In his first round-up of sustainability news in 2020, Oliver Balch reports on the consequences of extreme weather events in 2019, a healthy eating plan for the planet, and nature-based solutions to office stress
Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve firework display did little to alleviate the sombre mood of many Australians at the dawn of 2020. With temperatures unseasonably warm (on 19 December, the average temperature hit an all-time monthly high of 41.9C), bushfires have been ravaging much of the country for months, with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia particularly affected.
Meanwhile its government continues to prevaricate on climate mitigation measures, with the latest annual G20 Brown to Green report on climate progress from Climate Transparency putting Australia, along with South Korea and Canada, as the “furthest off track” in implementing their Paris Agreement commitments. Top of the G20 class are the UK and France, which have put their climate plans into law, with Germany not far behind.
According to a new study by UK charity Christian Aid, every populated continent experienced multiple freak weather events in 2019 that were aggravated by rising temperatures. The report lists 15 of the most alarming examples, with floods (in Argentina, Australia, Spain, Iran, the US, China and India) and tropical storms (in the US and Europe) featuring heavily.
By Christian Aid’s reckoning, each of the selected events caused more than €1bn in damage, with seven leaving a price-tag of 10 times this figure. Wild fires in California topped even that, with a final cost of $25bn. Next in line are Typhoon Hagibis in Japan ($15bn) and floods in the American Midwest ($12.5bn). In two cases – floods in northern India and Cyclone Idai in Mozambique – the death-toll exceeded one thousand people (1,900 and 1,300, respectively).
In many cases, the immediate harm to people and property is followed by the threat of physical displacement. In May 2019, 3.4 million people were driven from their homes in India and Bangladesh by just one single event (Cyclone Fani). Statistics from the independent Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) suggest as many as 17.2 million people lost their homes in 2018 due to disasters caused by natural hazards. That figure could almost triple by 2050 if action is not taken to curb climate change, IDMC warns in a recent white paper. The paper predicts that flooding will be the primary cause of displacement (50.62%), followed by storms (34.54%). All the major causative factors are either weather or climate-related, with the exception of earthquakes (12.23%) and volcanoes (0.46%).
Low-income and developing countries will be disproportionately affected, IDMC states. The regions that are most at risk comprise Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, Oceania, and Latin America. One option for policy makers could be to buy up undeveloped land on floodplains and conserve it. According to a recent paper in the journal Nature Sustainability, this strategy could be cheaper than building on the land and then paying for subsequent flood damage in years to come. The findings are based on scenarios for the US (where 40,000km2 of land on floodplains are expected to be built on over the next three decades) but are judged to hold true for much of the rest of the world.
Resilience to climate shocks and natural disasters marks a major focus area of the World Bank’s International Development Association fund, which recently increased in size to $82bn thanks to a “replenishment” of $23.5bn by 52 nations. The fund provides low-interest loans to the world’s poorest countries.
A healthy eating plan for the planet
WITH THE festive season now behind us and a new year dawning, it is natural for thoughts to turn to healthy eating and new dietary regimes. Sustainability advocates are similarly engaged, using the dawn of a new decade to consider how our food systems can become more compatible with the future needs of both people and the planet.
Among their number is FoodDrinkEurope. In a short orientation paper, the European industry group lays out its vision for how food and beverage companies can contribute to a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050. While energy efficiency measures in the food and drink sector saw overall energy use decrease by almost one fifth between 2000 and 2015 the industry remains among the top five energy users in Europe, FoodDrinkEurope concedes. Ongoing progress will also be needed on reducing food waste, which is responsible for an estimated 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, putting it just behind global transport emissions.
Expect plant-based diets to feature heavily in any future roadmap for food sustainability. This is in part due to growing concerns around the land use requirements and carbon footprint of breeding livestock. Meat production is credited with 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations-funded Food and Agriculture Organization. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of this total relates to cattle, which are raised for both milk and beef.
Of increasing importance, however, are the health advantages of a more natural, plant-based diet. A new report by the World Health Organisation highlights the negative effects of the global shift towards heavily processed foods. Today, nearly one in three people suffers from at least one form of malnutrition: namely, wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, obesity or diet-related diseases. So claims a new policy briefing on the “double burden” of malnutrition by the World Health Organisation. The publication, which marks the last in a year-long series on the subject in The Lancet, notes that 462 million adults are currently underweight while 1.9 billion are either overweight or obese.
