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Battle against plastics grows; global jet-set sends tourism emissions skywards; US firms see benefits from managing water and carbon
Wimbledon isn’t Wimbledon without strawberries and Pimms, but anyone hoping to suck the favourite tipple through a straw at this year’s championship will be disappointed. The All England Lawn Tennis Club has said it is ditching plastic straws in favour of recyclable paper alternatives. The organisers of the world’s most iconic tennis tournament are providing 87 water re-fill points and offering paper bags for all purchases of merchandise.
The fact that such a traditional, august institution as the All England Lawn Tennis Club should be taking action against plastic waste goes to show just how far – and fast – the issue has climbed up the political agenda. This month also saw the launch of the UK Plastic Pact, a collaboration between 68 retailers, brands, makers of packaging and waste and recycling companies, which set a voluntary target for all plastics packaging to be either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. (See Analysis: UK retailers’ plastic pact must be backed by real change)
New research commissioned by the green electricity company Good Energy places plastic just below climate change as the chief environmental concern of UK citizens.
Around one in four (24%) of UK citizens put plastic at the top of their list of eco-worries, compared with 29% for global warming. Threats to wildlife (16%), air pollution (12%) and deforestation (10%), lag far behind.
The 2,110 British adults surveyed by pollster YouGuv for the study point to recycling (86%) and bags for life (85%) as the main solutions for resolving plastic waste. According to a US research paper published in the journal Science Advances last year, only about 9% of the estimated 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled (a further 12% has been incinerated).
UNEP's Clean Seas Programme seeks to tackle ocean plastic. (Credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)
Governments around the world are beginning to respond. Around 40 countries have put their name to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Clean Seas campaign, which seeks to combat ocean plastic. (See: ‘We need private sector partners to help UN Environment deliver on our mission’) The list includes Rwanda, Kenya and Sri Lanka, which banned single-use plastic bags entirely, and Chile and South Africa, which have both recently passed legislation to extend producer responsibility for plastic packaging.
In Germany, where extended producer responsibility (read: a deposit return scheme) was introduced in 2003, 99% of plastic bottles are now recycled (the figure for the UK is closer to 43%).
As part of a new 25-year environment plan, the UK says it may well follow suit. Wales, meanwhile, intends to become the world’s first “refill nation”, working with campaign group City to Sea to develop a nationwide-refill campaign. Together with UK utility firm Thames Water, City to Sea already runs similar campaigns in eight UK cities, including London.
Business participation will be crucial to any solution to the world’s plastic problem. The UK is collaborating with India, Canada and other Commonwealth countries on a £50m research project. The UK government has committed £25m to the Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework. Consumer goods giant Unilever has pledged a further £5m, while UK retailer Waitrose has said it will put £500,000 in the pot.
New initiatives aside, the research and development teams of big private sector players haven’t been twiddling their thumbs. Tetra Pak announced plans to launch a recyclable paper straw before the end of this year. US coffee chain giant Starbucks, meanwhile, reports that its decision to pilot a 5p charge for paper cups in 35 stores has led to a 150% uptake in reusable cup use. Even so, only 5.9% of customers now bring their own cups to the participating stores as a consequence of the incentive.
Climate change: tourism's carbon footprint grows
Jet-setting tourists account for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. (Credit: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)
EVERY TIME a major climate conference comes round, there’s a habitual gripe in the media about the carbon emissions of all those delegates flying in from across the globe. Well, at the United Nations’ preparatory talks in Bonn for this year’s COP24, which finished last week, it was the carbon footprint of jet-setting tourists that grabbed the headlines.
According to new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the greenhouse gas emissions of tourists could be 8% of total emissions, four times higher than previously thought. If correct, it would put the carbon footprint of the tourism industry above that of the construction sector.
With falling air travel prices and a growing middle class, overseas holiday-making is growing at a rate of 3-5% per year. Small islands such as the Maldives, Mauritius and Cyprus tend to have the highest international emissions, according to the findings. The researchers postulate that increases in global incomes could see tourism’s total emissions hit between 5bn and 6.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2025, amounting to 12% of current greenhouse gas emissions. The news of rising tourism emissions comes after a 2016 declaration in Montreal by 65 countries (representing 85% of global air traffic) to introduce offsetting schemes from 2021 in order to stabilize their airline emissions at 2020 levels.
