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The top 10 stories that shaped 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, Eco-Business looks back at the year and the key sustainability issues that have made a strong impact on governments, businesses and the way we live

The year 2013 was a significant one which saw severe environmental crises from the haze outbreak in Southeast Asia to the natural disaster of Typhoon Haiyan which devastated large swathes of the Philippines. And yet, there were some bright spots as countries and businesses across the world increasingly embrace sustainable development and responsible business practices.

Despite the lack of commitment from nations at the recent United Nations climate change talks in Warsaw, the awareness of the importance of sustainability has increased among organisations in the private and public sector, as well as civil society. 

Several programmes and partnerships were launched this year, both at the international and grassroots level, addressing issues across all sectors, including the water and energy shortages, food security, deforestation, and waste. 

It was a notable year for Eco-Business too, as it revamped and launched the third edition of its website in April and separately won the Merit Award for the Lee Foundation Excellence in Environmental Reporting at the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards 2013.

Here, we look at the top 10 stories that shaped 2013 and its impact on creating a more sustainable future in the region and beyond.

1. IPCC 5th Assessment Report

One of the highlights of the year is the release of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A scientific document resulting from the work of over 800 climate scientists and experts from more than 60 countries, it concluded that humans are without a doubt responsible for climate change, and that the warming of the Earth is ‘unequivocal’. The report adds a sense of urgency for vulnerable countries in Asia to put in place adaptation measures to combat climate change, and for the wider global community to take bold steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

2. Super Typhoon Haiyan and extreme weather events

Early in November just as the UN climate talks in Warsaw began, the Philippines was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which wreaked havoc and destroyed large areas in the country’s central region. While most experts were cautious about linking the natural disaster to climate change, some including the Philippine Commissioner for Climate Change Yeb Saño attributed it as a man-made phenomenon due to the unbridled pursuit of economic growth. Regardless the link, the crisis and relief efforts that followed showed starkly the importance for countries to implement climate adaptation measures to prepare its communities for the effects of disasters and extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency.  

3. Worst haze in a decade for Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia 

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia climbed past the 400 mark around June this year, signalling the worst haze crisis in the country in over a decade. Flights were stalled, some schools and businesses were stopped and a public outcry to stop this annual air pollution ensued. Palm oil companies and farmers in Indonesia were in the spotlight as they are regarded to be the drivers of the deforestation and burning that caused the haze. Environmental groups launched campaigns to name and shame palm oil and paper companies, including Singapore-listed firms like Golden Agri Resources and Asia Pulp and Paper, and observers note that corruption in the form of rent-seeking local leaders and corporations in Indonesia are taking advantage of lax law enforcement and murky regulations to continue clearing forests as an increasingly rapid rate. The crisis eventually paved the way for an agreement among Southeast Asian nations to adopt a new system to improve monitoring of smog caused by fires, an attempt to make plantation companies more accountable following the region’s worst air pollution crisis in 16 years.

Closely related to the transboundary haze problem is the issue of deforestation, especially in Indonesia, which The Guardian described this year as “perhaps the most infamous deforestation spot on the planet”. Palm oil concessions and firms are mainly responsible for this, due to a global business worth about US$50 billion annually. As a result, Indonesia is one of the top carbon emitters in the world, and it also stands to lose the remaining endangered orang-utans and Sumatran tigers in the wild.

The industry has taken some steps to address this. In particular, APP in February announced a Forest Conservation Policy which includes an immediate moratorium on all further forest clearance by all of its Indonesian suppliers while independent assessments are conducted to establish areas for protection. Its move was received favourably in an October progress report by Greenpeace, which has been monitoring the company’s progress. More recently, leading palm oil trader Wilmar International announced a ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ policy, complementing earlier commitments from companies like Unilever and Ferrero after months of intense campaigning by groups such as Greenpeace. Separately, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States also announced a plan to allocate US$280 million for a new anti-deforestation initiative that will finance sustainable farming and better land use and management.    

4. Natural capital accounting and the green economy

Protecting forests is only one aspect of a wider effort to conserve natural resources this year. Gaining momentum globally is the idea of natural capital accounting, which is putting a monetary value on air, water and the like, plus other ecosystem services, to prompt businesses to consider the effects of their operations on the natural environment. This particularly was the focus of the recently held Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development in Singapore. The two-day conference of high-level discussions also promoted the shift towards building a green economy, that is, achieving profits but not at the expense of nature or social equity.

The discussions also showed that the discourse on CSR was maturing in Asia, with Singapore leading the way. It demonstrated why corporate responsibility must move into the boardroom, where top executives take a hard look at how they can minimise externalities and create community benefits, and how they can manage these resource risks so their company is sustainable – financially, as well as socially and environmentally. Earlier in May, a panel of world leaders led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also recommended that large companies should report their impact on the environment in addition to their earnings under a UN plan to boost economic growth and ease poverty by 2030.

