Overall, 2014 was a good year for sustainability as many governments and businesses across the globe took significant steps to implement sustainable development policies and strategies, even if scientists continued to issue stark figures on climate change and extreme weather events became more frequent.
Here’s our pick of top 10 headlines that shaped business and sustainability in 2014, and which will no doubt continue to dominate some of the major discussions in the year to come.
1. Corporates change course at UN climate summit
In the largest showing of corporate ambition in recent times, business leaders from across the globe convening at the United Nations climate summit in New York last month pledged significant actions to, in the words of UN chief Ban Ki-moon, “crystallize a global vision for low-carbon economic growth and to advance climate action”.
Several initiatives were announced, including a more than US$200 billion commitment towards the Green Climate Fund to finance low-carbon and climate-resilient development by a coalition of government, business and civil society organisations, and a new initiative called RE 100, where a group of 100 major companies - including Swedish furniture giant IKEA and retail giant H&M - will power all its operations with renewable energy by 2020.
UN climate envoy and former Irish president Mary Robinson summed the proceedings up aptly when she noted: “The message from the climate summit… is that it’s not business as usual with a little bit of green attached. It’s changing course.”
2. Fossil fuel divestment enters mainstream
At the UN climate summit in New York in September, the Rockefellers, who made their vast fortune on oil, along with other philanthropies and high-wealth individuals, announced pledges to divest a total of $50 billion from fossil fuel investments - signalling how the global movement has grown.
Since it launched three years ago, the Fossil Free movement calling on universities, religious institutions, cities, and states to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry is growing faster than any other in history, and now spans 697 campaigns worldwide. Norway is also considering divesting the country’s $840 billion sovereign wealth fund. This has understanably made the energy lobby sit up, and helped spark investment into cleaner, renewable forms of energy.
3. 2014 - The hottest year on record
Last year, meteorologists reported that 2013 was the hottest year on record, but 2014 looks set to surpass that, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
In September, it also released a study that showed greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2013 - 2014 is similarly set for a record - and that the ocean is acidifying at a rate unprecedented in at least the last 300 million years.
When asked about claims by critics that there has been a “global warming standstill since 1997″, WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud noted that the coldest year since 2001 is warmer than any year before 1998.
“Each decade is warmer than the previous one. There is global variability from year to year. You have to look at the longer period. If you do that, then the message is beyond any doubt,” he said.
4. US-China deal on climate change: a game changer
The year will be marked in history books as game-changing for the climate as the US and China cut a deal on climate action that previously eluded both nations. The United States, the world’s biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, has pledged to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025 relative to 2005 levels, while China, the current biggest emitter, has promised to peak its emissions by no later than 2030.
In 2009, the widely anticipated UN climate conference in Copenhagen failed largely because of a standoff between the two states. Their inability to collaborate contributed to the meeting’s chaotic close and weak, non-binding outcome. This time, both states seem to have recognised their responsibility to show leadership on the climate issue.
5. Sustainability discourse in Asia shows sign of maturing
Perhaps the clearest indicator that the conversation on sustainability is maturing in Asia was the launch of the region’s first sustainability index by Singapore broadcaster Channel NewsAsia. The index identifies firms leading in corporate sustainability across 10 Asian economies: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
The Channel NewsAsia Sustainability Ranking, developed in partnership with consultancy firms CSR Asia and Sustainalytics, lists the top 100 companies in Asia in terms of sustainability performance. The companies were selected based on their performance across a broad range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators tracked by Sustainalytics. The top three positions went to India’s Tata Consultancy Services, Singapore’s City Developments and Unilever Indonesia respectively.
6. Oil price plunge
The price of oil dipped below US$60 a barrel in December after members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided against reducing oil output despite a forecasted drop in demand. This prompted the biggest one-day decline in oil prices in three years.
The price plunge is expected to have far-reaching ramifications for the global energy landscape – low prices undercut the economic growth of oil producing countries such as Nigeria, Russia, and Venezuela, while oil importing countries, on the other hand, welcomed the oil price drop as a means to boost economic growth. The United States, the world’s largest oil consumer, rejoiced at drops in fuel prices even as the European Union experienced a “welcome, if small boost to growth”, along with China and other Southeast Asian countries.
