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How do we take this public health crisis, the loss of life, our paralyzed economies, and apply what we are learning to our equally urgent climate emergency?

The immediate crisis is painfully tangible. But that doesn’t make the profound, longer-term transformational shifts that are needed to protect our planet any less relevant to us, our economies or our financial markets.

These will just take a little longer to be seen and felt.

Three months ago, the threats of pandemic and our climate change emergency were similar. Both were problems scientists warned about but didn’t look to be happening anytime soon. They were problems for some future year and our governments did little to prepare, or were in the process of reversing protection and preparedness

Then, when the COVID-19 Pandemic started, many Governments didn’t want to take action that would damage the economy so were slow responding, allowing the virus to spread to a point where now, as I write, over 1,300,000 million people have fallen victim, at least one-third of the world’s population is in lockdown and the Pandemic is everywhere a first priority.

But what of that other, ‘future” problem, Climate Change? Might our governments, chastened by one ‘future” problem becoming a “now” problem turn their attention to Climate Change once COVID-19 is beaten? Let’s hope so because Climate Change is a far more difficult problem than the Pandemic and likely to have far more impact on humanity.

So what lessons can we learn from the pandemic that are relevant to climate? The first is that we were woefully unprepared. Despite warnings from the medical community, from scientists, expert opinion was suspect, ‘big government’ was bad and that meant it was easier to ignore.

Likewise, we are largely ignoring the warnings about climate. Science has shown that global GHG emissions must decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. They must be at net zero by mid-century if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming. Yet we have not been able to stimulate significant global action to this end.

The Paris Agreement in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals and agenda to alleviate poverty and protect our planet, looked like the beginning of global collective action but not enough has happened since. Governments have translated their Paris Agreement commitments into nationally determined contributions that aim to reduce emissions. But if these are, indeed, to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 as they must, they would have to be five times more ambitious.

Yet the voices of courageous climate youth activists such as Greta Thunberg are drowned out by inexpert climate-denier opinion across mainstream and social media channels that allow many of our politicians, to ignore what we can plainly see in weather events, migration and other systemic shifts as we move beyond our planetary boundaries.

And how can we get around the structural political problem that politicians exist and get re-elected, where there are elections, in the short run, the time period of a pandemic, while climate change is a long-term phenomenon, albeit increasingly experienced in the short run?

The second lesson is that we have ignored the warnings. For years the wildlife markets in China and elsewhere had been seen as repositories for disease, yet the trade has continued. It’s easier to maintain status quo than act against entrenched interests. We continue to destroy our remaining forests, reducing habitat for wildlife, pushing animals and humans ever closer, and at the same time impacting our climate by reducing watershed protection, eliminating our carbon sinks. Stressed climate, habitats and animals lead to drought and disease. Yet we have failed to act, again preferring not to regulate or legislate protection.

The third lesson has to be the spectacular speed of transmission and impact on our economies of the pandemic in our globalized, hyperconnected world. There are no barriers to pathogens or to the economic consequences of our global shutdown. We are much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

We can extrapolate to a world where GHG emissions are not curbed, where we keep burning fossil fuels, and warming is not kept within the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels that the IPCC has warned is manageable. Indeed, we are on a trajectory currently toward a potentially catastrophic 4 or 5 degrees of warming.

We assume that we will continue living as we do, consuming as we have, but we cannot without suffering the consequences. We know from the IPCC and other scientists that we have a decade to shift our global economy or we will reach a point of no return in terms of our climatic shifts.

Perhaps our current taste of swift change will show us all that we cannot take anything for granted, that although many of us haven’t experienced anything like this moment in our lifetimes, others have experienced devastating war or disease. History is replete with sudden shifts and we are not immune.

Unchecked GHG emissions will, in the not so distant future, start to have far more permanent and disastrous impacts on all of us than the current COVID 19 pandemic but unlike a disease that swiftly slips into our communities, keeps us from jobs and kills our vulnerable and then, recedes in a year or two, impacts of our changing climate will be longer in coming and irreversible, at least in our lifetimes. There will be no vaccine for climate change other than worldwide, radical policy change today.

