Tuesday, 9 July 2013

World Environment Day, and what followed!

World Environment Day (WED) passed a few days ago, on the 5th of June; did you notice? Not even the often-meaningful Google icon for that day recognised this global event; instead we were reminded of the 295th birthday of the (undoubtedly highly skillful) furniture maker, Thomas Chippendale.

Nevertheless, things did happen. A glance at the WED website shows that events took place as far afield as Mongolia (the ‘host’ country celebrating its first wind farm) and Somalia (one of the world’s poorest countries). The slogan for the awareness-raising campaign this year, organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was: THINK-EAT-SAVE; REDUCING YOUR FOOTPRINT; this made reference to the fact that a third of the world’s food production, 1.3 billion tons, is wasted and thrown away each year. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions when you consider that 1 in 7 of us go hungry.
The spotlight was on the unnecessary pressure this creates on the areas of land under cultivation and the demand on fresh water supplies. Did you know that it takes 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk? I didn't.

How effective campaigns like this are is hard to say. I suspect that it is their cumulative effect that has an impact, not just one event. This shows in so many different ways. In Singapore, where regular readers will know I spend part of my year, they have been celebrating 25 years of ‘going green’. In particular, the growing of trees and opening of public spaces is important in an island crammed with people and a growing industry. The aim is for 85% of the population to be less than 400 metres from a public park by 2030. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister, has planted a tree symbolically every year since 1963 and did so again this year.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, has also launched an initiative this month to implement a seamless transition from the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015 to new Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030. These goals will be partly informed by a recently published Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) agenda which aims to tackle poverty alongside promoting environmental protection.

There is environmental action taking place everywhere, both co-ordinated toward a common global goal and informal or commercially driven. For example, I happened upon an interview yesterday featuring the Head of Sustainability of Procter and Gamble. Therein he explained how the improving technologies in cleaning products, allowing for 30 degrees Celsius washes and using less packaging, lessened resource usage for families and the environment. This is one of countless steps improving the situation; check company sustainability reports if you are interested.

But then the real world bites back. Despite all the good news, who would have thought that just a few days later in Singapore we would be heading for the greatest environmental crisis the city-state has faced so far? I usually submit this blog from under a palm tree in the sun. I am now sitting inside my hotel room with no sun visible because I am advised it is unsafe to go outdoors. The smog is so dense that I can barely see across the road. It is like a vision of the apocalypse. Unless you can remember the London smog of the 1930s and 1950s, you would have to see pictures on the news or web to believe it.

Most people in the street (and some inside) are now wearing masks if they can get one; I have failed so far, as the shops here are sold out! There is a possibility that all outside workers will be told to stay at home. The psi index of pollution is currently 400, near the highest point ever reached. To give you some perspective, anything above 300 is considered hazardous!

The choking haze comes from the very problem WED was trying to highlight. Clearing forest areas on the Indonesian island of Sumatra for agricultural plantations and grazing. Both large corporations and small holders start fires in the dry season and let them run riot across the indigenous forest only a few miles away across The Straits. There has been no rain for days. The authorities are considering cloud seeding but the problem could last for weeks.

This is having a real economic impact. Tourists are staying away, businesses cannot function properly, people are falling ill and hospitals are filling. It is expected to cost the economy millions, not to mention the cost in terms of health provision and the impact on individuals' health. Long-term, it will have an effect on business reputation, as well as place a strain on diplomatic relations between Indonesia and its neighbours.
This is a huge and harsh reminder of the reality of sustainability. It is far more pressing on the imagination and conscience than any number of special events and global agreements. One aspect of food pressure and deforestation is being brought sharply into focus in a developed economic hub: No one is immune; we are all on the same planet.

Is this a view of things to come? If so, I suggest we work together to do all we can.

David Jackman

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