evoke a feeling of change and opportunity for both sides of the industry: designers and consumers.”

Lenia Perez on Sustainability in Fashion

EO: What inspired you to launch Vipop, a company with sustainability at heart? 

Perez: There is no doubt that the world is changing for the better. But it is not always easy to know how to make a difference, especially when it comes to things like fashion. That’s why we’re here: to share with you that sustainable fashion isn’t just possible – it is also fun and feels good! You can still look stylish and feel comfortable in the clothes you wear while doing your part to help the environment.

Our mission at Vipop is to connect with sustainable fashion lovers worldwide and showcase sustainable and ethical designer clothing. We believe in long-lasting fashion, which means less waste and more value for your money. 

We also believe in fair labor practices, which means our designers pay their workers fairly, so you can feel good about where your money is going when you purchase something from us.

EO: What are the challenges of the fashion industry and in what way does Vipop address them?

Perez: It is very hard nowadays to find sustainable brands that are sustainable and sell attractive and unique products. The industry is known for generating a lot of waste and is often associated with the workers’ exploitation, but there are many wonderful brands out there who put sustainability first and design beautiful pieces. We just want to show to our clients that they have options that do not compromise the style while trying to reduce their environmental footprint.

At Vipop, we choose our partners carefully and do extensive research before we decide to work with them. We try to dig in as deep as we can and we have support for creating a ranking system that we can keep using to evaluate our designer’s performance over time. We aim to grow together with our designers. Sustainability is a marathon, not a sprint. We also extensively dedicate our time to look for designers to work with that reflect our values and meet certain standards we have set for ourselves. This way, we are able to make sure that the sustainability claims that brands make are actually authentic – and that they are worthy of representing our mission.

You might also like: 18 Sustainable Fashion Brands to Support in 2023

EO: What criteria do you use when it comes to selecting artisans to partner with?

Perez: We look for a few key things.

Firstly, we do research on the artisan’s speciality. This can be an ancient technique or a more modern one – we are interested in all sorts of artistic approaches as long as they are sustainable and environmentally friendly. We also consider their aesthetic and style preferences, so that we can make sure our products will appeal to our customers.

Finally, we ask about their sustainability practices as a brand. Do they use natural materials? Do they employ local people? Do they have any research programmes in place? 

EO: What’s the role of women in fashion and what are the reasons behind VIPOP’s all-female team?

Perez: Women are naturally more in tune with the aesthetics of fashion, and they have a heightened sense of sensitivity when it comes to where their clothes come from. This is because women have been historically less empowered than men, and this has led them to become more aware of the unfairness that surrounds them.

Vipop’s founders happen to be women that care about empowering other women and things just progress in this direction. We welcome men that are interested in conscious fashion, too. We will always want to help level the playing field for future generations. We want all our employees to feel like they have got an equal shot at success and we want our customers to know that we take diversity seriously.

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Thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice have caused the ocean to swell and sea levels to rise continually, leading to more deadly and destructive storm surges, frequent and expansive flooding, and shoreline and habitat erosion. These repercussions threaten coastal populations, infrastructure, and economies. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with continued ocean and atmospheric warming, sea level rise (SLR) is expected to accelerate. However, there are ways for coastal cities to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. By understanding the threat, its ramifications, and the assets most at risk, officials can develop strategies to combat this literal rising tide and protect lives and livelihoods throughout their communities.

By Crystal Muller and Kaitlin Mahoney

Steps to Assessing Risk 

Coastal cities can embrace a proactive approach by developing climate adaptation plans (CAP) to outline how future conditions could affect their infrastructure, buildings, and assets. A CAP’s purpose is to explore and showcase the potential risks and hazards of rising seas, the direct and indirect contribution to flooding events, and the strategies that might help mitigate their impact. 

“Municipalities and many city departments, including stormwater, public works, floodplain, administration, and safety, can do their due diligence to see how much sea level rise may impact their community, residents, businesses, and infrastructure,” said Hal Clarkson, Program Director at Woolpert, an architecture, engineering, and geospatial firm. 

Coastal cities are home to more than 25 million people in the US and are critical to the nation’s economy and way of life. Mineral extraction, offshore energy drilling, tourism, marine transportation of goods, seafood cultivation, and other coastal activities generate more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product. Coastal cities are also home to key naval and military bases. 

With a CAP, officials in coastal areas can take preventative steps to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels, which will reportedly increase an additional 10-12 inches along coastlines by 2050

According to Gina M. Raimondo, the US Secretary of Commerce, knowing what to expect and how to plan for the future will help businesses and communities “understand risks and make smart investments in the years ahead.”

