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The transformers: UN Champions who dared to reimagine their worlds

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A corporate titan with an unconventional agenda; the food specialists who looked outside the (takeaway) box; the ocean explorer whose name has become synonymous with conservation: these are just some of the environmental heroes who have dedicated their lives to bringing their audacious visions of a better world to life.

These pioneers are all previous winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award—the world’s flagship environmental honour—and their actions have inspired others to join them in their fight for a cleaner, fairer and more sustainable world.

As the countdown begins to the announcement of this year’s Champions of the Earth, and ahead of a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019, the energy and vision demonstrated by previous Champions are needed more than ever as the world races to decisively cut carbon emissions before the worst effects of global warming become inevitable.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the Summit with concrete plans to cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

What is required is nothing less than a complete transformation of economies and societies. In short, it’s a job for heroes.

Thankfully, we already have model citizens to lead us forward. The Champions of the Earth have shown year after year that real change is possible if individuals commit to overhaul the way they live so that we safeguard the planet’s resources and ensure our own survival.

Here we look at five Champions of the Earth who transformed their own worlds.

The trailblazing tycoon: Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever

2015 laureate for entrepreneurial vision

During more than a decade as Chief Executive Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, Paul Polman always dared to do things differently. Long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, he sought to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and increase Unilever’s positive social impact.

Since stepping down last year, Polman has continued his work to put sustainability at the heart of global business. He is chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and recently co-founded the Imagine foundation to help eradicate poverty and stem climate change by helping companies pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. He announced the news on Twitter, quoting the lyrics of the John Lennon song: “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.”

Polman would like to see “heroic Chief Executive Officers” drive a shift to a low-carbon, more inclusive way of doing business. This call chimes perfectly with one of the six priorities laid out by Guterres for the Climate Action Summit—mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience.

The Summit’s ambitious agenda finds an echo in Polman’s heart: tweeting out Guterres’ call for urgent action at the meeting, he wrote: “With extreme heat getting worse, nature is telling us what we already know: there’s no time to waste against climate change.”

The food mavericks: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods

2018 laureates for science and innovation

The role of agriculture in the production of greenhouse gases has led to mounting calls for people to move towards a more plant-based diet. But how can you get hungry, red meat-loving consumers to shift?

The entrepreneurial founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who won the Champions of the Earth award for creating sustainable alternatives to beef burgers, took up that challenge with gusto.

Beyond Meat worked with top scientists to strip down the core components of meat and extract them from plants instead, using ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch.

Impossible Foods took a slightly different tack to arrive at a similar result. Chief Executive Officer Patrick O. Brown’s team discovered an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant and that is responsible for the unique flavours and aromas of meat. They used this knowledge to produce a meatless burger.

The two companies have tapped into a growing demand, especially among younger consumers, for products that are good for both planet and people, proving that it makes good business sense to harness this hunger for products that don’t cost the earth.

Their can-do attitude is exactly what’s needed on a global scale to tackle our climate crisis.

As Patrick O. Brown says: “There are huge global problems, but they are solvable and we’re going to solve them. Just wait.”

The Son of the Desert: Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Resources Group

2017 laureate for lifetime achievement

When Wang Wenbiao bought the Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia in 1988, he embarked on an adventure that would see him rise to the top of the country’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group.

His journey began, as most interesting journeys do, with a problem—how to make the saltworks profitable when the creeping desert was swallowing the salt lake, damaging equipment and making it difficult to transport the salt to market?

Wang, who grew up in Kubuqi, partnered with local communities and the Beijing government to fight the advancing sands and give hope to some of the 70,000 people who had been struggling to survive. In doing so, he showed how private industry could contribute to the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, while still turning a profit.

Wang set up a special fund to pay for afforestation and assigned a third of his staff to plant trees around the lake. He also encouraged local people to grow licorice, a hardy plant that grows well in deserts and is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Elion provided locals with seeds, training and other support, and also bought the harvest at a fair price.

Today, around two thirds of the desert has been greened and Wang, who is known as the Son of the Desert, says he is in it for the long haul.

“Greening the deserts is like a marathon, as long as there is a desert, my marathon will not come to an end,” he said.

The Dutch dreamer: Boyan Slat

2014 laureate for inspiration and action

Dutch inventor Boyan Slat was only 19 when he won the Champion of the Earth award for inspiration and action but he was already a young man on a mission: to clean the seas of plastic waste using a revolutionary floating boom.

Since then, Slat has brought his vision to life with The Ocean Cleanup project and although his team was forced to bring the first prototype back to port, they have now returned to sea, hoping to scoop up some of the trillions of pieces of plastic that are choking our fish, killing marine wildlife, damaging coral reefs and turning beaches into rubbish dumps.

Slat’s ongoing passion for the project reflects growing public concern. In 2017, the UN Environment Programme launched its Clean Seas campaign to inspire governments, businesses and people to take action, including cleaning beaches, cutting plastic use and investing more in recycling facilities.

Slat’s original System 001—a 600-metre-long U-shaped floater with a tapered three-metre-deep skirt attached below to trap the plastic—was launched in September 2018 and towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic swell of rubbish twice the size of France.

But The Ocean Cleanup team found that the floater was failing to hold onto the plastic. They tried to modify the design at sea, but were eventually forced to tow the system back to port after it suffered a fatigue fracture.

More tests and modifications were needed but in August, Slat said System 001/B had arrived at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“We move forward cautiously knowing we may be presented with more unscheduled learning opportunities… Yet it is safe to say that we are closer than ever to having a tool capable of cleaning up these garbage patches for good,” he wrote on The Ocean Cleanup website.

