Chances of limiting global warming to below 2C ‘almost zero’; companies make large-scale pledges on plastic waste; resolving the disconnect between corporate and consumer views of transparency

IT HASN'T been a good few weeks for the environment. On the back of last month’s alarming IPCC report came news from environment group WWF that 60% of global wildlife has been lost since 1970. Meanwhile, Brazil elected as president climate sceptic Jair Bolsonaro, who had threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement – though this was later retracted – and open up the Amazon to agri-industrial expansion.

All of this makes yet more depressing statistics from PwC that bit harder to swallow. According to the global professional services firm, the chances of limiting global warming to below two degrees are now “almost zero”. The carbon budget for 1.5 degrees is “even smaller” and the reduction trajectory “even steeper” than 12 months ago, its Low Carbon Economy 2018 report concludes. Worryingly, it reveals that coal consumption grew globally by 1% last year, with rates in some large economies such as Turkey (12.7%), Indonesia (7.4%) and India (5%) accelerating far faster.

The last 12 months are not devoid of hope. Renewables grew by 17% worldwide. Decarbonisation is continuing, with the fall in carbon intensity levels consistent with previous years at 2.6% (although this is lower than the 3% required by national target pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement). China is leading the way, with a 5.2% reduction in its carbon intensity last year – clocking up an impressive 41% fall over the past decade. Yet, after three years of relative stability, 2017 saw global emissions creep up by 1.1%. Save a miracle (read: huge advances in, and uptake of, carbon capture and storage technologies), hope remains in small supply.

A Met Office study shows clear evidence of hotter summers in the UK. (Credit: Simon Annable/Shutterstock)

The impact of unchecked rises in global greenhouse gas emissions are already being felt. Earlier this month, the UK Met Office released results of a longitudinal study that showed dramatic changes in rainfall and temperature patterns since the 1960s. One clear finding is hotter summers. On average, the hottest day of each year over the most recent decade in the UK has been 0.8 °C warmer than the hottest day of each year over the period 1961-1990. Rainfall is also creeping up, from an average of 77.8mm a year between 1961 and 1990 to 81.4mm in the most recent decade.

A new study from the journal Science Advances has a theory for what is contributing to the recent upsurge in extreme weather conditions to hit the US and Europe: changes to the jet stream. According to the multi-authored research paper, mechanisms involving atmospheric dynamics – particularly so-called Rossby or planetary waves – are responsible for creating amplified disturbances in the jet stream, which leads to persistent extreme summer weather events. These are different from the effects of thermodynamic processes, such as the influence of a warming atmosphere on intense precipitation events. Worryingly, the authors predict an increase of around 50% in the volume of extreme weather events this century should carbon emissions continue on the current trajectory.

Under EU Commission plans, greenhouse gas emissions ought to be cut to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This implies interim targets of 40% and 60% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 2040, respectively.

Brands seek to draw line in the sand on plastic waste

M&S's 'eco-shopping bag' is sourced from 75% ocean plastics. (Credit: M&S)

IF YOU think you are helping the planet by heading to the shops with a bag-for-life, then you are right – particularly if you have a Marks & Spencer’s “eco-shopping bag. The UK retailer’s new re-usable bag comprises 75% plastic collected from the ocean in Haiti and the Philippines. The recycled plastic is sourced from Social Plastic, a social enterprise that pays waste collectors a fair wage in cash or in blockchain tokens for essential goods. The innovative bag, priced at £1.30, is part of a wider commitment by Marks and Spencer to remove 1,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in less than a year.

Under the New Plastics Economy "Global Commitment", other companies are making large-scale pledges on plastic waste. Signatories to the new initiative, which was announced at the end of last month, are responsible for one-fifth of global plastic packaging production. The list of nearly 300 organisations includes many of the world largest brands, from Danone, Mars and Coca-Cola through to Unilever, Nestlé and SC Johnson. Under the terms of the voluntary agreement those using packaging commit to use only reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. They are also obliged to publish “ambitious” 2025 targets to increase volumes of recycled content, as well as take action to eliminate “problematic” or “unnecessary” plastic packaging.

The initiative is the result of an 18-month process to promote a more circular approach to plastic production and consumption, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The New Plastics Economy report calculated that the cost to business of failing to recycle and reuse plastic packaging ran to $80-120bn while the annual cost to the environment was $40bn. 