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Essential Methods and Tools to Track SLR

Developing a CAP requires city officials to conduct a study to identify assets and infrastructure at risk from sea level rise. Performing this study necessitates the use of several tools including lidar, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the earth.

For the study, lidar elevation data can help officials evaluate a coastal city’s topography to identify low-lying areas, determine locations of concern based on existing water surface elevations, and project future elevations due to sea level rise.

GIS data is another tool officials can use to map the location of city- and state-owned facilities and how flooding, specific to sea level rise, could impact buildings and roadways and the ability to respond when disaster strikes. 

“With GIS, municipalities can map out where the county- and state-owned emergency response facilities are located,” said Clarkson. 

“This includes fire stations, hospitals, and police stations. Officials can then use elevation data to see where elevations are low and where these critical facilities are placed.”

This evaluation not only considers direct impacts on these facilities but also the potential impacts on access routes that may inhibit the ability of emergency responders to reach people. A city’s GIS data also helps identify the location and owners of critical assets like stormwater infrastructure, roads, and bridges as well as critical public and private facilities like schools, healthcare facilities, and public service buildings. According to Clarkson, this insight can help cities know which assets they can protect directly.

“A city’s data can determine the location of stormwater infrastructure and reveal what are state roads, city roads, and private roads,” explained Clarkson. 

“After analyses, officials can get a better handle on what may be impacted and whether they can take proactive steps to protect at-risk infrastructure or only have the authority to notify the affected parties through education.”

One additional tool is historical data. The study should incorporate city reports, news articles, and anecdotal feedback from residents that document the neighbourhoods that typically experience flooding, as well as past flooding events and regional ramifications. Information and data collected by agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and United States Geological Survey (USGS) are valuable resources that can help coastal cities better understand potential future impacts on their communities.

Projected Flooding Damages Outlined 

After gathering and analysing these data, officials can understand what assets are at risk and the projected damages to be expected. Three common categories of at-risk assets include the following:

  1. Direct damage to the city: This category focuses on flood-related damages to property a city owns and maintains. It outlines the likelihood of city-owned and maintained facilities, stormwater infrastructure, roadways, intersections, and crossings experiencing intense flooding events as severe storms increase in frequency and tailwater elevations rise.
  2. Secondary damages to the city:The facilities in this category are not owned by a city but are essential to its health, safety, and economy. This category details how flooding may threaten schools, county facilities, state facilities, and privately owned facilities.
  3. Damages to private residences: The private residences in this category are more susceptible to the impacts of sea level rise. While a city doesn’t handle the costs of flood-related damages to private residences, it is responsible for repairing and upgrading infrastructure to protect community members. 

Strategies to Apply Data, Protect City

Once officials have a better idea of how to protect their coastal communities from the rising sea level and its destructive consequences, they can create a game plan. 

Some potential strategies outlined in a CAP include:

While mitigating the impacts of sea level rise will take many steps, cities can develop CAPs to have the information they need to align resources and create preventative plans.

“CAPs will help coastal cities educate their councils and show areas they need to concentrate on,” Clarkson said. “Ultimately, this is about planning. It lets a city narrow its focus on certain areas that may need more attention and that it has the authority to help.”

About the authors:

Woolpert Project Manager and Engineer Crystal Muller works out of Woolpert’s Charleston, S.C., office. Woolpert Engineer Kaitlin Mahoney works out of Woolpert’s Columbia, S.C., office.

“The lack of a visible and salient problem when it comes to water is where the city’s problem lies,” write Dr Lina Vyas and Dr Stuti Rawat on World Water Day 2023.

By Dr Lina Vyas and Dr Stuti Rawat

On Wednesday, World Water Day, the United Nations 2023 Water Conference will take place in New York City, 46 years after the first UN Water Conference was held. During this time, Hong Kong has made significant progress in its water sector.

Shing Mun Reservoir, in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

Shing Mun Reservoir, in Hong Kong’s New Territories. File photo: GovHK.

In 1977, Hong Kong residents had less than 91 days of full water supply and until the early 1980s they faced water shortages and water rationing. Today, water in Hong Kong is safe, available around the clock, easily accessible and priced cheaper than comparable cities in the world.

In contrast to the fact that globally 2 billion people are still not able to access safely managed drinking water services, using the phrase “water woes” in conjunction with Hong Kong seems quite a misnomer. However, the lack of a visible and salient problem when it comes to water is where the city’s problem lies.

Although Hong Kong is water insecure in the sense that’s naturally available resources are not adequate for the city’s needs, this is not immediately evident to the city’s residents as Hong Kong has not experienced water scarcity in the last four decades; largely due to the water supply agreements which allow Hong Kong to import close to 60% of its water from the Dongjiang in Guangdong province.

