#14 SUSTAINED By The G|O - Wednesday, January 19 2022

#14 SUSTAINED By The G|O - Wednesday, January 19 2022

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete SUSTAINED - THE SDGS DECODED newsletter of January 19th, 2022

The new year brings its fair share of environmental, economic, and socially aware hopes. “In 2022 the debate is no longer about ‘why’ sustainability is needed — but ‘how’ to pursue it in a practical, effective manner," according to the Financial Times’ Moral Money, in reference to the ongoing ESG debate. In his annual letter, BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink highlights that the increased pressure on big companies is not enough to get the ball rolling: “We need governments to provide clear pathways and a consistent taxonomy for sustainability policy, regulation, and disclosure across markets.”

Faced with the challenge of climate change, the reasons for companies to invest in sustainability seem evident. What is less evident, however, is which companies are actually credible in their claims to be in compliance with the latest set of green accounting standards.

With corporate sustainability mumbo jumbo gaining traction, it is hard to assess a company’s credibility vis-à-vis its commitments to the SDGs. One way of getting a better picture is through ClimateBert, a Zurich-based organization which uses an AI system to comb through annual reports and spot inconsistencies in sustainable self-praise. The team just released some new findings: a thorough analysis of 14,584 annual reports of the Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) World index firms from 2010 to 2020: “Publicly supporting the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures [TCFD) is associated with more cheap talk," sums up Swiss Finance Institute professor Markus Leippold, one of ClimateBert’s lead researchers. In other words, the more public pronouncements a company makes about its sustainable finance commitments, the less likely it is to actually deliver.

THE GREENWASHING RADAR, which SUSTAINED is introducing this week, will also shine a spotlight on the difference between corporate pronouncements and reality, with a journalistic focus on PR-savvy sustainability claims.

Today, we will zoom in on Firmenich, an international fragrance manufacturer considered by most to be a pioneer in the corporate SDG realm. The family business’ new partnership with French vertical farming giant Jungle brings their high-value lily-of-the-valley production to an indoor, sterile and automated ecosystem. Yet as agronomist Dr. Pascal Bonvin points out, even if it is indeed sustainable in this particular case, the majority of popular plant species consume unviable quantities of both water and energy without ground roots.

With climate change an existential threat, we find it worrisome, to say the least, that carbon dioxide emissions are showing no signs of slowing down. Alarmingly, in 2021, the US saw its first rise in years—mostly due to coal and freight—according to a report quoted by Inside Climate News.

This grim reality deeply affects human rights, as today’s featured expert Guillaume Charron, director of Independent Diplomat (a non-profit advisory group), insists. Along with the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations Office, Charron celebrated a colossal success, last October 8th, when they effectively lobbied for the creation of a Special Rapporteur (SR) on human rights in the context of climate change. This resolution was voted for at the same time as the right to a clean and healthy environment. “The odds were against us, but what we achieved was huge. The person appointed next month will have the task of highlighting how the climate affects human rights.”

Our SUSTAINED News in Brief deals with SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities and Indonesia’s plan to move government offices out of Jakarta, which is chronically congested and subject to flooding. We will also have a look at SDG 5: Gender Equality initiative, with a new women’s entrepreneurship accelerator. Finally, today’s edition ends with SDG9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, and news of Hatch CoLab’s sudden demise. The impact tech venture accelerator just announced that its operations are currently on hold.

Also don’t miss our op-ed from Robert Muggah, (member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow and an adviser to the Global Risks Report) and Carlo Ratti (Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT). With the devastating effects of climate change already bearing down on the world’s urban areas, ambitious decarbonization and adaptation promises from municipal leaders could not have come any sooner. But making good on these commitments requires scaling up the tools for collecting and analyzing the right information.

“I Really Hope the New Special Rapporteur Will Be From Both the SIDS and the Pacific Region”

SUSTAINED: What is the ideal profile for the Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change, in your opinion?

Guillaume Charron: There are currently a large number (78) of Special Rapporteurs (SRs). None of them are from both the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Pacific region. I really hope that the new SR will come from one or both of these groups.

Right now, there are a bunch of candidates who are being shortlisted. The chosen person will be appointed late February.

What will the selected candidate’s immediate priorities be?

GC: The first report, which is set to be published in June—in other words, a lot needs to happen quickly. We don’t expect the initial findings to be groundbreaking within such a short deadline, but they should give us an idea about the SR’s priorities and vision. As for the exact content, it will depend on the profile of the selected candidate.

How did the existing core group at the Human Rights Council, composed of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, react to the draft resolution in favor of a new SR?

GC: The odds were against us. The existing Human Rights Council’s core group has been working on climate change for the past ten years and has a monopoly on the topic in the human rights sector. There is also a SR for the environment, in place since 2012. One of the counterarguments to a new SR position highlighted the risk of mandate proliferation and creating an overlap between different functions.

To this, we responded that it is undeniable that all human rights are affected by climate change, and overlaps are sure to occur. However, the urgency of the crisis is too strong not to have someone dedicated to the topic of climate change specifically. Civil society has been calling for this addition for a long time.

