Eco-Business' 10 most read stories of 2019

Leaders and laggards in Southeast Asia's renewables race, banks quitting coal, an op-ed on eco-colonialism—these were among the topics that resonated most with our readers this year. Here’s why.

solar panels indonesia2
Solar panels installed to provide electricity in Sumba Island, Indonesia. President Joko Widodo announced in July 2019 that the country will reduce the use of coal and focus on renewable energy. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-SA 2.0

If Eco-Business’ top-read stories for the year are any indication to go by, incisive opinion pieces and illuminating stories on Southeast Asian countries and large multi-national corporations make the most impact with our audience.

We documented issues such as how countries in Southeast Asia were faring relative to one another in clean energy, and the region’s largest financial institutions divesting from coal.

We continued to question the sustainability initiatives of corporates and their proposed solutions to the staggering waste problem.

Palm oil remained a lightning rod for criticism, but our readers also paid attention to the often-invisible issue of air pollution.

Here are some of the best-read stories for 2019.

1. How will Singapore defuse a 16-year waste timebomb?

When Singapore’s environment minister declared 2019 the Year Towards Zero Waste, Eco-Business wrote an opinion piece arguing that a country that burns almost all of its waste cannot claim to be a zero waste nation.

In its wake, two senior officials of Singapore’s National Environment Agency granted an interview, saying they wanted more residents to recycle right. They said the country’s zero waste masterplan would cover the key waste streams of e-waste, packaging waste and food waste. 

Our top read story for the year showed that readers are vigilant to how the government intends to keep its lofty promises and responds to criticism.

2. Of the world’s 100 most polluted cities, 99 are in Asia

Unless they’re about the haze, air pollution stories often fly under the radar because they cover a problem that is sometimes not visible. But this story’s headline caught the attention of Asian readers for conveying that the world’s filthiest air is found very close to home.

The article gave stark details of how the top 100 smoggiest cities were mostly found in China and India, followed by  Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Although air pollution reflects a rapidly developing region, the story detailed which metropolises had the worst air quality and served as a wake-up call to a public health crisis that kills seven million people per year.

3. Power play—who’s winning Southeast Asia’s renewables race?

As Southeast Asia gradually transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, Eco-Business tapped into the competitive nature of the 10 nations that make up the regional bloc. Using charts that showed who were the leaders and laggards, it was one of the first stories that shed light on the performance of various countries’ uptake of clean energy, relative to their neighbours.

The story was the most-read of the Southeast Asia energy transition series that Eco-Business initiated to document clean energy opportunities in the fast-growing region.

4. UOB is Singapore’s third bank to quit coal power lending in a month

2019 was a big year for the decarbonisation of Singapore’s banks. In a span of 11 days, its biggest banks announced they were backing away from financing new coal-fired power plants. OCBC Bank got the ball rolling, followed by DBS and UOB.

Although UOB and OCBC say they have no more coal deals in the pipeline, DBS continues to finance the massive Vung Ang 2 coal project in central Vietnam.

Nevertheless, this story about some of the region’s major banks ruling out coal—the single biggest contributor to global warming—signalled hope that some financial institutions are taking climate action.

5. How is the world’s biggest palm oil trader living up to its no-deforestation promise?

When the world’s biggest palm oil trader talks about how it is meeting its zero-deforestation policy, the story is expected to be well-read but not necessarily well-received.

Wilmar International, which environmental group Greenpeace once called the “single biggest threat to Indonesian forests”, committed in December 2018 to weed out rainforest destruction and labour abuses from its supply chain of hundreds of mills and millions of hectares of plantations.

The interview with its sustainability chief Jeremy Goon, which also covered its relationship with green groups, caught the ire of some readers. An industry rival criticised the article for giving Wilmar too much credit, while another reader questioned in a tweet if Eco-Business received money for writing about the controversial firm.

Our article gave readers a rare peek into the world of a large company in a complex industry, making it one of our best read stories for 2019.

6. Why doesn’t Nespresso close the loop on aluminium?

After Nestle-owned coffee giant Nespresso announced it was partnering with metal mining company Rio Tinto to use “responsibly sourced” aluminium, Eco-Business came out with this story to challenge its claim.

The article asked why Nespresso could not use 100 per cent recycled aluminium. The company provided partial responses on the percentage of recycled aluminium for its ranges of capsules and claimed it needed a specific aluminium alloy not found in recycled aluminium. Experts called it a “hard-nosed business decision” as a fully circular model for Nespresso’s capsules would require more resources and skillsets.  

This was an example of a firm’s effort to burnish its sustainability credentials, but whose impact was questioned by a discerning audience. 

7. Radical changes proposed for Indonesia to meet clean energy target

Over the past two decades, the country has cut extreme poverty in half and doubled per capita income. As Southeast Asia’s largest economy and one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, Indonesia has proven the immense impact it could have on the global climate.

Taking stock of Indonesia’s clean energy journey, management consulting firm AT Kearney presented a stark message: Unless the country “radically changes” its roll-out of renewable energy, clean sources will only make up 12 per cent of the energy mix in 2025, meeting merely half its target.

8. Big brands sourcing illegal palm oil from habitat of orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers: study 

Readers were riled by news that major consumer brands had worsened the plight of some of the world’s most endangered and charismatic animals.

Many were outraged after reading about how multi-nationals like Unilever, Nestlé, and Mars were sourcing palm oil from plantations engaged in deforestation activities in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem, the only place in the world where tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants co-exist in the wild.

9. In the world of sustainability, colonialism is not dead

The best opinion pieces are made up of well-reasoned arguments that brim with passion—like this one, which called out Danish luxury brand Ganni for depicting the superiority of white European women over brown underprivileged women at a fashion show.

Republished by various global news agencies like the Inter Press Service, the story caused a stir because it mirrored the bigger picture of how developing nations are often at the receiving end of destructive actions by wealthier nations, such as the dumping of waste. 

Op-ed writer Zafirah Zein called for sustainability “to be more inclusive of other voices outside of the Western mainstream—especially communities long marginalised by it—by striving for true representation that does not perpetuate damaging colonial mentalities”.

10. Coke, Nestle and Pepsi top plastic polluter audit again as green groups slam recyclable packaging as ‘false solution’

The latest Greenpeace-led beach audit revealed that the world’s biggest plastic polluters were the same ones from the past two years.

Food and beverage firms Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo say they are working on recyclable packaging solutions, but their efforts were slammed by Abigail Aguilar, plastic campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

“We call them false solutions because they perpetuate the throwaway culture that caused the plastic pollution crisis, and will do nothing to prevent these brands from being named the top polluters again in the future,” she said.

Last year’s story on the topic was also one of the most-viewed, proving the sustained level of reader interest and serving as a call for these labels to ramp up efforts and avoid the ignominy next year.

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene over the last 12 months.

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