By Dan Southerland*
When it came to Asia’s natural environment during the year just past, this commentator tended to emphasize negative trends.
Rising sea levels threatening coastlines in the Mekong Delta, for example, and scientists’ predictions that Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City will be partly underwater by 2050.
In the meantime, recent developments have been less than encouraging.
Scientists in Australia, for example, which is located relatively close to a number of Asian nations, report that climate change is currently exacerbating the country’s worst-ever bushfires. The smoke from the fires is adding to greenhouse gases that get trapped in the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming.
Most of the carbon dioxide included among these gases comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal.
Australia ships large quantities of coal to India and to Vietnam, and both countries use coal in power plants that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that the Australian bushfires have burned through 25.5 million acres. That’s the size of Denmark and Belgium combined.
At least 27 people have died in Australia as a result of the bushfires and that includes three volunteer firefighters. More people are missing.
With the fire summer season extending for a few months, the disaster is expected to continue.
The scale of these bushfires is unprecedented anywhere in the world, CSIS says. The smoke has been seen as far away as South America.
But my commentaries have tended to omit or underestimate three positive changes, which should be highlighted in order to provide a more balanced story.
· First, major international investors are beginning to make environmental sustainability a key goal. Multinational companies, including Swiss Re, Ikea, Salesforce, and L’Oreal pledged to cut greenhouse emissions at a U.N. Climate Action Summit held in New York last September, according to the Financial Times.
· Second, rural women in several Asian countries are taking control of their own destinies by planting mangrove trees, which act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels and salt intrusions into farmland.
· Third, scientists are coming up with new ideas on how to combat climate change.
· Fourth, a number of companies are beginning to find ways to recycle the plastic that gets dumped into rivers and then ends up polluting our oceans. And The European Union is preparing a plan to create a EU-wide tax on plastic waste.
Investors feel the pressure to take action
In a commentary published by the Financial Times on Jan. 17, Gillian Tett describes how far things have come in recent years as corporate investors feel pressure from their clients and shareholders to include climate change in their plans and analyses.
Tett notes that “a decade ago, the subject of climate science was mainly discussed by green activists, scientists, and student protesters. But in the past year, it has moved into mainstream corporate discussions.”
Until recently, Tett says, the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of McKinsey & Company, was circumspect on green issues, since “it did not want to be viewed as a tree-hugger.”
But on Jan. 16, McKinsey released a 131-page report warning that climate change will create upheaval for many industries and regions.
Representatives of the four biggest accounting firms are now set to thrash out “green audit standards.”
The World Economic Forum, whose annual meeting was held in Davos Jan. 22-25, listed six global challenges to be discussed by researchers, business leaders, and government officials.
At the top of that list was “advocating for the environment and a response to climate change threats.”
Andrew Hill, in another article published by the Financial Times this month, said that while 2019 was “a big year for talking about responsible corporate capitalism,” some experts feel that 2020 needs to be a year of action in which companies move beyond “a narrow focus on shareholder value.”
The Financial Times headline: “Pressure rises for Action on Responsible Capitalism”
Although it may have gone unnoticed by many of us, BlackRock, the biggest U.S. money management firm, has announced that it will make environmental sustainability a key goal when deciding on investments.
In his annual report to clients in January, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, said that his firm will make “sustainability” its “new standard for investing.”
This would require companies in which BlackRock invests to disclose any practices they engage in that risk damaging the environment.
BlackRock is the world’s largest, and some say most powerful, asset management fund, holding $7 trillion in stocks, bonds, and other securities.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Fink says that BlackRock will divest its actively managed funds from corporations that generate 25 percent or more of their revenues from coal production.
But to keep this in perspective, such pledges have invited some cynicism, according to Andrew Hill.
“The heads of asset management groups such as BlackRock and Vanguard have made public calls for businesses to make a positive long-term impact on society, Hill says. “But their individual fund managers are often accused of continuing to pursue a short-term profit agenda.”
Dealing with plastic waste
On a more positive note, governments and volunteers made progress over the past year in dealing with plastic waste, a major source of ocean pollution that gets dumped into rivers or directly into the ocean.
Fish, sharks, whales, and other forms of marine life sometimes mistake plastic for a food. It can kill them when ingested.
China’s top economic planning office together with its Environment Ministry announced on Jan. 19 that by the end of 2020, non-degradable plastic bags will be largely banned in major cities, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Single-use straws will be banned in restaurants across the country, the Journal says.
The newspaper also reported that China has in recent years stepped up efforts to reduce waste and pollution, using trash sorting and halting the imports of trash for recycling.
South and Southeast Asia appear to be particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
The Global Climate Risk Index, published by the German environmental think tank Germanwatch, ranked Vietnam as sixth among the countries hardest hit by extreme weather events during the nine years between 1999 and 2018.
Other Asian nations that made the German think tank’s top-10 vulnerability list included Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand.
Women leading the way
Another subject which this commentator could have emphasized more in the past year was the role women have played in several South and Southeast Asian nations in improving their families’ well-being and livelihoods by working to protect the environment
In Sri Lanka, war widows are saving mangrove trees, according to Deutsche Welle.
Sri Lanka’s 25-year-long civil war left many widows who now must work in order to care for their families. Some of them took up prawn fishing. But the loss of mangrove forests whose tree roots protect prawns has threatened their livelihoods, and the trees are being restored.
In Vietnam, in a coastal village located near the city of Hue, local women got international support for a project designed to protect their area from heavy rainfall and floods by planting hundreds of mangrove trees. In a society where women are often underrepresented, they showed that women can lead.
In Myanmar, Landesa, a Seattle-based land-rights nonprofit, has been working with the Myanmar Forest Department to certify the forest rights of local villagers. Part of the project is devoted to restoring degraded mangrove forests. Here, once again, women play a key role.
*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.