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Reflections on Rio: was it really that bad?

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Mike Scott writes about how the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, perhaps wasn’t all as bad people have made out.

We recognise that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognise the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature.” Article 39, The Future We Want, Rio+20 Outcome Document.

The above extract from the text of the summit held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in 1992, an event involving thousands of delegates and more than 100 world leaders, provides stark evidence of just how broken the global multilateral institutions are.

Brazil was so fearful of a repeat of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 – when negotiations dragged on through the night and yet still failed to produce a conclusive agreement – that it simply deleted anything in the text that was remotely contentious, leaving a document that was full of meaningless waffle like the paragraph above, and agreed before most world leaders had even arrived in Rio.

It has been widely noted that while the word “encourage” appears in the document 50 times, but the phrase “we will” only five times; “support” is used 99 times, “must” just three.

The Future We Want would appear to be barely worth the paper it’s written on and reaction has been scathing – the UN Group of Major NGOs, for example, said: “You cannot have a document called The Future We Want without any mention of planetary boundaries, tipping points or planetary carrying capacity. The text as it stands is completely out of touch with reality. Just to be clear, NGOs at Rio do not endorse this document.”

And yet maybe this isn’t, despite appearances, the worst outcome to a major summit in recent times. Perhaps the negotiators have unconsciously produced a document that subconsciously subscribes to Google’s “Do no harm” mantra.

Given the severe disagreements that re-emerged between developed and developing countries over what the green economy is and who should pay for it, policymakers appear to have left the field clear for other players to take up the baton, but at least they haven’t destroyed the field.

And there were some really encouraging signs that the business and investment communities are stepping up to the challenge.

Among the initiatives that emerged on the sidelines of the summit was an announcement that the world’s biggest development banks will put a staggering $175 billion towards sustainable transport in developing countries.

There was also an agreement by more than 30 governments and institutions to harness the purchasing power of national and local governments, which makes up between 15% and 25% of GDP, in the cause of sustainable procurement. The signatories ranged from emerging giants Brazil and China to bastions of the industrialised world such as Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

This was just one example of how governments that could not agree in the main event were happy to sign up to specific initiatives outside of the Rio+20 framework, suggesting that governments are growing weary of the multilateral process, too.

Even the US government, which is trapped into inaction by its domestic politics, has agreed to host a dialogue with the Consumer Goods Forum, whose 400 members have pledged to achieve “zero net deforestation” in their supply chains by 2020.

The corporate world signed up to a range of other radical changes too – 16 companies in the food and agriculture sector committed to develop principles on sustainable agriculture; 45 corporate giants including Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Royal Dutch Shell and Tata Steel highlighted the importance of global water sustainability; and more than 70 businesses, governments and international organisations signed up to the Green Industry Platform, an initiative to mainstream environmental and social considerations into corporate operations through efficient use of energy and raw materials, innovative practices and applications of new green technologies.

The investment community got in on the act, too, with five stock exchanges including Nasdaq, Brazil’s Bovespa and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange agreeing to incorporate sustainability criteria into their listings requirements.

The insurance industry also unveiled a new set of Principles for Sustainable Insurance, a companion to the Principles for Responsible Investment.

Meanwhile, the UK announced all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange would have to report their carbon emissions, while – in a good example of how the outcome document can be seen as a useful springboard rather than a limit on ambitions – a group of governments (Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa) joined investors and companies to commit to corporate sustainability reporting, expanding on Article 47 in the outcome document.

There were individual business pledges too, perhaps the most notable being Bank of America’s announcement of $50 billion of investment in energy efficiency, energy access and renewable energy over the next 10 years and Unilever’s plan to cut greenhouse gases associated with its products in half by 2020. In total, more than $500 billion was pledged in fields including energy, transport, green economy, disaster reduction, desertification, water, forests and agriculture.

It is easy to be cynical about pledges made at summits – but unlike politicians, business knows that it cannot afford not to follow through on its commitments. Another factor to remember is that companies are not adopting sustainability issues because it is the right thing to do but because an increasing number of them are convinced that it is the best way to manage risks and discover opportunities for their businesses.

Business still wants governments to provide clarity, a long-term perspective and a clear sense of direction, but it is no longer prepared to wait for this – instead, it is grasping the bull by the horns and pressing ahead with sustainability reforms.

At the 2007 climate conference in Bali, the delegate from Papua New Guinea famously told the US delegation, which was blocking every substantial measure: “We seek your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”

Now it seems the business community has issued this message to all governments – the results will be interesting to see.

Mike Scott is a freelance writer specialising in environment and business issues for the press and corporate clients. His work has been published in the Financial Times, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph as well as in business publications ranging from Bloomberg New Energy Finance to Flight International.

Further reading:

Rio+50: the long view

In search of the ecological truth

Mike Scott is a freelance writer specialising in environment and business issues for the press and corporate clients. His work has been published in the Financial Times, the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph as well as in business publications ranging from Bloomberg New Energy Finance to Forbes.

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2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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