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One of the more important conversations that emerged from June’s Rio+20 Summit was around valuing natural resources and, ultimately, moving our economies beyond GDP as a sole measure of growth.

The concept is not a new one but it did seem gain traction.  Included among the side events on one day alone were at least two standing-room-only sessions on the topic: “Measuring the Future We Want” and the Natural Capital Summit.

In Measuring the Future, the panel recognized that over the last 20 years we have seen poverty decline but at the cost of growing environmental challenges. The call was for governments to institute a framework for natural capital accounting.

The Natural Capital Summit, meanwhile, featured speeches from Britain’s Nick Clegg and Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, as well as remarks from the presidents of Gabon and Costa Rica, illustrating clearly the level of interest in the topic.

“How to value nature is one of the most important political decisions,” Stoltenberg said, shortly after Clegg had talked over a masked heckler, accusing world leaders and the World Bank of commoditizing nature.

Despite the mask and the point well taken about assigning value to nature, the reality is not so simple. As we have it now, few benefit from our forests, oceans, our extractive industries and water.  The costs of pollution are borne by us all rather than the polluter.

This creates a world where we are rapidly depleting our natural resources for the enrichment of a few, and economic growth, as measured by GDP, is vastly inflated.

Both Rio+20 side sessions were short on answers or plans of action, despite some participants stating the desire to help international gatherings move beyond declarations – something that is sorely needed.

As a path toward action, however, also at Rio, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Environmental Program, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Climate Change (IHDP) introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index.

The idea is to consider a country’s assets to get a better picture of a country’s wealth and the sustainability of its growth.  In reporting every two years, IHDP will calculate the IWI for 20 countries that together account for almost three-quarters of global GDP.

Unsurprisingly, the first report showed that despite strong GDP growth, the United States, China, Brazil and South Africa had significantly depleted their natural capital base.  This was calculated as the total of renewable and non-renewable resources such as fisheries, forests and fossil fuels.

Again, not surprisingly, China showed the most dramatic difference between GDP and IWI. GDP growth alone was measured at 422 percent between 1990 and 2007 but IWI measured over the time was just 45 percent.

The report also showed that future growth, as measured by IWI, was dependent on the sustainable use of resources since all countries surveyed had a higher share of natural than manufactured capital.

The key factor here is that countries are using their natural resources faster than they can be replenished, thus challenging future economic development.

The strong sense in Rio was that governments need to step in to create a policy framework by which natural capital can be valued in order for real change to happen. The private sector, of course, wants a level playing field.

Meanwhile, some leading companies that are among the biggest beneficiaries of natural resources and free pollution, also stepped into the discussion this week in Rio.

Twenty-four of them, including Cocoa-Cola, Xerox, Dow Chemical and Kimberly-Clark announced a four-step framework for a methodology that would value natural resources.

Two-thirds of our planet’s land and water ecosystems are now significantly degraded thanks to human activity and climate change is only accelerating the damage. The UN estimates that mismanagement of natural assets costs the global economy an estimated $6.6 trillion a year or 11 percent of GDP collectively.

According to the report, these costs are expected to reach $28 trillion by 2050 and threaten core business interests through potential supply chain disruptions or costly substitutions, regulatory or legal risks.

KPMG has estimated that if companies had to pay for their own environmental bills they would lose 41 cents for every $1 in earnings.

The text of Valuing Natural Capital acknowledges that “each year our planet’s land and water systems produce an estimated $72 trillion worth of “free” goods and services essential to a well-functioning world economy.”

Because these are not bartered and sold in the marketplace it is hard to assign them with a value or corporate or government financial statements. “As a result this value has been largely unaccounted for in business decisions and market transactions.”

But this is starting to change, according to the document, with, “business executives recognizing the business imperative of safeguarding them.”

Among the natural goods and services on which the global economy was seen to depend are: Clean water and air; affordable raw materials and commodities; fertile soils; fisheries; buffers to floods, droughts, fires and extreme weather; barriers to the spread of disease; biological information to propel scientific and medical breakthroughs.

Still, the report although strong on the challenges is short on how natural resources will actually be valued.

Puma has been a leader in this field. Last year the company introduced an environmental profit and loss screening that represented an interesting step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed, to emissions and toward determining the true cost of production for the apparel and shoe brand. I have written about this here.