5. The rise of eco-cities and green buildings 

Across the Asia Pacific, from Australia to Malaysia and Thailand, green building continues to gain momentum as city planners seek to transform their territories into eco-cities and smart cities better equipped to meet resource constraints and provide a quality living environment for their residents. In September, ten cities including Singapore and Tokyo were recognised by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Siemens for excelling in various climate action initiatives, such as establishing energy efficient environments, building smart infrastructure and stimulating economic development

Singapore continues to lead the way in green building legislation and adoption, as demonstrated at the International Green Building Conference this year, which saw the launch of a handful of initiatives such as the voluntary energy labelling of buildings in the city-state plus new schemes under the Green Mark certification of the Building and Construction Authority. Separate reports independently show that energy effiency measures are becoming big business, and in Asia, savings and government policies drive the adoption of energy efficiency

6. Bangladeshi factory workers, CSR in the fashion industry and supply chain in the spotlight

Late in 2012 and early April of this year, two incidents in the factories of Bangladesh brought to light the deplorable working conditions behind the international garments industry. The first incident caused 112 deaths due to a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory while more recently, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building  crushed more than 1,100 workers and injured 2,500 employees.

Global brands were suddenly in focus since many source clothes from the country, which is just behind China, and highlighted the importance of responsible business practices throughout a company’s entire supply chain. Since then, two main groups have been formed to improve the corporate social responsibility of retail firms, and more importantly to protect the rights of these workers. The North American firms have the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and mostly European labels like H&M and Marks & Spencer have joined the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. On a separate note, just this Sunday, the owners of the fire-ravaged factory were charged with culpable homicide. 

7. China and the US launch new climate strategies

The world’s top two carbon emitters finally took huge strides in implementing environmental measures this year. China has begun to address the implications of their formerly ‘growth at all costs’ direction due to mounting public pressure to address the severe air pollution choking its cities and provinces. The Asian giant is now prohibiting the construction of new coal-based power plants in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. However, some experts have criticised this step since it will be replaced with the use of synthetic natural gas that will still be derived from coal. Still, China has also put in place other efforts such as a stricter quality standard for petrol and increasing its renewable energy capacity.

The country ranks first in the world in attracting clean energy investment and is also becoming a global force in international clean energy investment too. In fact, the country has provided nearly US$40 billion dollars to other countries’ solar and wind industries over the past decade.

The United States, also separately launched its climate change action plan, focusing on limiting emissions from both existing and future fossil fuel power plants. The Obama administration emphasised, however, that this is not a ‘war on coal’ but a move to create a varied energy mix coupled with energy efficiency through projects like capturing waste heat from big industrial facilities to generate electricity. The plan also includes revamping an US$8 billion federal loan-guarantee program to help companies reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, as well as sourcing investments in technology that will make fossil fuels burn cleaner.

8. Solar and trade war between China, the US and the EU 

One of the talked about news stories was the fight between the US and China over solar tariffs, which started in 2012 when Washington alleged that Chinese manufacturers have illegal subsidies that enable them to dump lower priced solar panels in the US. China then decided to impose a 57 per cent antidumping tariff in July, followed by an additional 6.5 per cent tariff in September on materials from most American polysilicon suppliers. Such tariffs not only hurt the solar power sector, but also show how such anti-protectionist measures are not healthy for trade in general and are not always straightforward.

China separately also had a tiff with Europe on solar panels that threatened to extend into the import-export of European wine and even steel, had the dispute not been settled. During the course of this multilateral episode, both the US and the European Union stated that they were not holding coordinated talks to end the trade tussle in their markets. Europe had several standing arguments with China at that time, and the dispute on solar panels is only one of 18 trade investigations with Beijing. The US, for their part, clarified their position and stated that their goal was simply to “support a healthy global solar industry in conditions that foster the adoption of renewable energy and continued innovation and a level playing field for all”.

9. Global agreement on reducing air transport emissions

In the middle of this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) passed a resolution that called on various governments to manage carbon dioxide from air travel that would come into force from 2020. This may not be entirely what environmental advocates planned – since they expected a cap-and-trade scheme, not a carbon offsetting scheme – but this is the first time that international air carriers agreed on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is a significant step for the industry. Currently, emissions from air travel account for about five per cent of global warming.

10. The growing focus on food, waste and security 

The United Nations Environment Programme shone the spotlight on the need to tackle food waste for this year’s World Environment Day as global concerns rise on how to feed a growing population of 9 billion by 2050. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an estimated one third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of all food produced ends up in the garbage of farmers, transporters, retailers and consumers alike. The world will need to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a global population, and one key area in Asia where sustainable solutions are of fundamental importance is in tackling food insecurity.

Despite the rapid growth of the region, it still has the highest number of malnourished people in the world, with over 700 million people still living in poverty. Food insecurity can lead to child underdevelopment and death, and the resulting weakening of the population also has far-reaching repercussions on a country’s economic performance and global standing, making it extremely difficult for these countries to develop to their full potential. These issues and more were discussed at the AIDF Food Security: Asia 2013 hosted by UN ESCAP. Even though awareness of food related issues is growing, experts say global leaders are failing to respond to the threat posed by climate change to the growing challenge of feeding the world, and have called for the UNFCCC process will come up with a programme on agriculture.

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