The positive that we should take from our current moment is that there can be swift change. The Chinese government has announced a ban on the wildlife trade, people have stayed home to protect the more vulnerable from disease and companies have encouraged work from home arrangements that will help slow the spread. Governments have rolled out stimulus packages to protect workers and companies. Policy makers and scientists are working collectively to gather data, model the spread of the pandemic, push for new drugs, vaccines and formulate appropriate responses.

The pandemic has kept us at home, slowed our pace, kept us from any travel that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It has made us conscious of unnecessary buying, of hoarding. We have been shamed, at least in Hong Kong, for not wearing masks, for leaving our homes when quarantined, for acting against the public good.

We must not think that, once the pandemic fades, we can return to old consumption patterns. Rather let’s consider what is necessary in our lives and how we help reshape a society that is less consumptive, more centered, innovative and collective, one that no longer taxes our planet and its biodiversity.

We must think about how we invest to promote sustainability, how our supply chains will produce to protect, not encourage, destruction of our important forests and biodiversity, and promote worker rights. It is to our governments that we look in a time of crisis and it is up to our elected officials also to act to protect us not only from this pandemic but also from our climate tragedy.

The collective response to the pandemic has been swift, perhaps not swift enough, but hopefully the four months since December when the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan has been sufficiently dramatic and impactful to show that we can act locally and globally to stem another existential challenge: Our climate emergency

As we enter ADM Capital Foundation’s second decade, we have launched a new website at ADMCF.org that reflects our narrowed focus on Asia’s environmental challenges.

Over the past ten years, we have worked with dozens of NGO partners to help support some of the region’s most marginalised children to better lives, we have pushed for action to reduce air pollution, to cut consumption of shark fin and protect our oceans, stem the wildlife trade, protect forests, build knowledge and action around China’s water crisis. We have worked to see that the appropriate research informs the right sort of change.

But this year represents a shift from our dual focus on children at risk and the environment to where we feel the need is greatest: environmental protection.

The two-decade shift of manufacturing to Asia amid lax local regulation and enforcement has come at unprecedented environmental cost. While we enjoy cheap goods, clothes in particular produced at unsustainably low prices, Asia shoulders the environmental burden of our excessive consumption. Global climate change, ocean acidification, the consequences of our excessive lifestyles, now affect us all.

Globally, we are living as though we have three planets in terms of resource consumption. We must find ways to live more sustainably, to accommodate a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Philanthropy is not the only answer but it can support essential research, spread knowledge, seed ideas, push for thought change in consumers and action from governments, all of which is critical.

Yet only an estimated 2 to 3 percent of global philanthropy finds its way into addressing our urgent environmental challenges.

Thus, we felt ADMCF’s resources were best spent striving toward: cleaner air; improved and secure water sources; forest protection balanced with low carbon rural development; better managed fisheries and sustainable consumption of our ocean resources; improved regulation and enforcement to protect endangered wildlife.

At the same time, we are exploring sustainable business models, a circular economy and the finance that must underpin all.

Collaboration remains the key. None of our work can be done alone, without the energy of our many incredible NGO partners, our funding partners, our pro bono supporters.

The challenges we face are substantial but in our short ten years we can see systemic change, we can see that it is possible to generate lasting impact.

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Over exploitation of the Totoaba has been driven by demand in China for its swim bladder, a highly prized product known as ‘aquatic cocaine’. And bycatch catch in gillnets used to poach totoaba is close to eliminating the vaquita.

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We are fishing and eating from our oceans unsustainably, eating down the food chain

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Please watch, this great video from Hong Kong’s Clean Air Network. It really says it all.

  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology/Civic Exchange research has shown that 53 percent of the time, the pollution that affects us most in HK is from transport – trucks, buses and ships
  • Last March the government introduced retirement schemes for old Commercial Diesel Vehicles as well as selective catalytic converters for taxis and mini-buses
  • And last year, data did show that HK’s air improved slightly
  • More good news: The government recently tabled regulation in Legco that mandates ships switch to cleaner from bunker fuel while at berth
  • But measures to improve our air have been largely offset by the huge increase in private car ownership in recent years as well as the massive development initiatives that are being undertaken
  • The Hedley Environmental Index estimates that in 2014, air pollution caused 2,616 premature deaths, 32.657 billion in lost dollars, 174,926 hospitalizations, and 4.253 million doctor visits
  • The so-called “end of pipe” solutions the government has introduced are certainly a beginning but inadequate alone
  • Hong Kong needs to follow Singapore and European cities in establishing low emission zones, pedestrian zones, electronic road pricing and intelligent transport solutions
  • We urgently need a smarter, cleaner city. This is within our reach.