How did you confront the problem of climate change accountability—also known as the “who is responsible for what” problem?

GC: We tried to compromise by including wording from the Paris Agreement which states that countries have common but differentiated responsibility. This means that the more a nation pollutes, the more it is responsible for compensation. With the exception of a few court cases in Norway, New Zealand, and France,  there is no authority in the multilateral system when it comes to climate change. We wanted to produce the most ambitious mandate possible to move in this direction. This meant underscoring the responsibility of climate action and financial markets.

National sovereignty is a recurring argument used to invalidate resolution proposals. How did this issue affect your initiative?

GC: This point of contention is not specific to our endeavor; it all comes down to what the UN’s role is. My view is that climate change is an existential threat to human rights. The threat is so real and so big that it affects all humanity. The last time we faced a change of such a magnitude was our progression, as a species, to civilization! Unhindered, this might be the end of life on earth as we know it. Once the right to life is at risk, everything else is affected.

What will your next challenge be, in the battle to link human rights to climate change?

GC: Our next project will be to mount an event, in March, that puts the spotlight on cities that have already disappeared—such as Paradise, a town burnt to the ground in California, or Sitio Pariahan, a sunken village in the Philippines. People think that the impacts of climate change are a future problem, but it is already happening. Fires are getting bigger, sea level is rising, and glaciers are melting.


Firmenich's New Partnership: Sowing Seeds for a Greener Future?

Is vertical farming one of the perfume industry’s sustainable saviors? Geneva-based industry leader Firmenich has just paired up with French agricultural tech giant Jungle, in an apparent quest for a more sustainable version of the signature muguet (lily-of-the-valley) ingredient, a high-value flower sought out by all the major actors in the business.

The company’s claim:

The partnership brings more than just the scent of sustainability to the production process, according to the company’s spokesperson Fabien Tisserand: “Jungle’s vertical farming capacities, which use less water and soil, as well as healthy products devoid of chemicals or pesticides, are completely aligned with Firmenich’s ESG ambitions. The whole procedure is respectful of the environment: Once heated by electromagnetic vibrations, water carries the scent components in order to deliver the pure extract at the end. Muguet Firgood is a 100% natural product, obtained thanks to a safe and sustainable procedure. This partnership also frees us from the seasonal constraints linked to the flower’s supply.”

SUSTAINED asked Dr. Pascal Bonvin to assess the claim…

According to the head of the agronomy department at the Haute École Du Paysage, D'ingénierie Et D'architecture De Genève (HEPIA), vertical farming is a viable option for high market value plants, such as lily-of-the-valley or decorative orchids, which benefit from highly sterile environments. In the great outdoors, the coveted flowers are exposed to a number of contaminants which threaten production outcomes. “This type of partnership is essential for certain niches, as this case illustrates, but in no way could it represent the future of food production,” highlights Bonvin.

Indeed, when it comes to the bigger SDG picture, the technique’s added value is lacking. “Vertical farming requires high water input and energy consumption, which can make it non-competitive (depending on the product) and non-virtuous from an environmental perspective," analyzes Bonvin. “Based on my knowledge, vertical farming for food-crop production is a futuristic fantasy, but does not have any real benefits in economic and environmental terms. All of the existing studies show that food security and ecosystem viability depend on soil plantations.”

Sustained News in Brief

SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities is a touchy topic in Indonesia. Nusantra (which translates as ‘archipelago’) will replace the overburdened capital. The country’s governmental offices plan on moving to Kalimantan, a neighboring island, to relieve the city, which is chronically congested and subject to flooding. President Joko Widodo announced the relocation back in 2019, but the project suffered delays due to the pandemic. Parts of Jakarta, which harbors a population of 10 million people, are sinking up to 25 cm a year, despite an existing seawall designed to protect communities. The move is expected to be complete by 2024.

There is a new online program in town and its main focus is SDG 5: Gender Equality. Launched at the United Nations General Assembly on January 11th, the platform offers assistance to women entrepreneurs through the united efforts of six UN agencies: International Labour Organization (ILO), International Trade Centre (ITC), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), UN Women, and Mary Kay.

It’s a sad time for SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Hatch CoLab, which SUSTAINED included in an article last year, will be closing up shop—for the time being, at least. Unfortunately, the team and the Foundation Council had to take the difficult decision to place the Hatch CoLab Foundation into dormancy status while the Foundation Council explores the future," writes the team in a heartbreaking goodbye. “As you may imagine, it was not a decision that we took lightly. We will continue to explore how we can create impact and pursue our purpose in the future, as we are still very much driven by the flourishing of the Impact ecosystem. Looking at the past 5 years, it was a spectacular ride, and it is mostly because of you. We could not be more grateful to have a dedicated community supporting the ecosystem.”

Cities and the Climate-Data Gap

By Robert Muggah and Carlo Ratti

RIO DE JANEIRO—With cities facing disastrous climate stresses and shocks in the coming years, one would think they would be rushing to implement mitigation and adaptation strategies. Yet most urban residents are only dimly aware of the risks, because their cities’ mayors, managers, and councils are not collecting or analyzing the right kinds of information.

