Why Businesses Shouldn’t Cop Out of Climate Change

You’d think that I would be far away from cares about climate change, living in an idyllic place like Goa. Yet, millions of tons of coal that India now imports to feed her ravenous power, steel and cement plants make their way through Mormugoa Port, located in the city of Vasco-da-Gama, not too far from where my parents and I live. The fine coal dust from the unloading and transportation operations of these large coal importers float through the air and lodge themselves in the eyes, noses and throats of Vasco’s citizens. Several respiratory health problems have been reported in the area and there are sporadic protests every now and then. All of which fall on deaf ears, of course, both of the government and of the large corporations that conduct these operations, from Vedanta and Jindal Corporation to Adani Enterprises.

In the absence of iron-ore mining which used to be the mainstay of Goa’s economy besides tourism until the Supreme Court banned mining operations in the state, the government is wont to allow coal imports and transportation through Goa. Nothing wrong with it, except that these are conducted with complete disregard for the rules governing the unloading and transportation of coal: there are no covered containers, trucks or rail wagons to be seen. That there should be such flagrant violation of simple safety regulations by large corporations is reason enough to make companies conform and fall in line with climate change regulations. And if not by choice, then by all means let it be through enforcement.

If walls have ears, these woods have eyes

And while this is the picture in Goa, the entire northern region of India lives in a haze of forever grey skies – the air impossible to breathe – and has its own share of health-related problems to report. Governments there too seem to be at a complete loss as to how to stop the burning of paddy stubble in the fields, or control vehicular traffic in cities, or stop small businesses from using unclean fuel such as furnace oil in their operations.

Which brings us to the recently concluded COP 24 Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland. Largely hailed as a success, the Conference built on the progress of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and focused on three crucial areas.

First, technology, to focus on climate-friendly solutions such as electric mobility. I would add smart cities to this and widen the scope for discussion; smart in the real sense of the word, that is technology-enabled. Technology when seen in this context, would bring a much more holistic approach to urban development, whether it’s transport, healthcare, security, energy or garbage disposal. Of course, that would necessarily require better infrastructure in terms of uninterrupted power and connectivity, especially in countries like ours.

Second, to focus on the human aspect by emphasising the need for leading change together through better decisions and action. It is here that I see corporations and business playing a key role, along with citizens, in bringing about greater awareness and change. Our lifestyles have to change; we need to rethink and change the way we live, work and play. Less dependence on private transport, less eating of meat products, less consumption of fast fashion and gadgets, etc.

Apple reporting lower shipments of its smartphones and estimating a lower guidance for next year is not such a terrible thing, I would say. In fact, fewer product upgrades is good news. This steady onward march to consumptionopia was never going to lead us anywhere except to an Armageddon of sorts. It will also force Apple to think harder about its business strategy and where it should be taking its customers. Listen below, to Betrand Piccard talking at COP 24 Climate Conference on renewable energy projects and how they can be balanced with the development needs of countries.

Nature is the third cornerstone of COP 24, with special focus on sustainable forest management as both an element of climate neutrality as well as greenhouse gas sinks that help to absorb carbon dioxide. It is here that we can see consumer products companies step up and either reduce their consumption of palm oil or find suitable alternatives through research, reduce consumption of soya bean as animal feed in the production of meat products. In fact, the world needs to start eating much less meat (fish included). They are simply too large a drain on natural resources such as land and water. And e-commerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba need to find technology and logistical solutions to reducing plastic waste, like some companies are already doing according to this article from Fast Company.

Time to plant new ideas for mitigating climate change

So far, so good. All this sounds like progress except that the main sticking points such as enabling transfer of clean technologies from rich, developed countries to poorer, developing ones and individual countries commitments to climate change mitigation targets are still very much around. Still, there are attempts being made to fund such technology transfers, including commitments from the World Bank. And it is heartening to see the private sector play a role as well, as this report from the COP 24 conference indicates.

There are still plenty of issues to sort out, but the one positive sign for me is that individual countries now have the flexibility to set their own climate change targets and meet them. It is a sure way to ensure greater cooperation among 200 participating countries, without the rich industrialised world preaching to the developing world what they themselves never practiced. However, greater clarity is needed, and soon.