Finally, also this week the leaders of 37 banks, investment funds and insurance companies agreed to take better stock of the stress put on ecosystems by the economic activity they manage, and work towards integrating natural capital into products and services.

The Natural Capital Declaration is once again short on detail, but at least represents an acknowledgement of the issue.

 

 

I am constantly surprised that Hong Kong does not pay more attention to its water supply, that something so vital to our city is far from secured by our government.

How many of us know that 75 percent of our water comes from the Dongjiang River, while only 25 percent of the city’s drinking water is supplied by reservoirs from within the territory? That while Singapore has similar water concerns, the island nation is investing in technology to conserve, recycle and desalinate water to ensure adequate supply, yet our government simply is not.

This is wrong for many reasons but here are two of the most obvious:

1) China is experiencing a significant water crisis and is acting aggressively to ensure its own supply. As Civic Exchange’s Su Liu recently pointed out while speaking on a panel, “We in Hong Kong don’t see the big picture – 40 million compared to our 7 million also rely on the Dongjiang. If water tensions rise on the mainland – where is the priority? ” You can more read about the excellent discussion on China’s water stresses moderated by http://www.ChinaWaterRisk.org’s Debra Tan, here.

2) The Lower Dongjiang River Basin is becoming intensely  industrialized and urbanized meaning industrial pollution regionally is a real concern. At the same time, agriculture further inland has intensified and pollutants from farms, such as pesticides and fertilizers are just as dangerous in drinking water as industrial materials. So How safe is our water in reality? Clearly local testing shows that currently the water we drink meets health standards but can we be sure that will always be the case?

To my first point, China registers a 50-billion-cubic meter water shortage annually, with two-thirds of cities having trouble accessing water, according to a China Daily article last week quoting Chen Lei, the country’s minister of water resources. In all, China’s water consumption apparently has exceeded 600 billion cubic meters, accounting for 74 percent of the country’s exploitable water resources.

In January, the central government issued a document asking the entire country to limit the scale of water exploitation, improve the efficiency of water usage and curb water pollution. According to the article, China aims to reduce water consumption per 10,000 yuan ($1,597) industrial value-added output to less than 40 cubic meters by 2030, raise the effective water use coefficient of farmland irrigation water to above 0.6 and improve water quality.

Chen also has said the nation will set water consumption quotas for local governments and continue to perfect the water price formation mechanism in order to promote water resource conservation and protection.

So it sounds as though Su Liu has the right idea – the Chinese government priority won’t be to keep prices low and supply constant for the 7 million Hong Kongers drawing ever higher upstream on the Dongjiang.

And we are vulnerable. Our water agreement with Guangdong was renewed in late 2011 but only for another three years, until 2014 and for a maximum supply of 820 million cubed meters from the Dongjiang, a major tributary to the Pearl River, 83 kilometers north of Hong Kong. Our current accord commits to this supply regardless of drought.  But the river also supplies fresh water to seven other cities, including Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen. All of those cities, however, have seen allowances decreased during drought years so will Hong Kong continue to receive privileged treatment?

At the same time, we would be ill-equipped for any water rationing. As China Water risk has pointed out here, Hong Kong uses more water per capita than Paris, London, Singapore or Melbourne and over 50 percent of our water is for domestic use. This compares to just 15 percent of water usage in China being for municipal use.

Part of the problem is that our tariffs are among the lowest in the world. As CWR points out, the first 12 cubic meters of water used every four months is free for all domestic users. Countries with comparable GDP per capita such as Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.S. all have higher water tariffs.

But tariffs are also low in China and the expectation is that with a push on the mainland toward water conservation, pricing will likely at some point rise to a water tariff level of 2-3 percent of average household income. That should also translate to higher prices in Hong Kong.

Turning to pollution, I have written several blogs on the lack of enforcement of water quality standards in China. The intense industrial development throughout China, but particularly in the south, has helped fuel annual GDP growth in the double digits but it has also rendered many rivers, lakes and reservoirs, indeed much of the country’s groundwater, essentially useless for agriculture or consumption.

Of the country’s 26 key lakes and reservoirs monitored, only 23 percent fall within grade 1-111, while 19 percent of China’s seven major river basins monitored are  considered essentially useless. Finally, almost 74 percent of groundwater is considered grade IV-V standard, or excessively polluted. More information on China’s water pollution can be found here.