Lisa and Charly Kleissner

Sophisticated Investors like to think their portfolio risk has been carefully mitigated and hedged. For the average portfolio, however, standard risk calculations don’t necessarily include analysis relative to environmental and social  issues an investee company potentially faces, or even resource consumption analysis, yet all can have a significant impact on returns. This is particularly true of a long-term “buy and hold” investment strategy.

By contrast, impact investors believe not only that these factors weigh on a company’s returns, but also a positive screen for companies actively managing these risks can improve a portfolio’s performance.

Speaking in Hong Kong about their own 13-year journey toward an “Impact Portfolio” were Lisa and Charly Kleissner, founders of the KL Felicitas Foundation. As part of their mission, the Kleissners have urged audiences globally to think about how we can better deploy capital to help better steward the planet’s resources. On Tuesday, they spoke at a forum organized by the RS Group, hoping to advance the discussion in Hong Kong.

Today, the Kleissner’s foundation and personal portfolios, managed by San Francisco-based Sonen Capital, are more than 93 percent allocated across four different asset classes to “Impact Investments”, which signal the intent to generate both financial return and “purposeful, measurable, positive social or environmental impact”.

According to “Evolution of an Impact Portfolio: From Implementation to Results“, a report published by Sonen in October last year, the Kleissner’s portfolios have achieved index-competitive risk-adjusted returns, illustrating that, “impact investments can compete with and, at times, outperform, traditional asset allocation strategies, while simultaneously pursuing meaningful and measurable social and environmental impact”.

Their journey toward impact has not been easy, according to the Kleissners, Silicon valley denizens who both worked under Steve Jobs at Apple, among other firms. The process began with dim looks from early investment managers who wanted to focus only on returns.

“We wanted to know about the positive upside for communities, for the environment, from our investments,” Lisa said. “We wanted to make money and have positive impact but our early investment advisors had no idea how to achieve this.”

They sought an advisor who cared about impact. “We didn’t want someone who saw this as simply a job,” Charly said. “We want to change the world not just make money and our investment advisor needed to be a partner in this.”

The results were far-reaching, meaning investment policies needed to become impact investment policies, due diligence restructured, term sheets re-written, new monitoring and exit strategies developed. Sonen Capital was founded in response to this need.

The portfolios the Kleissners ended up with are far from US-centric, with more than 50 percent of investments made globally. Among those are holdings in renewable timber, carbon offsets, water and land use that is respectful of biodiversity. In other words, the Kleissners invest in companies that reflect positive impact. They have opted not to invest in coal-fired power plants or extractive industries.

Three percent of their assets are in early stage direct investments, reflecting their silicon valley, entrepreneurial background. Indeed, the Kleissners efforts to promote the impact sector has included investments of money and their own time in social enterprise incubators. These, and others, the Kleissners like to think of as “catalytic” investments that can lead to change.

Beyond the incubator model to support social enterprise development, the Kleissners  also have invested in helping to build networks of like-minded investors to share due diligence as well as in promoting intermediaries to help develop the impact sector.

“Development of these investor resources is critical,” Charly said, “We want people anywhere to be able to tap into the knowledge”, which is available on the KL Felicitas website.

Measurement, always a difficult discussion, is rigorous across the portfolios, captures trends across the sectors and then includes qualitative analysis, which involves telling the story from the numbers and more.

Charly spoke of impact investment as often an evolution of smarter philanthropy. He also spoke of the importance of collaboration between grantmaking and investment to widen impact, pointing to microfinance as an example of this and to social enterprises that can start life as a nonprofit but move into a more commercial space over time using blended capital.

