Sustainability, science, and money

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Wednesday 6 Apr 2022

There needs to be a greater emphasis on science and collaboration between science and industry to meet the challenges of climate change.

Science, as embodied in the theorists, researchers, and other experts that abound in universities and research centres around the world, is what is needed to address climate change and help countries meet their pledges regarding reducing carbon emissions. 

It was science that sounded the early alarms cautioning humanity that it could not continue to abuse nature in such an aggressive and unrestrained manner without endangering the planet and human life on it. 

Scientific papers have furnished proof after proof of the detrimental effects of mounting carbon emissions on the climate and environment as a whole. They have warned of increases in the numbers and severity of floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, forest fires, drought and desertification, and the consequent loss of life and property. 

However, due to the advice of those having vested interests in the status quo and to the many who have opted for denial, the world has lost decades without taking resolute action. When the warnings came true and the perils loomed right before our eyes, we saw the usual bewilderment and confusion that prevail in the face of crises that erupt after warnings have gone unheeded and precautions have come too late, if they come at all. 

With the problems that have arisen in the management of climate change and securing energy sources, confusion then turned to bedlam, especially after the Ukrainian crisis erupted. Of course, this is hardly the first time that innocent people have ended up paying for crises in which they played no role. It will also not be the last.

Of crucial importance are the measures that need to be taken to reduce the planet’s average temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above its temperature at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Paris Climate Accords, signed by nearly all governments around the world, set two degrees as the target, but the latest scientific studies have shown that even that is extremely risky, since the average temperature is already 1.1 degrees higher than it was. 

Even if countries keep to the pledges they made under the Paris Agreement, temperatures could rise by a dangerous 2.7 degrees. Moreover, with the new pledges made at the Glasgow COP26 Summit held in November to salvage what could be salvageable, they would still not achieve more than 1.8 degrees above the temperature at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

This is also only if the countries meet their pledges. Lack of transparency is a passport to impunity and continued indulgence in bad practices while mouthing more promises. 

It is not surprising to hear the increasing complaints over the lack of established criteria with which to assess commitments to climate pledges because of the spread of “greenwashing” – the provision of misleading information to deceive people into believing that a company’s products or operations are environmentally sound. 

For example, the London Financial Times newspaper recently reported that around $2.7 trillion worth of assets are managed in more than 2,900 funds around the world that apply ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria designed for investors looking for companies with positive social and environmental impacts. 

The growing priority that investors are giving to climate change and sustainability has triggered a “gold rush” in ESG funds, complete with a boom in ESG ratings consultants to guide investors to the best available opportunities in the field in terms of risk and compliance. However, as the Financial Times also pointed out, problems have emerged because each of the consultancies has a method and approach of its own, making it hard to shop for the right investment. 

A company could score well on the ESG ranking of one provider and poorly on another. Investors and other members of the public are confused and at a loss to compare which fund performs better. 

According to experts at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the US cited by the Financial Times, the disparities in approaches and conflicting results create what they call “aggregate confusion,” ultimately hampering efforts to improve ESG performance. Companies themselves are unsure of how to proceed because of the many mixed signals they receive regarding what they need to do to improve performance or reduce risk. 

In the light of the foregoing, one cannot help but welcome the news of the launch of a group of experts tasked with developing stronger and clearer standards to help businesses, investors, cities and regions, and others commit and live up to their pledges on reducing their carbon footprints. The creation of the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities stems from the realisation that the only way to address problems related to climate-related pledges and investment is to agree on sets of concepts, criteria, and measures that will help ensure transparency and proper implementation. 

The group, chaired by Catherine McKenna, a former Canadian minister of the environment and climate change, and consisting of prominent experts in climate change and the environment, finance, development, energy and other fields, will present recommendations by the end of the year addressing the following areas: standards and concepts for setting net-zero targets; 

the criteria used to assess the objectives, measurement, and reporting of net-zero pledges; processes for verifying progress towards net-zero commitments and a roadmap towards developing international and national regulations.

It is to be hoped that the group will consult widely with the many relevant experts and professionals in prominent universities and research centres in order to benefit from the latest developments in science and its emphasis on empirical processes and proof. 

Meanwhile, as we in Egypt prepare for the next climate summit, the COP27 meeting to be held in November in Sharm El-Sheikh, we should build on the contributions of the scientific bodies that supported the summit in Glasgow. Among the most important were the contributions of the COP26 UK Universities Climate Network, a group chaired by Alyssa Gilbert of Imperial College, London, and Emily Shuckburgh of Cambridge University that brought together eminent experts from over 55 UK-based universities. 

If given the opportunity, scientific research institutions with their teams of specialists will not just diagnose the causes of climate deterioration but will also probe further in order to develop practical solutions to aid in the fight against carbon emissions and other environmental pollutants and the transition to clean energy.  

There are now feasible and low-cost alternative energy sources, cleaner modes of transportation, and more ecologically friendly forms of urban expansion and agriculture. These all came about thanks to investments in human capital and scientific research and to promoting collaborations between the scientific community and the industrial and business sectors aimed at transforming theory and laboratory work into feasible projects. 

These collaborations have also helped steer decision-makers, investors, and business operations towards the best means to transition to better policies and methods for water management, food provision, protecting infrastructure and coastal areas, and rural and urban development programmes. 

Efforts to attain sustainable development, which include combatting climate change, offer science and research great opportunities to produce rational and informed solutions and policies that will enhance the efficacy of government and other agencies in dealing with problems. Once science comes up with the solutions and room is made for their implementation, the massive funding needed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to protect the environment will step in because funders will feel assured that they have not been led astray. 

* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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