The rest comes from rainwater from local catchments and sea water – which is used for toilet flushing. The lack of water scarcity in Hong Kong creates an “illusion of plenty” and influences consumption. Studies have shown that individuals from regions experiencing water scarcity are much more likely to participate in and support water conserving behaviour as compared to those from non-water scarce contexts.

In addition to context, price also influences consumption. Water in Hong Kong is supplied to residents at tariff rates that have remained unchanged since 1995, even as the cost of water production has more than doubled since then. It is thus hardly surprising that per capita water consumption in Hong Kong has been increasing steadily. In 2020, domestic per capita fresh-water consumption stood at 152.6 litres per day.

handwashing; sanitation

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com.

One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to be greater increases in domestic water consumption because of changes in habits such as more frequent hand washing, showering and cleaning.

This has been observed in Singapore, which prior to the pandemic saw per capita water use steadily declining from 151 litres in 2015 to 141 litres in 2019. This subsequently increased during the pandemic to 154 litres in 2020 and 158 litres in 2021.

So why is Hong Kong’s rising domestic water consumption a matter of concern? Three reasons.

Firstly, it is not sustainable. Climate change is already beginning to impact the spatial and temporal distribution of water resources.  In May 2021, because of the hot weather and deficient rainfall, the water level of many reservoirs in Hong Kong dropped, with only nine out of 17 containing more than half of total storage at that time.

The Dongjiang basin on which Hong Kong is dependent for its water supply, is already considered to be an area of water scarcity and facing competition for its water resources. As climate change induced extreme weather events increase in the future, honouring Hong Kong’s water allocation as per the terms outlined in the Dongjiang water agreement could present challenges.

Dongjiang water pipes in Sheung Shui. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Dongjiang water pipes in Sheung Shui. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Secondly, Hong Kong’s rising water use against the low water tariffs it charges – research shows water prices in Hong Kong are less than a seventh of the true water production cost – is also problematic in terms of the fiscal sustainability of its utilities. It is estimated that that the revenue-expenditure gap of the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department for 2002-2012 was HK$41.7 billion.

In addition to this, are the losses accruing from water leakages. Close to a third of Hong Kong’s freshwater is lost through leaks in government mains, private pipes and theft, and estimated to be equivalent to HK$1.35 billion in revenue in 2013. Losses such as these impact the cost-effectiveness of the utility and impinge on its ability to become carbon neutral in terms of capital investments and operational activities in the future.

Thirdly, Hong Kong is confronting practical challenges when it comes to its existing programmes and lagging in developing alternative sources of water supply. For example, Hong Kong has been using sea water for toilet flushing since the 1950s. This has, however, contributed to higher maintenance requirements due to pipe corrosion caused by the high salt content.

With respect to seawater desalination, although feasibility studies were conducted in 2002 and 2007, the construction of a desalination plant at Tseung Kwan O did not commence until 2019. It is expected to be completed this year. However, desalination is extremely energy intensive and the process produces condensed brine, which if released back into the sea would raise salinity, with a potential negative impact on marine ecology.

And while guidelines on the implementation of rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling systems have been formulated and incorporated since 2015, these have been restricted to government buildings.

Compare this with the remarkable progress made by Singapore in developing alternative water sources and its continuous drive to leverage smart technologies to strengthen operations and meet future needs; it is clear that Hong Kong is lagging behind.

Although Hong Kong’s Water Supplies Department (WSD) has scaled up its water conservation campaigns and measures in recent years, take-up of these measures among the public remains low. According to a survey on domestic water consumption undertaken by the WSD in 2015-2016, over 95% of households did not participate in the WSD’s “Let’s Save 10L Water” campaign that had been initiated the previous year.

Only about 32% of households indicated using water saving devices or products from the voluntary Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme (WELS) and only 42% of households had heard about WELS. All of this suggests that educational campaigns and voluntary measures may not be sufficient to change the water-use habits of Hong Kong residents.

As long as the city’s non-water scarce context and price-signalling do not offer people a reason to change their water-use behaviour, per capita water consumption is likely to grow unabated, and Hong Kong’s water woes are going to be glaringly apparent sooner rather than later.

In light of World Water Day it is important to discuss Hong Kong’s “hidden” water problem. Over the last four decades Hong Kong has moved towards more unsustainable consumption patterns, while maintaining a sheltered exterior of plentiful supply. Current measures targeting water supply and water demand, are not enough. It is essential these be reviewed for the sake of Hong Kong’s future.

