It is a quarter of a century since the Brundtland report outlined the concept of sustainable development—development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs—and forced it onto the political agenda. Mike Scott writes.
This piece originally featured in B>’s Guide to Sustainable Investment 2012.
Twenty-twelve was also the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which begat the Kyoto Protocol and laid the foundations for today’s carbon markets, renewable energy targets and emissions targets. In 2011, spending on clean energy passed the $1 trillion mark, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and governments around the world—from Chile to China—have embraced measures to decarbonise their economies. We’ve come a long way in the last 25 years.
But at the same time, we are now living in a world of seven billion people and growing. Scientists say that our attempts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and keep average temperature rises to 2°C have instead put us firmly on the track to rises of 3.5°C or more and we are running up against constraints to the availability of the most basic human requirements such as food, water and energy.
According to the Global Footprint Network, we are living far beyond our ecological means; it calculates that in 2011, we exhausted a year’s worth of our earth’s resources before the end of September and that after that point we were living on “ecological debt” in a way that is completely unsustainable. “That’s like spending your annual salary three months before the year is over, and eating into your savings year after year. Pretty soon, you run out of savings,” says Global Footprint Network President Dr. Mathis Wackernagel. “From soaring food prices to the crippling effects of climate change, our economies are now confronting the reality of years of spending beyond our means,” said Dr. Wackernagel.
These facts may seem to have little relevance to austerity Britain, but mankind is living beyond its ecological means just as we lived beyond our financial means in the run-up to the crisis—and we now have to pay for it.
According to former US vice-president Al Gore and David Blood, his co-founder of Generation Investment Management, in their recently-published Manifesto for Sustainable Capitalism: “Remarkably, even after enduring the global financial crisis – caused in significant part by short-term, unsustainable strategies and actions by both companies and investors – many of us are still content to embrace short-termism in nearly all aspects of our lives. As a result of this short-term perspective, we are […] driving our economies and our planet into liquidation.”
The think tank Chatham House adds in a new report that “even though many countries, including emerging economies, can point to impressive environmental improvement in the past two decades, the overriding global patterns of production, consumption and trade remain dangerously unsustainable”.
So, what has all this got to do with investors?
Well, there are a number of reasons investors need to consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Even five years ago, analysts dubbed these factors non-financial issues, but few people would now argue that they are not relevant to financial performance. It is clear that they can have a huge impact on the value of investments—consider the effect of failures over safety and the environment at BP and Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which contributed to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, respectively. At one point, BP shares halved in value compared to their pre-disaster levels and they still remain well below the price before the spill. Tepco looks unlikely to survive as an independent company after government moves to take a majority stake so it can reform the group.
The reason BP was drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and that Tepco built a nuclear power station on a fault line is that an age of cheap resources has come to an end. The consultants McKinsey point out that the economic growth of the 20th century was underpinned by cheap energy and raw materials, but in recent years prices have hit heights not seen since the 1900s and they are likely to remain both high and volatile for the foreseeable future.
It was not just cheap resources that fuelled the astonishing changes of the 20th century – it was cheap labour as well. When that labour stopped being cheap at home, businesses shipped their production to places such as China and India where they were lower. One reason wages were lower was because these countries had less well-developed rules on everything from child labour to workers’ rights to environmental health.
In today’s constantly connected world, consumers are better informed, more particular and more vocal than ever before, and organisations ranging from Vodafone to the London Olympics have found themselves in the spotlight over issues ranging from conflict minerals to labour rights in ways that can have a serious impact on their share prices. Not only that, but as public scrutiny grows and demand for labour increases, those cheap wages are rising and wiping out the cost advantages of outsourcing.
Meanwhile, the world has become increasingly complex. KPMG says that there are 10 “megaforces” that will significantly affect corporate growth globally over the next two decades. They are: climate change; energy and fuel; material resource scarcity; ecosystem decline; deforestation; water scarcity; food security; increased wealth and inequality; population growth; and urbanisation. But not only will each of these factors individually have a huge impact on businesses, they will also combine in unpredictable ways to create new problems.
It is a question of risk management. If the companies that you invest in are not aware of these issues or taking steps to deal with them, they will not be running their businesses in the right way to create value for you as a shareholder.
The flip side of this is that there are real opportunities out there for companies that seize the moment, as highlighted by the growing figure of $1 trillion that has been invested in clean energy.
“Despite the uncertain economic outlook, leading international companies across diverse sectors are investing heavily in sustainable products and services,” says Kirsty Jenkinson of the World Resources Institute. “Leading companies are demonstrating a growing belief that their future profit and growth will be tied to how effectively they respond to looming global challenges including resource scarcity, population growth, and climate change.”
The companies that are doing this are not all obscure start-ups run by nerdy lab technicians with a good idea—although there are plenty of those. Some of the world’s biggest and best-run companies are embracing ESG issues, too – the likes of Siemens, GE, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Ikea, Marks & Spencer and Procter & Gamble.
By all means, look to invest sustainably to do the right thing. But don’t forget that it’s a sound business decision, too.
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.
2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage
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.
How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018
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.
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
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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