A green Rwandan airport, and a lesson on impatient optimism

The future Bugesera International Airport could be Africa’s first net-zero emission airport. Not many know that it arose from a challenge to a Rwandan minister to “make it green”. Sustainability advocates must be bold, but also willing to engage stakeholders.

green shoot
In China’s sustainable development landscape, it is also clear that impatient optimism exists in abundance. Image: Singkham/ Shutterstock

Africa could have its first net-zero emission airport at the end of next year, when Rwanda’s Bugesera International Airport is expected to be completed.

The US$414 million energy- and water- efficient complex, with the potential capacity to handle 1.7 million passengers a year, will boost the country’s ambition to be a conference hub, according to Rwandan daily The New Times.

Not many people know, however, that the airport will be Green Mark-certified by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority—or that the ground-breaking sustainability push arose from a challenge by Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) director-general Frank Rijsberman to a Rwandan minister to “make it green”.

Be bold but willing to engage with stakeholders, Dr Rijsberman told Eco-Business recently on a trip to Beijing, where he spoke to leaders of least developed countries on accelerating the energy transition to renewables.

Rijsberman, who has spent his career in philanthropy and sustainable development, is a huge advocate of “impatient optimism”, a term that Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have used to describe themselves.

That he espouses this philosophy may come as no surprise, given his previous role as Director of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from 2010 to 2012.

With the Seoul-based GGGI, an inter-governmental organisation whose mission is to push for strong, inclusive and sustainable economic growth in developing countries and emerging economies, Rijsberman derives the same satisfaction from driving successful partnerships.

His message to leaders of developing countries in Beijing was unequivocal: renewables are now the cheapest energy source.

Not only can we now talk about the commercial viability of renewables to financiers and governments in dollars and sense (pun intended), this is a real opportunity for a structural transition of the traditional labour force which promises more valuable skillsets and better prospects. This is arguably the final nail to the coffin for fossil fuels.

But if renewable energy is more affordable than fossil fuels, why aren’t the poorer countries making a beeline for technologies that are now available?

According to Rijsberman, the main bottleneck comes from government policies that allow for fossil fuels to still be subsidised. This results in highly pollutive fuels such as diesel being falsely cheaper than renewables.

“If we could convince governments to use that subsidy to put solar panels on the roofs of the people… electricity rates might go down further. For the government, it might be the same money, but instead of a fossil fuel subsidy, it becomes a renewable energy subsidy,” he said.

The challenge of transiting workers in “brown” jobs to green ones is also a concern for many governments, but history has shown that lasting advantages emerge from short-term pain.

Similar transitions had to be made when the world went from horse-carts to automobiles, he noted.

And examples exist of places that have transited from coal to new-economy industries. With aid from the government, the former coal-mining town of Maastricht in the Netherlands is well-known today for its university and conference centre. “This is fair for any transition. This is the responsibility for governments to make the transition easier,” said Rijsberman.

Momentum in the corporate world

Impatient optimism applies equally in my sphere of work as a stakeholder to millions of businesses in the region operating in the thick and ever-evolving value chain.

Change is happening within the corporate world—sweeping legislations amongst stock exchanges across Asia mandating the disclosure of material environmental, social and governance (ESG) information; the investor community mainstreaming climate change scenarios in their fiduciary processes; ESG issues becoming board-level agendas as chief executives rethink their company’s mission to be fit for social purpose.

This momentum for ESG information to be taken seriously in the financial world would not have happened without pressure and increased awareness on the part of regulators, governments, non-profit organisations and even the media.

No doubt more needs to be done. The quality of disclosures, as a whole, should be improved, and requirements amongst investors should be better aligned. But we can be sure that progress is underway.

Milestones in China

As I wade into the inner workings of China’s sustainable development landscape, it is also clear that impatient optimism exists in abundance. Tectonic shifts in policy are taking place across the country, and at a breath-taking pace.

Take its most recent waste regulation, which kicked in this month. Shanghai, home to at least 24 million residents, is the first municipality to implement a mandatory waste sorting regime that is set to be the strictest in the country’s history. Forty-six other major cities across the world’s most populous country are set to follow in the coming months.

Coming from Singapore, where 5.6 million people still struggle with recycling, I am left in awe.

For better or worse, the Chinese authorities’ determination to push the waste-sorting initiative through despite the high social cost is a clear sign that the country is taking its domestic (and imported) waste matters very seriously.

In a field where issues are often hampered by myriad complexities, impatient optimism on the part of multiple stakeholders can do wonders for the progress of agendas such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Milestones are, in fact, success in small quantities.

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