Around 8.6m tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year, academic research suggests. This figure is expected to double by 2025. Recycling rates worldwide, meanwhile, remains at a stubbornly low level of 14% of total plastic (compared to 58% for paper and 90% for steel). When losses in the sorting and processing stages are accounted for, the proportion of plastic that is recycled drops to a measly 5%.

Even if waste collection rates increase, however, the fate of plastic is far from certain. The reason is the decision to restrict inflows of low-grade plastic waste by China, long the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste (i.e. 45% of global imports since 1992). Citing data from the US Census Bureau, researchers at Greenpeace found a year-on-year drop of 92% in the amount of plastic sent to China and Hong Kong in 2017. As a consequence, US plastic exports to other Asian countries have shot up this year. In the first six month of this year, exports to Malaysia increased by 273% (to 157,299 tonnes), while exports to Thailand jumped by a jaw-dropping 1,985% (to 91,505 tonnes). British companies may also find themselves struggling to find a market for their collected waste following the tightening of Chinese regulations. Around two-thirds of waste plastic exported from the UK since 2012 (equivalent to 2.7m tonnes) has made its way either to China or Hong Kong, Greenpeace’s Unearthed research team finds.

Honest Product Guide sheds light on transparency

Lush is cited as one of the brands offering best practice on transparency. (Credit: SKUpics/Shutterstock)

AS BUZZWORDS go, “transparency” enjoys a longer shelf life than most in the sustainability field. We know consumers want more of it in principle, but what does it mean for them in practice? Recently published research by The Consumer Goods Forum and the Chartered Institute of Marketing goes some way to answering this question. We learn, for instance, that 55% of consumers want more information on the social, health, environment, and safety credentials of the products they buy, and that 70% are most interested in transparency about the products themselves, while 30% want greater transparency in the companies that made them.

The findings inform a new guide by London-based sustainability advisory firm Futerra, together with the Consumer Products Forum. The 20-page Honest Product Guide takes as it starting point the “death of deference”. The truth of the phrase is borne out by the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which shows that more than 42% of people cannot distinguish trustworthy brands and companies from untrustworthy ones. Furthermore, 85% of Edelman’s survey respondents believe that institutions do not have their best interests in mind. This contrasts strongly with the belief of most (91%) chief executives that transparency builds trust, as per the findings of the Consumer Good Forum’s joint research.

The Honest Product Guide seeks to resolve the disconnect between corporate views of transparency levels (86% of company professionals believe consumers are happy with the information they have on products) and those of consumers (only 41% agree transparency levels are sufficient). Citing best-practice brands such as Innocent Drinks, Tony’s Chocolate and Lush, the report suggests full transparency requires clear communication around three main themes: corporate policy and performance, proof to consumers and the brand’s core values and beliefs.

Google's Made by Me initative allows viewers to take a virtual tour of its Flex factory in China. (Credit: Google)

Fashion is one key area where supply-side issues, particularly those related to labour standards, are uppermost in consumers’ minds. In that respect, Brazil’s largest fashion retailers still have a long way to go. According to the first national-level study of Latin America’s biggest economy by community interest company Fashion Revolution, eight out of the country’s top 20 brands give no information whatsoever on social and environmental data. The best performers were C&A and Zara, with scores of 53% and 40%, respectively. The Brazilian fashion industry directly employs 1.48 million people, 75% of whom are women.

On a more positive note, the number of suppliers disclosing the environmental operations of their operations to their big brand clients has almost doubled over the last twelve months. According to the China-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), 2,130 international manufacturers and other major suppliers revealed key environmental data to buyers this year, compared to 1,444 in 2017. Moreover, over three-quarters of these disclosing suppliers (1,508) issued details of their past environmental violation records. The revelation appeared in the IPE’s fifth annual Corporate Information Transparency Index. Published late last month, the index singled out US companies Apple, Dell and Levi’s as top-in-class for best supply chain practices.

The report also singles out Google for its Made By Me virtual reality initiative, which invites internet users to to take a virtual tour of its Flex supplier factory in Zhuhai, China. According to a performance update from the US tech giant, instances of non-compliance among its suppliers fell three percentage points over the last 12 months, to 10%. However, labour related non-compliance instances went up from 33% to 38% over the same period. The most common breach was failing to eliminate “excessive” working hours, which was recorded by almost one-fifth of suppliers, according to Google’s 2018 Responsible Supply Chain report.

Main picture credit: gallofoto/Shutterstock


Paris Agreement  IPCC  global emissions  fossil fuels  ocean plastics  plastic waster  M&S eco bag  corporate transparnecy  Honest Product Guide  Edelman trust barometer 

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