While there were some concerns that the tumbling oil price would adversely affect the renewable energy sector, analysts said it will have limited impact on the $250 million global clean power industry. Commitments from countries such as the United States, China, and Japan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote alternatives to fossil fuel would continue to support the uptake of renewables, and a temporary drop in oil prices would not derail investment in the clean energy sector, said analysts.
7. Winning on deforestation
Environmental groups have hailed 2014 as a success story for addressing deforestation. Global brands and companies such as cosmetics firm L’Oreal, Japan-based Kao Corporation, Procter and Gamble, and doughnut companies Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts, pledged to end all deforestation from its supply chains by 2020.
Forest protection campaigners also celebrated commitments by palm oil companies to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Dutch edible oil giant IOI Loders Croklaan, American food giant Cargill, Singapore-based Golden Agri Resources and Musim Mas were among the firms who this year committed to ensuring that all the palm oil they traded, including from third-party suppliers, would not be from illegally deforested land.
Governments in Singapore and Indonesia also stepped up. In August, Singapore’s government passed a new bill on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which would impose fines of up to S$2 million on companies found to be responsible for contributing to haze pollution in Singapore, whether or not these businesses had a presence in Singapore.
A month later, Indonesia also ratified a regional treaty on haze, a move that will legally require the country to work with its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc to prevent, monitor, and mitigate the haze. Indonesia’s ratification of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution comes 12 years after the document was first signed.
8. The year of smart cities
The concept of the “smart city” - where digital technologies are used to enhance resource efficiency and well-being of citizens - took off in a major way in Asia, with India and China along announcing plans to build hundreds of new smart cities in the future.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a vision to build 100 smart cities by an unspecified date, which would be fitted with hi-tech communication and information technology. China, too, announced an $8 billion fund to invest in smart city technology this year. It is also collaborating with Microsoft under its CityNext initiative to transform 200 Chinese cities into smart-cities using cloud computing, mega data, mobilization and social networking.
In December, Singapore and India announced a deal to jointly plan and develop a new capital city ten times the size of Singapore for Andhra Pradesh and its surrounding regions. As part of the S$21.36 billion project, Singapore will create the masterplan for the city and develop the first eight square kilometre section with state representatives from Andhra Pradesh. This plan will include details on logistics infrastructure such as ports and airports; power, water and sanitation utilities; and industrial facilities to support manufacturing.
9. Circular, sharing economy rise in popularity
The idea of a ‘circular economy’ has been rapidly gaining ground as a promising alternative for businesses to reconcile their need for growth with pressing resource constraints and environmental objectives.
Scandinavian think thank Sustainia released a report in June showing that the circular economy - a concept which ensures that products are designed with their eventual reuse, upcycling or biodegradation in mind - emerged as the most prominent trend that is driving the innovation of sustainable solutions worldwide. Circular economy thinking was evident in a quarter of the 100 solutions submitted to Sustania for their Sustainia100 initiative.
The year also saw an explosion of sharing economy schemes, such as car sharing – a business model which allows individuals to rent cars from businesses or other car owners - and peer-to-peer online renting schemes where people can rent items from each other.
Experts say the concepts will help unlock global ability to drive growth and sustain livelihoods in a way that decouples manufacturing processes from natural resource use and environmental impact.
10. Towards a cleaner transportation system
Cities all over the world, and especially in Asia - which are often associated with high levels of congestion and pollution - saw successes in promoting a stronger culture of sustainable transport alternatives to cars, like walking and cycling, also called ‘active mobility’. A shift away from car transport to non-motorised modes could make cities more liveable and even improve business prospects, said experts.
Taiwan’s bike-sharing scheme YouBike reported in September that it enjoyed the highest usage rate in the world, at an average of 10 to 12 bicycle trips per day. This closely followed an announcement by the Taiwanese government that a nationwide bicycle path network would be complete by the end of 2015. The Philippines also announced in December that all new roads would have to include sidewalks and bicycle lanes, in a bid to promote non-motorised transport across the country.
Read the rest of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 11 categories.
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