Speaking in Hong Kong, the Kleissners said, was a learning for them, that having worked with an incubator in India over a number of years, the entrepreneurial context there was more familiar.

In China, where the environmental challenges are substantial and polluting companies numerous, an audience member pointed out that impact might also come from working with conventional companies to change their environmental and social practices, rather than shunning them altogether.

Photo by Stanley Shea

Photo by Stanley Shea

Good news is always welcome when working in a field like ours where social and environmental challenges are often seemingly intransigent. Months or even years can pass with seemingly limited progress and then, suddenly, there is a decision that changes the work entirely or shifts us into fast-forward gear.

We had just one of those moments last week when the Hong Kong government recommended that shark fin not be served at official functions. In a circular dated September 4th but only announced last Friday in a press release, the government also said its employees should not consume the soup at functions they will be attending.

The intention was for the government to “demonstrate its commitment to the promotion of green living and sustainability,” according to the press release. Also included in the recommendation was that blue fin tuna and black moss should be avoided.

A government ban on public sector consumption of shark fin has been the primary “ask” of conservation groups working in Hong Kong on reducing the consumption and thus import of shark fin.

There has also been some success there: Although Hong Kong still imports about half of all shark fin traded globally, data from the Census and Statistics Department indicates a 19.8 per cent drop in imports from 2011 to 2012. This is particularly interesting given that for the 15 years through 2011 shark fin imports remained relatively constant at about 10,000 tons a year. Of course, the question is whether this reduction is due to declining supply – fewer sharks in the oceans – or a reduction in consumption.

Stay tuned for the results of our investigations. Working with Hong Kong Shark Foundation and Bloom, we intend to survey restaurants and wedding planners to get a sense of whether consumer tastes are changing – following some years of education on the biodiversity challenges associated with the consumption of shark fin.

Estimates are that the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are traded each year and scientists warn that the rate of fishing for sharks, many of which grow slowly and reproduce late in life, is unsustainable. Sharks help maintain marine habitats such as coral reefs and ocean health by regulating the variety and abundance of species below them in the food chain, including commercially important fish species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimates that of the 262 shark species where there is sufficient data to assess conservation status, 54 per cent, or 142 species, are at risk of extinction either now or in the near future.

When ADMCF in 2006 first started working with conservation groups in Hong Kong to research consumption habits and the trade, educate consumers about sharks and ultimately reduce consumption, the task certainly looked daunting.  There was a sense that expensive shark fin soup, served mostly as a status symbol at official or business functions and wedding banquets, was an entrenched cultural tradition.

Still, a study of cultural attitudes toward shark fin in 2011 by Bloom and the Hong Kong University Social Sciences Research Centre showed that 88 percent of respondents believed the Hong Kong government should prohibit the sale of products that involved killing endangered species. More than 75 percent said it would be acceptable not to include shark fin in a wedding menu.

Certainly, the first achievement milestone was, after much hard work by conservation groups here to educate hotel staff, recognizing last year that more than 60 percent of four and five-star hotels had either taken shark fin soup off their menus or would serve it only upon request.

More recently, airlines, led by Cathay Pacific, have said they will no longer carry shark fin as cargo unless they can be assured the fin is from sustainable sources. This is in line with many corporate sustainability policies.

The sense here, and perhaps globally, is that the “tide is turning” in favour of sharks. We believe that change is inevitable. Our job at ADMCF is to keep the pressure turned on both government and business, keep educating consumers and move us even closer toward more sustainable use of our already depleted oceans.

Photo by Alex Hofford

Photo by Alex Hofford

We hope the next milestone achieved will be a full Hong Kong government ban on the shark fin trade here until the industry can show that the product can be harvested sustainably. We are currently a long way from real sustainable supply, with only two small certified shark fisheries producing only spiny dogfish (small fins), which are not the source of much of the soup consumed in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Yes, this is a big ask of a government that is usually reluctant to act on any environmental issue. Still, the recent government circular, dated September 4th stated, “The government is committed to the protection of endangered species.”

It also stated: “As the government is committed to the promotion of green living, we should take the lead and set a good example that goes beyond the minimum expectation as laid down in law.”