The success or failure of future sustainable food strategies will, to an extent, depend on market signals from consumers. If the rise in veganism is anything to go by, the signs here are positive. According to the Vegan Society, the UK now counts around 600,000 vegans (1.16% of the population), representing a fourfold increase over the past five years. A study of Google search terms by the meat-free campaign group, meanwhile, reveals a seven-fold increase in interest in veganism over the same period. The Vegan Society calculates that a worldwide shift to plant-based diets could result in healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages worth $1.5tn. Since 2014, half a million people in 178 countries have earmarked January to try out a vegan diet, according to the organisers of the UK-based campaign, Veganuary.
Any future roadmap, however, needs a clear picture of the departure point. To that end, UK food retailer Tesco is launching a new initiative with environmental group WWF to assess the environmental impacts of its most commonly purchased products. The Sustainable Basket Metricwill assess popular foodstuffs against key sustainability criteria, such as carbon reduction, food waste and deforestation. The move is part of Tesco’s ambition to halve the environmental impact of the average UK shopping basket – a goal it hopes to achieve by 2030. Since 2016, the UK supermarket chain has reduced its direct greenhouse gas emissions by 31%. Tesco has committed to publish the results of its first assessment using the Metric early in 2020.
Employees look to nature to combat growing workplace stress
WHAT IS the main wish of workers for 2020? The answer, it would seem, is an extra day off. At least, that what employers are banking on, according to a new study by workforce performance specialist CR Worldwide. The research reveals that rest day gifts are currently the most popular reward by grateful bosses. Corporations are also upping their spend on holidays for high-performing staff (by 22% in 2019), with nature-based trips a particular favourite. CR Worldwide interprets the trend as evidence of growing concerns around workplace stress. Stress levels are 20% higher for workers today than in 1990, research finds. The effect is felt especially by middle-aged workers, with 53% of 35- to 50-year-olds claiming to have taken a day off due to mental ill health, compared to 43% of younger workers.
The notion that a nature-based holiday might appeal to workers, meanwhile, chimes with research on the growing value employees place on environmental stewardship in their jobs. According to recent research by jobseeker website Totaljobs, 26% of UK workers say they would take a pay cut if it meant working for an environmentally conscious company or non-profit organisation. Those most willing to act are millennials (aged 23-38), who claim to be happy to see their annual salary drop by £11,400. This compares to a general average of £8,000. At a mere £3,800, Generation Xers (aged 38-54) express least enthusiasm for the idea. Employees show greater consensus around protection of the environment, with 80% of those interviewed agreeing that their employers had a duty to act. Worryingly, 59% believe their companies are falling short in this respect.
Shift the focus to ethical conduct and workers are equally demanding – and disappointed. According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by the Institute of Business Ethics, 43% of the British public believe UK companies fail to behave ethically, an increase of five percentage points on last year. Areas where corporations are judged to be particularly lacking include tax avoidance (cited by 33% of the 2,000 adults surveyed), excessive executive pay (29%) and environmental irresponsibility (28%). The latter is especially prioritised by women, 33% of whom cite it as their main issue of concern.
Several new initiatives hold out hope of progress in 2020. One notable example centres on tax. In the year ahead, companies will have the opportunity to challenge scepticism about their tax arrangements by participating in the world’s first standard for tax transparency. Developed by the United Nations-backed Global Reporting Initiative, the Tax Standard provides guidance on disclosing tax payments made at a country-by-country level. Known formally as GRI 207, the standard also sets disclosure norms for communicating corporate tax strategies and governance arrangements. It will come into effect on or before 1 January 2021. (See How the GRI's new standard for transparency on tax can help raise money for the SDGs)
Similarly, on executive pay, UK-listed companies with more than 250 employees will soon be obliged to start reporting publicly on their pay gap. The legal requirement, which relates to annual reports relating to the 2019 financial year, refers to total CEO remuneration as a ratio of median employee pay. Disclosure in relation to the 25th and 75th percentile of a company’s salary bands is also mandated. According to a recent poll by the payroll service provider MHR 60% of UK employers are “unprepared” for the new rules. The legislation marks a development on a 2018 requirement to publish CEO remuneration as a stand-alone figure.