With more governments adopting strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, cities everywhere need to get better at collecting and interpreting climate data. More than 11,000 cities have already signed up to a global covenant to tackle climate change and manage the transition to clean energy, and many aim to achieve net-zero emissions before their national counterparts do. Yet virtually all of them still lack the basic tools for measuring progress.

Closing this gap has become urgent, because climate change is already disrupting cities around the world. Cities on almost every continent are being ravaged by heat waves, fires, typhoons, and hurricanes. Coastal cities are being battered by severe flooding connected to sea-level rise. And some megacities and their sprawling peripheries are being reconsidered altogether, as in the case of Indonesia’s $34 billion plan to move its capital from Jakarta to Borneo by 2024.

Worse, while many subnational governments are setting ambitious new green targets, over 40% of cities (home to some 400 million people) still have no meaningful climate-preparedness strategy. And this share is even lower in Africa and Asia—where an estimated 90% of all future urbanization in the next three decades is expected to occur.

We know that climate-preparedness plans are closely correlated with investment in climate action including nature-based solutions and systematic resilience. But strategies alone are not enough. We also need to scale up data-driven monitoring platforms. Powered by satellites and sensors, these systems can track temperatures inside and outside buildings, alert city dwellers to air-quality issues, and provide high-resolution information on concentrations of specific GHGs (carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) and particulate matter.

Technology companies are the first movers in this market. For example, Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer aggregates data on building and transportation-related emissions, air quality, and solar potential for municipal officials. Projects such as Climate Watch, Project AirView, Project Sunroof, and the Surface Particulate Matter Network are providing city analysts with historical data, tracking car pollution and methane leaks, and even helping individual users determine the solar-power potential of their homes.

But it is worth remembering that many private-sector climate-data initiatives were built on the back of large-scale, publicly supported programs. The most well-known source of climate data is NASA, which uses satellite data and chemical-dispersion and meteorological models to track emissions and predict the movement of pollutants. Similarly, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association tracks wildfires and smog (among many other things), and issues data-based forecasts through its National Center for Environmental Prediction. And in Europe, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service generates five-day forecasts based on its tracking of aerosols, atmospheric pollutants, GHGs, and UV-index readings.

Google Earth became a staple resource by organizing and making good use of more than four decades’ worth of historical imagery and data drawn primarily from public sources. Given that the private sector has been capitalizing on these data for years, cities no longer have any excuse for not doing the same. One easily accessible source of city-level data is the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Air Quality Forecasting and Information System, which tracks everything from dust storms to fire and smoke pollution. Another is the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environment Platform, which provides high-resolution forecasts.

Some pioneering cities have already started to work with smaller data vendors such as PlumeLabs, which crowdsources air-quality data through locally distributed sensors. But while access to data is essential, so, too, are the methods to make it useful. As matters stand, datasets tend to be fragmented across platforms, and even when urban leaders agree that the climate emergency warrants their attention, extracting insight from the details remains a daunting challenge. Cities are generating a chorus of climate data, but have yet to teach it to sing in tune.

Building a harmonious climate-data ecosystem will require an accessible platform to consolidate disparate metrics. Data also need to be streamlined and standardized to improve the monitoring of inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impact. Better data management will improve decision-making and empower ordinary citizens, potentially fostering collaboration and even positive-sum competition among cities. Public, private, and philanthropic partnerships can have a catalytic effect, as was the case when cities such as Amsterdam, Bristol, Chicago, and Los Angeles joined forces with SecDev Group to create an interactive dashboard tracking city vulnerability.

There are, however, some risks to consolidating and standardizing climate data for cities. When global technology vendors flood the market, they can curb local innovation in data collection and analysis. Moreover, by focusing too much on a small set of metrics for every city, we run the risk of Goodhart’s Law: once a measure becomes a target, people start to game it. Consider targets designed to reduce vehicular emissions that result in the production of cars designed to pass emissions tests, rather than cars with lower emissions.

Similarly, when climate data are more centralized, there could be greater incentives for political and corporate interests to skew them in their favor through lobbying and other means. And policymakers will need to ensure that any potentially sensitive or individualized data are kept private and protected, and that datasets and the algorithms they feed avoid reproducing structural biases and discrimination.

Most of these hazards can be identified early and avoided through experimentation, with cities pursuing unique strategies and promising new metrics. But unless cities scale up their monitoring and data-collection systems, they will have little chance of delivering on their climate targets. Better analysis can help drive increased awareness about climate risks, optimize responses, and ensure mitigation and adaptation strategies are more equitable. We cannot manage the climate crisis until we measure it, and we cannot measure it until we can collect and analyze the right information.

Robert Muggah, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Group, is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow and an adviser to the Global Risks Report. Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, is Co-Founder of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

Today's Sustained: Sarah Zeines, Robert Muggah, and Carlo Ratti

Edited by: Dan Wheeler