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 authors:

Dr Lina Vyas is an associate professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, specialising in public policy and management.

Dr Stuti Rawat is a research assistant professor at the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, specialising in sustainability and public policy.

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The fate of the world’s economy is not decided in banks, boardrooms, or on stock markets. It is decided by the ground beneath our feet. Investing in soil health today is not only an ecological necessity but an economic one, too. 

Soil is the planet’s life support system. There is approximately three times as much carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere, and about four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. Similarly, there is no food security without healthy soils; we rely on the organic matter concentrated in them for the food that sustains our societies. 

Similarly, healthy soils and water are highly interconnected. Water filters through the organic matter in soils and collects as pure groundwater, upon which 2 billion people worldwide rely for their primary drinking source. 

Today, the United Nations predicts that some 40% of the world’s soils are eroded. Already, this threatens further crop failure, loss of livelihoods, water pollution, and ecosystem collapse that impacts farmers, foresters, and local communities. 

This has dire ramifications for the business world, too. Soil and land degradation creates commodity price volatility, leading businesses to front the costs, or pass this increased cost onto the customer. When soil health deteriorates, it leads to a reduction in the production of basic food items. We’ve already seen how reduced grain and wheat exports from Ukraine has triggered global food supply instability. We can expect such volatility to become commonplace if soil degradation continues at the rate it is. 

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Yet, we must not succumb to fatalism. We must understand that there is a huge opportunity to buffer both local farmers, and the wider global economy from both the impacts of soil degradation and climate change. This is possible through large-scale adoption of simple yet effective soil management practices by farmers. By adopting such practices we can improve the soil’s organic matter, which in turn contributes to overall soil health. Healthy soils also make farming efficient, profitable, and more resilient to climate shocks.  

As stated by Dr. Alisher Mirzabaev, chair of Production Economics Group at the University of Bonn, at the expert roundtable hosted by Save Soil: “Soil health is a highly profitable investment. Every euro invested in land restoration can return 2-9 euros of profits over 30 years.”

By investing in better soil education, management, research, and technology that increases soil’s organic matter and thus its health, we can not only protect the natural resource upon which our economies are based, but we can also maximise crop yields, and therefore trigger a bottom-up economic stimulus. 

Here is one such example. 

In 1998, a team of UN experts predicted that by 2025, nearly 60% of Tamil Nadu, of which the previously fertile Cauvery river basin runs through, would become a desert as a result of intensive farming practices.

The Rally for Rivers, one of the largest people’s movements in India supported by 161 million people, encouraged farmers to transition from mono crops to tree-based agriculture. As a result of this transition, farmers saw their income increase by between 300% and 800%, which triggered a huge economic empowerment amongst the whole community. 

The project has resulted in the planting of over 60 million trees. For context, the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service estimates that over a 50-year span, a tree generates $162,000 in benefits –$31,250 worth of oxygen, $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water, and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion. 

Similarly, in a recent soil and water conservation project funded by the global federation of companies Mahindra in India’s Madhya Pradesh, nearly 10,000 hectares of farmed land was treated with the “Ridge to Valley” approach. As a result, 4,071 farmers benefited from a two-meter rise in average groundwater levels, which doubled per capita income. 

Of course, such investments protect businesses, too. The reality is that for most modern businesses, soil underpins their entire supply chain. Businesses that sell food, fibres, biofuels, and fashion rely on healthy soil for the production of raw materials they require for their products.

Supply of clean drinking water, especially in the tropical world, is heavily dependent on healthy soils that sequester the rainwater and recharge the surface water bodies like lakes and groundwater aquifers like wells and tube wells. 

This is why our policies must have the goal of retaining the minimum 3-6% of organic matter that characterise healthy soils. The Save Soil movement, an initiative by the Isha Foundation and supported by the WHO, UN SDG lab, and IUCN, suggests a three-pronged strategy to make that happen. 

First, we must encourage farmers to shift away from traditional practices; they must be financially incentivised to adopt healthy, regenerative agriculture methods. Secondly, the private sector must collaborate with governments to ensure that farmers can easily access the complex carbon credit market. Finally, we should develop a labelling mechanism that is based on the organic matter of the soil in which food is grown. This would raise consumer awareness of the benefits of healthy soil and would help facilitate more environmentally-conscious choices. All these initiatives will rely on the private sector working alongside the public sector in order to protect this crucial natural resource. 

Fundamentally, we have to understand that profit is only made on the bedrock of the world’s natural resources. Ultimately, our soils have sustained us for millennia. We must now return the favour. 

You might also like: 5 Challenges the Agricultural Sector Faces in 2023

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