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Mark Clifford says he has found Asian firms increasingly engaged in large-scale business activities designed both to profit from and to help solve environmental challenges.
Mark Clifford says he has found Asian firms increasingly engaged in large-scale business activities designed both to profit from and to help solve environmental challenges.

Mark Clifford | Dealing with the climate crisis

The award-winning journalist on better leveraging Asia's private sector in resolving the climate change crisis facing the continent

Hong Kong: What are Asian businesses doing to meet the region’s growing environmental emergency? Are they being given adequate support by their governments to make a meaningful difference? Is the private sector ahead of the curve in Asia in coming up with creative solutions to the climate change crisis? What else can be done to make a substantive impact to this looming apocalyptic crisis in Asia?

One man sitting in Hong Kong is keenly researching these issues and making critical efforts to better leverage the Asian private sector in resolving the climate change crisis facing the continent. In his new thought-provoking book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, Mark Clifford, an award-winning journalist, author and policy advisor, raises alarm about the untenable levels of pollution and environmental degradation facing Asian countries and how businesses can better intervene to resolve this existential crisis.

“Asia’s environmental emergency threatens personal and even national survival today," says Clifford, who is the executive director of Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council, and one of the region’s most respected writers on business and economy. He has served as editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has held senior editorial roles at BusinessWeek and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Clifford points out that in China alone, 1.2 million people are dying each year as a result of air pollution. Beijing residents call it “air-pocalypse".

“In Bangladesh, even a slight increase in sea level could put the country under water. The Maldives faces a similar fate," he adds.

Indeed, even Singapore, which he says, prides itself as a city in a garden, is often choked by severe haze from fires caused by illegal burning of forests in neighbouring Indonesia.

India’s environmental woes are, of course, dire and seem to get worse each year.

Still, as dirty air, foul water and hellishly overcrowded cities threaten to choke the region’s impressive prosperity, the good news, according to Clifford, is that “Asia is finally waking up to the tremendous business opportunity inherent in moving towards a clean-energy economy".

He is convinced that a viable solution is possible out of the current existential nightmare posed by the environment as Asian corporations take the lead to be at the vanguard of change.

“Asian companies are nimble, entrepreneurial and hugely innovative," he says. “They have what it will take to solve the climate change crisis: money, manpower and technical know. They just need the right incentives from governments to make an impact."

Clifford, a lean, pragmatic man in his mid-50s with a brisk gait and sharp mind,wants governments to set clearer rules so that Asian business can do its part to solve the region’s environment crisis.

“Business take problems and turn them into opportunities. So, why not leverage them more systematically in solving this crisis," he asks.

In The Greening of Asia, Clifford lays out not only the most pressing climate challenges faced by Asia but also provides specific examples of innovative Asian companies that have worked to find cutting-edge solutions across industries and countries—from Japan to Indonesia, India to China.

“I am convinced that Asian companies are ready, willing and able to solve a whole range of environmental challenges if governments set appropriate prices and put in place the right policies."

As someone who has had extensive experience in dealing with both the government and the private sector in Asia, he should perhaps know this better than most.

Through his award-winning, 25-year career in journalism, and presently as executive director of the Asia Business Council, Clifford regularly engages with prominent policymakers and business leaders across Asia to better understand how businesses can be engaged to secure Asia’s future and ensure its competitiveness in the coming decades.

He has co-authored many books, including Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia’s Next Generation and Building Energy Efficiency: Why Green Buildings Are Key to Asia’s Future.

His other books on Asia examined China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the 1997-98 financial crisis, and Korea’s economic development.

A seasoned marathon runner, an avid sailor and a student of history, Clifford is the recipient of a number of prizes for his reporting across Asia, including the Overseas Press Club Award for best foreign business reporting of the Asian financial crisis with the BusinessWeek team.

A new crisis today clearly draws Clifford’s attention and he is determined to bring it to the attention of those with influence and who can help resolve it.

“We are seeing a historic shift starting to take place in Asia in fixing the environment," he says. “I wanted to offer a blueprint for political and business leaders to follow to prevent the Asian miracle from being wiped out."

He adds: “Business is the biggest missing piece of the puzzle that must be brought into the fold urgently by governments to solve the climate crisis in Asia."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What really is the business case for solving Asia’s environmental emergency?

First, stripping away fossil fuel subsidies—which are many times those of renewable power—would be a good place to start, although that is politically difficult.

Second, forcing coal to pay its own way, really looking at the costs of coal—the cost in terms of lives lost every year as a result of air pollution, mine disasters and, of course, the longer-term effects of global warming, would be a good place to start.

Other resources, notably water, should be priced to reflect their scarcity.

Of course, companies cannot do this alone. We need good government policies, preferably ones that rely more on prices than on too many regulatory dos and don’ts. We also need civil society—the media and NGOs—to ensure that what’s promised is accomplished.

Do businesses really have the will to take on the monumental challenges that governments have failed at in addressing climate change in Asia?

Yes, indeed. The more I looked, the more evidence I found of Asian companies increasingly engaged in large-scale business activities designed both to profit from and to help solve Asia’s environmental challenges.

From solar and wind power technologies to green buildings, electric cars, water services and sustainable tropical forestry, Asian corporations are upending old business models in their home countries and throughout the world.

What is your view of the strategic initiatives taken by China in addressing climate change?

China has indeed made dramatic progress in climate change, especially in renewable power, wind and now also increasingly in solar as well. It has spent $89 billion on clean tech last year, about two-thirds more than second-place US.

Also, last year’s agreement between (Chinese President) Xi Jinping and (US President) Barack Obama was historic, with Xi promising that 20% of China’s energy would be from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and that carbon emissions would peak around the same time.

What do you see as three game-changing trends in addressing climate change in Asia?

First, falling prices mean that renewable power—especially wind and solar—is now cost-competitive for many companies and consumers in a wide variety of situations.

Second, water is going to be a hard-stop issue. California’s drought and the shockwaves it is sending through the state—and the political reaction it is engendering, might prove useful for Asian policymakers to study.

Third, it has become clear that environmental issues don’t respect boundaries and hence regional cooperation has become more critical than ever. Forest fires set to clear the land for palm plantations in Indonesia have left Singaporeans gasping for breath. Water issues cross national boundaries all across Asia. Nations, therefore, need to ensure that issues like this do not exacerbate geopolitical tensions between countries.

What do you find shocking and distressing still about the business of clean energy in Asia, and globally?

The slowness with which people react. This is human nature. It took eight years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published before the US set up the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s also distressing that even when the economics favour efficiency, people don’t change their behaviour. When we measure the total cost over the life of a building, it’s four times more cost-effective to build an energy-efficient building in China than to build a coal-fired power plant and other infrastructure to heat, cool and light the inefficient building. Yet inefficient buildings keep getting built for a variety of reasons, ranging from inertia—it’s hard to change people’s behaviour in an understandably conservative industry like construction and building management—to misaligned incentives, where developers would have to pay for what they think are higher initial costs (though, in fact, this is often not the case) without reaping the rewards, which go to buyers or tenants.

Why is your book unique in your view? How is it different than the rest of the tomes written on climate change?

This is the first time that anyone has taken a real close look at the business sector’s capabilities across Asia. It is based on scores of interviews with dozens of companies and CEOs across a broad swathe of Asia and it shows that countries have this enormous and still largely untapped capacity in the form of their companies. Companies are made up of people, people who care about their communities and who, of course, care about their children and who want to be part of a solution to one of the biggest challenges of our time.

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