In 2019, environmental disasters and social upheaval held a mirror to humanity’s inability to safeguard both environment and people, leading many to question if the global systems in place were still relevant or viable.
From the fires in Amazonia, Indonesia and Australia, to widespread protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq and India, the word “crisis” was often and aptly used by the media last year to describe the turmoil of the last decade. Observers wondered if the chaos would make global sustainability goals harder to achieve.
“Perhaps what has most informed last year is the growing awareness that we are entering a critical decade in which we must reduce carbon emissions, but that [signs of] increasing turbulence and uncertainty in the years ahead will make it difficult to do so,” said Ariel Muller, managing director of sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future Asia Pacific.
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However, another defining feature of 2019 was the people who showed up to demand greater accountability from governments and corporations. Due to increasing pressure from citizens and consumers, companies and policymakers are altering business practices and introducing new rules to build a more sustainable world.
What does the coming year hold? 2020, as some experts have noted, is the year the climate fight could be won or lost, and Asia will play a critical role.
We are entering a critical decade in which we must reduce carbon emissions, but that [signs of] increasing turbulence and uncertainty in the years ahead will make it difficult to do so.
Ariel Muller, managing director, Asia Pacific, Forum for the Future
Eco-Business gazes into the crystal ball and identifies five major trends that will shape business and society this year.
1. Big tech’s threat to human rights
Although digital technology is widely recognised as a force for good that has allowed people greater access to information and opportunities, the rising power of big tech is coming under greater scrutiny for posing further risks to human rights, especially in the realm of surveillance and data privacy.
Tech giants are also accused of operating in a “human rights free-zone” that will harm the most vulnerable segments of society. Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights, argued last October that digital technology was changing the nature of social protection in a way that further marginalised the poor.
When its applications are designed without social risks in mind, the use of technology could also reinforce political divides and drive nationalism to the extremes instead of breaking down biases, said Muller.
“We are entering into a different operating environment where our current governance and civic structures for human rights protection are inadequate to deal with the darker side of big tech. We will have to adapt quickly with little knowledge on how to do so.”
Seven in 10 people globally worry about how digital companies such as Google and Facebook use their personal data, and though early attempts to regulate social media giants drew scorn in 2019, could 2020 be the year that governmments start to make tech giants more accountable for the power they wield?
2. Sustainable finance takes off
As investor awareness around climate risks has grown, so too has the sustainable finance market. Defined as any form of financial service which integrates environmental, social or governance (ESG) criteria into business or investment decisions, sustainable finance has been growing, particularly in the issuance of green bonds in Europe and Asia Pacific over the last five years.
In Asia, where a resource-intensive growth model has degraded its natural environment and ecosystems in recent decades, countries such as Singapore and China are spearheading efforts to grow sustainable finance—and this is set to spread in 2020.
“We can expect more activity from the financial sector with regards to sustainability, such as green bonds and responsible investment, while moving away from certain sectors such as coal,” said corporate sustainability specialist Sylvain Richer De Forges.
“This is in response to global trends, especially in Europe and North America, which will inevitably make their way to Asian markets,” he said.
3. Capitalism challenged
Capitalism received a bashing last year by disillusioned segments of society worldwide, and is set to evolve further in 2020 as more people demand an end to the current socio-economic system.
The World Economic Forum will focus on “stakeholder capitalism” at its January forum in Davos. The international body is planning to release a new manifesto that requires companies to “pay their fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption, uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains, and advocate for a competitive level playing field”.
In a bid to re-imagine not only a healthier planet but a healthier society, nations are starting to re-define notions of growth and progress. New Zealand, for instance, introduced a “well-being budget” last year that seeks to tackle issues related to mental health, poverty and addiction.
“In 2020, we anticipate we’ll see more acknowledgement of the fact that our global systems of production and consumption—of food, apparel and other commodities—are not fit for purpose, and that measures of success need to include positive impacts beyond mere profit,” said Muller.
4. Lab-grown meat to hit our dinner tables
Last year, Impossible Foods did pretty much the impossible by making plant-based meat that tastes almost like the real thing accessible to diners. Since then, the market for alternative meat has expanded to Asia, where the appetite for meat is growing along with its middle class.
Cultured or lab-grown meat might soon hit restaurants as more countries strive to meet rising demand for protein. This year, the first phase of India’s Centre of Excellence in Cellular Agriculture will open in Maharashtra, which the government hopes will turn the state into a global clean meat hub.
In Singapore, local company Shiok Meats will also introduce the world’s first lab grown shrimp meat in premium restaurants around the country before making its way to Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.
“Lab-grown meat, once ready for mass production and (cost-effective), can be an amazingly effective alternative to real meat, giving rise to designer meats,” said Sylvain Rochon, a Canadian futurist and entrepreneur in an interview with eco-friendly shipping supplies site EcoEnclose.
“Just like vertical farming in controlled environments, lab-grown meats can be produced within city borders, near distribution centers. This is all great for the consumer’s health, our wallets and the environment, and it is all made possible by the massive amount of investment made in artificial intelligence plus automation over the past few years,” he said.
5. Circular economy begins to spin for big business
More businesses will be abandoning the take, make, waste model in favour of the circular economy, especially as consumers keep up the pressure to cut single-use plastics and waste pollution. Already, more than 60 countries have introduced measures to limit single-use plastic waste through bans or levies, while refill stations and reuse services have become more popular.
Circular economy concepts are still at a very early stage in Asia, said De Forges. He believes a much stronger push is needed to influence consumer behaviour.
“There are a few companies which have started to review their packaging or products to limit the use of plastics, but these remain isolated and usually small initiatives,” said De Forges. “I believe that awareness will continue to spread, and we will be seeing more initiatives relating to the circular economy [this year].”
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the stories that shaped the world of sustainability over the last 12 months.