Also hitting the news during the recent Bonn summit was a report by anti-poverty charity Oxfam, which revealed that industrialized economies have so far delivered less than half ($48bn) of the $100bn promised under the Paris Agreement. The financing is earmarked to help low-income nations reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.
In rich countries’ defence, they still have until 2020 to stump up the promised cash. However, the likelihood of the target being hit is doubtful, according to Oxfam, which alleges that only $16-$20bn donated to date strictly counts as carbon finance. Moreover, for the year 2015-2016, only 18% of total public climate finance went to the 48 poorest countries in the world.
The shortfall touches on issues of social justice and humanitarianism in addition to very real environmental concerns. According to new research by investigators at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, temperature variability is set to increase in tropical countries – many of which are “too poor to deal with these changes”. Using the latest data, the Dutch researchers calculate that temperature variability increases by up to ~15% per degree of global warming in Amazonia and Southern Africa and by up to 10% /°C in the Sahel, India and South East Asia.
On a more positive note, the European Commission recently unveiled ambitious plans to combat climate change in its latest budget. The 2021-2027 budget proposal earmarks €320bn for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change – an increase of €114bn on the current six-year budget cycle. One fifth of the Commission’s current budget is dedicated to action on climate change. The new budget proposes increasing this share to 25%, although French president Emmanuel Macron recently suggested it should be 40%.
Another government rethinking its approach to environmental finance is Colombia. As part of a recent tax reform, Juan Manuel Santos’ government will use 5% of its new carbon tax (which collected $140m during its first year in 2017) to extend conservation programmes by 20m hectares nationwide. The tax requires companies to pay 15,000 pesos ($5.2) for each tonne of carbon dioxide generated through fuel combustion.
There is promising recent news from the private sector as well, with US bank Morgan Stanley announcing that is will provide $250bn in low-carbon financing over the next dozen years. The 2030 commitment will encompass clean-tech and renewable energy financing, sustainable bonds and other transactions that enable low-carbon solutions. In 2015, the bank issued its own green bond, worth $500m.
The UN calculates that $90trn in low-carbon infrastructure investment is needed between 2015 and 2030 if global goals on climate stabilisation are to be met.
Green tech: US business seeing the benefits
LET'S START with the good news: emerging technology promises to advance environmental protections, according to the vast majority of US business leaders. Fewer than one in ten (9%) top corporate executives fail to see the potential for the planet that new technologies promise, finds research published by the Environmental Defense Fund, a US non-profit. And we’re not talking years in the future, either. More than two-thirds (70%) say their industries are already accruing eco advantages thanks to so-called “fourth wave” technologies. In addition, three in four business leaders claim that environmental benefits feature on their list of issues to consider when investing in new technologies.
The research, which is based on the opinions of 500 board members in companies with annual revenues of $500m or more, is not universally rosy, with 28% admitting that their companies have made little or no progress in aligning environment and business goals over the last five years. According to a recent report from Ceres, the US sustainability advocate, only 31% of large US insurance firms have formal board oversight for sustainability. Only 38% of US insurers, meanwhile, hold senior executives responsible for sustainability performance – well below the US average of 65%.
Ceres is more upbeat the food sector, with 90% and 86% of large US firms found to have quantitative, time-bound targets in place to manage water and carbon impacts, respectively. As for board oversight of sustainability, the food sector is split down the middle, with 48% having formal processes and 52% not. In what promises to be a boost to ongoing momentum in the sector, the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef just released a new Sustainability Framework designed to tackle six main areas, including emissions, animal wellbeing and water consumption.
Another sector that appears to be pulling its sustainability socks up is the global fashion industry. According to research by the Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda, three-quarters of fashion companies have improved their environmental and social performance over the last 12 months. In addition, 52% of the executives surveyed say sustainability is a “guiding principle” in all decision-making, up 18% on last year. That said, most of the progress is among small and medium-sized firms, with many giant companies and luxury players “finding progress increasingly difficult”, the research finds.