A great way to move forward on this path would be if countries could also come up with their own carbon taxes to ensure greater compliance by industry; I do believe carbon taxes are more effective than a carbon-trading mechanism in acting as a disincentive on emissions. It is unfortunate that after seeing the flaws of the carbon-trading system in Europe countries still opt for it, perhaps seeing it as the more palatable choice for companies and politicians. Arcelor Mittal, the world’s largest steel company amassed carbon permits in the EU and made a cool profit of £ 1 billion on them. Yet, China as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases has chosen to go this route and is busy setting up its carbon trading system. And although this news report from The New York Times says that China leads the way in climate change mitigation, it is not doing nearly enough to combat it. Meanwhile, Australia as the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, backed away from the carbon tax that was initiated by Julia Gillard’s government when she was in power.

scenic view of agricultural field against sky during sunset
Renewables are part of the future

Political and economic expediency will always gain preference over all other considerations. It is not surprising in the least that the US, along with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, sought to halt discussions on measures to lower dependence on fossil fuels or that the US and Australia wanted relaxations on coal. America, now as a large shale oil producer, would like to become a net exporter of the black stuff and under the current political dispensation there is already a cry to bring back more of the black stuff: coal!

Thankfully, the economics of the natural gas and renewable industries have worked out such that America is actually producing more power now from these fuels than coal, as a Fellow at the Brookings Institution writes. And the good news is that with improvements in technologies and yields that is only likely to increase, whether Donald Trump likes it or not.

Europe too is now producing more energy from renewables, as costs keep going down. Although Germany took a sharp turn to coal and lignite after decommissioning its nuclear power plants in 2011 and the fate of the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest is still in the balance. A small technology start-up called Ecosia offered € 1 million to buy the forest from RWE in order to save it from destruction. And after recent protests in Germany over the banning of diesel vehicles and the recent emissions scandal that started with Volkswagen but soon engulfed other German car manufacturers as well, it is good to know that Europe is now considering a much-needed reform of its carbon-trading system as reported by The Economist.

All these are encouraging signs that progress on climate change is indeed possible. However, it is incumbent upon us and businesses to keep the long-term horizon in mind and to do the right thing by our fellow-citizens and the planet. It is here that our globalized selves will have to take the lead and our protectionist, nativist tendencies must be kept in check. For the air that Beijing or Delhi breathes and the rising waters in the Gulf of Mexico soon travel to other parts, sometimes more than halfway across the world. In fact, it is alarming that the glaciers of the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan region might be melting almost as fast as the Arctic Ice Cap, as reported by The Guardian recently. Over 2 billion people in this region are likely to face a massive flood (perhaps of Biblical proportions) followed by desertification, all in a matter of a few decades in this century.

Most coastal cities under severe threat from rising sea levels

It’s not just the air and the water. Forests in Indonesia are logged down to grow more palm oil for the exotic products that the developed world can’t have enough of. Large swathes of the Amazonian Rainforest are being cleared to grow more soya for all the meat that China produces and consumes. And if Trump continues with his trade tariff threats, more soya will be produced and exported from Brazil than from the US.

Every short-term and foolish decision we take, hurts some part of the world. It would be like taking several steps back from what can be a steady advance forward. And as always, the world’s poor are the most vulnerable.

As America tries to avert another government shutdown and debate a Green New Deal (on which there are some misgivings, like in this article from the Brookings Institution) I think about what path India will pursue in fighting climate change. We have reduced the price advantage that diesel vehicles offered in the past and we have public transport that runs on compressed natural gas in some cities. We have also helped many millions of women migrate from cooking on wood-fires to cooking with liquefied petroleum gas, saving many the hardship as well as the health risks they had to live with. However, our government still tinkers with environment rules to suit its purpose as it recently did with the Coastal Regulation Zone rules. And it still allows big industrial corporations to callously send coal dust up into the air.

No more time to waste; speed is of the essence now

I express my solidarity with the people of Queensland and all of Australia who have been protesting against Adani’s coal mining venture there. It’s a small planet, come to think of it.

We have run the course of exploring all there is to explore, invading all there is to invade, producing all there is to produce, consuming all there is to consume, that there is simply no time left to save ourselves from the biggest calamity facing us. It is time that businesses stepped up to the challenge.

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