We should remember that a river collects the water in its basin and that means that all the pollutants within the Dongjiang Basin could potentially end up in Hong Kong’s water supply – not a pleasant thought. Will we have to wait for a major accident on the Dongjiang or its feeders before the Hong Kong government wakes up to our vulnerability?

For now, Hong Kong water quality data, although only through September last year, can be found here, on the Water Supplies Department website.

Hong Kong consumers have the ability to sustain a significant tariff hike.  That would help us move toward greater water conservation and at the same time provide  the resources for the city to invest in making options such as desalination and water recycling economically viable. What are we waiting for?

Five Chinese environmental groups have named 48 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.

A report  led by Ma Jun and his Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs  and released this week lists 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers  of goods that ranged from sports apparel to luxury handbags.

Brands were linked to the factories over seven months of painstaking review of official websites, financial reports, recruitment ads and procurement bids, among other documents, according to IPE.

Over the past eight years the Institute has gathered a database of over 90,000 air and water violations from official government  sources. IPE now works with many brands to make sure they are not using polluting suppliers and to help clean up those that are illegally dumping untreated toxic waste water into rivers.

Between march 22 and March 29  the five environmental groups wrote to the CEOs of each of the 48 brands linked to factories with repeated environmental violations. They asked the brands to ensure their Chinese suppliers would not pollute the environment while manufacturing their products.

While some of the brands named immediately responded to queries from the environmental groups, acknowledged the issues and detailed how they would address the issues, about two-thirds have not yet engaged, Ma Jun said.

Notably, Spanish clothing retailer, Zara, responded by saying that it was not the company’s policy to answer questions about its business model.

Nike, Walmart, Esquel, H&M, Levi’s, Adidas and Burberry were among the companies that responded positively, saying they would work with their Chinese  contractors to improve their environmental performance. Many of these brands were  already working with NGOs to clean their supply chain, IPE said.

Another 32 brands including Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Calvin Klein, Carrefour, Armani and China-based Anta and Youngor have yet to respond, according to the report.

Besides IPE, the other authors of the report, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry,” were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone.

China is a global leader in textile manufacturing, responsible for nearly half the world’s fiber and exporting 34 percent of the garments we wear.

This production has contributed significantly to the country’s GDP but has also taken a heavy environmental  toll locally. Ma said that fashion manufacturers discharge 2.5 billion tons of waste water and chemicals into rivers and the ocean, while 80 percent of effluent is generated in fiber dying.

This has a serious impact on the country’s water supplies and is compounded by the fact that the re-use of water in the textile industry lags way behind that of many others, creating a situation where water efficiency is incredibly low, IPE said.

Among the 6,000 violations, a number of factories were given administrative penalties. Many were told to rectify problems such as illegal effluent emissions via secret discharge pipes, directly discharging waste water into waterways, improper use of waste water treatment facilities and pollutant discharges in breach of standards.

Previously, IPE targeted the IT sector, also with information gleaned from the institute’s violations database. We have written about Ma Jun’s efforts here and here.

After five reports looking at the environmental performance of IT sector contractors, most of the brands named had responded to requests for information disclosure and action.

Among the last hold-outs was Apple, which was the focus of the last two reports. The company has since agreed to disclose its connections to suppliers and provide information on contractor environmental performance.

Clearly, Ma Jun and his colleagues hope for a similar response from another industry that is widely credited with some of the worst environmental performance in China.

With IPE and others watching, retailers and brands will no longer be able to hide behind stated ignorance about how a product is manufactured. They will no longer be able to refuse to divulge lists of suppliers or deny responsibility for egregious environmental emissions locally.

Part of the problem for the apparel sector has been the quantity of suppliers used to manufacture just one item of clothing or shoe. This is a problem we have written about here. 

While many brands are getting better at understanding and working with the factories actually putting together the clothes, they tend to know less about the dyers, the spinners and the knitters who cause much of the environmental damage.

yet engaging with polluting contractors in any part of the supply chain has become a serious reputational risk and thus business risk for global brands hoping to squeeze their suppliers on cost.

It is also a wake up call for consumers hooked on cheap product made at huge environmental expense abroad. It’s about time we all made careful choices about how we consume, make sure that brands are using responsible suppliers.

For companies, the argument turns back to fiduciary duty and redefining what that means, something I have written about here.