Her Deepness: Sylvia Earle

2014 laureate for lifetime leadership

A renowned pioneer of deep sea exploration and a distinguished marine biologist, Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to exploring and protecting the oceans. Her philosophy is simple: “We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”

Earle, 83, has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater across over 100 expeditions—including leading the first team of women aquanauts and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000-metres. Her list of laudatory titles is impressive: she has been called Her Deepness, a Living Legend, a Hero for the Planet, and the Face of Marine Biology.

Earle was the first woman to serve as the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, since 1998, she has been Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

She is also the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc and the Sylvia Earle Alliance as well as being the leader of the National Geographic Society Sustainable Seas Expeditions.

In 2009, she founded Mission Blue, a global alliance to ignite public support for the protection of a network of Hope Spots—special places that are vital to the health of the ocean. The alliance aims to bring about a significant increase in ocean protection by 2020.

In 2014, she was awarded the Champions of the Earth prize for lifetime leadership. And that works goes on. Earle is still travelling the world, seeking to inspire others with her passion to preserve our seas.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Promoting Green Finance in Qatar: Post-Pandemic Opportunities and Challenges

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic had significant implications for both national economies and the global financial system, in addition to hindering the achievement of the sustainable development goals agenda. The UNDP estimates global human development—a combination of education, health, and living standards—could fall this year for the first time since 1990, which highlights how the effects of the pandemic present both an enormous challenge and tremendous opportunities for reaching the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With the additional challenges arising from climate change, governments have committed to several policy measures which promote a green recovery to rebuild their economies, while benefiting the people and the planet. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the public resources committed by governments to support a green recovery amount to at least USD 312 billion. These measures present tremendous opportunities for green finance in general, and Islamic green finance in particular, in the context of Muslim-majority countries.

The State of Qatar, in light of its National Vision 2030 and in order to enhance the diversification of its economy away from hydrocarbon, has taken several measures to mitigate climate change. These include increasing the use of solar energy to more than 20% of its energy mix by 2030, the optimal use of water, improving air quality, waste recycling, increasing green spaces, in addition to the country’s commitment to organizing the first “carbon neutral” tournament featuring the use of solar-powered stadiums and water and energy-saving cooling and lighting technology. The State is also a signatory of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and supports a number of global initiatives in relation to climate change mitigation.

All these initiatives could be funded via green finance. In this regard, there are four global trends in the financial industry that the State of Qatar can leverage to promote green finance for green recovery:

Growth of SRI and ESG awareness:

Socially responsible investing (SRI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing are two of the fastest growing investing areas globally. Both are driven by the increasing awareness of social and environmental responsibility. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, global sustainable investment reached $30.7 trillion in the five major markets at the start of 2018, a 34 percent increase in two years. These include Europe, United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Developing green finance instruments and products can attract a growing SRI investor base that seeks to align social and environmental values with its investment portfolios.

Upward trend of Islamic Finance:

According to the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the total worth of the Islamic Financial Services Industry across its three main segments (banking, capital markets, and takaful) is estimated at $2.44 trillion in 2019, marking a year-on-year 11.4% growth in assets in US dollar terms. According to Thomson Reuters, the industry is projected to reach $3.8 trillion by 2022. Qatar is one of the global Islamic finance hubs with Islamic finance assets representing more than 20% of the local financial system’s assets. With the recent development of Islamic green finance, Qatar has the opportunity to position itself as a sustainable finance leader in the region by promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance growing markets.

Financial innovation for sustainability:

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) highlights that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take between $5 and $7 trillion, with an investment gap in developing countries of about $2.5 trillion and the additional net investment required to implement renewable energy solutions standing at $ 1.4 trillion, or about $100 billion per year on average between 2016 and 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Mitigating this funding gap requires an engaged private sector to make green investments. That is why several green instruments and products were developed across the various segments of the financial industry. These include green retail banking products, including green loans and green mortgages, green corporate and investment products, green project finance, and green venture capital and private equity, as well as green capital market instruments, like green investment funds, green bonds, and sukuk.

Integration of sustainability objectives into national strategies:

Several governments around the world have integrated sustainability objectives and green finance roadmaps into their national strategies, either through a top-down approach, whereby green finance frameworks and taxonomies are harmonized at the country level (as with China), or via market-led collaborative actions. In addition, to overcome private sector investment barriers, such as high up-front costs, long investment timelines, and higher perceived risks, several countries have put in place incentives in the form of subsidies and tax exemptions. The State of Qatar can leverage these experiences through collaborations and partnerships to develop a unique green finance model in the region

Green Sukuk: A Fast Growing Market

Green sukuk is an innovative instrument for financing green infrastructure. It has the potential to become a new asset class targeting both Islamic and socially responsible investors.

Since the issuance of the first green sukuk in 2017 in Malaysia, the market has grown significantly, with twelve issuers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates tapping the market, in addition to the Islamic Development Bank. About $7.6 billion in four currencies (EUR, IDR, MYR, and USD) was raised up to September 2020, with tenors ranging from two to 21 years. The amounts raised were allocated to green construction, energy efficiency, and clean transportation projects.

Promoting Green Finance in Qatar

Although the green finance market is still in an early stage of development in the country, the market has witnessed several initiatives by local institutions that might pave the way to the development of a more dynamic market. In September 2020, Qatar National Bank (QNB) issued the first ever green bond in Qatar, a $600 million tranche, under its MTN Program, with a maturity of five years under its established Green, Social, and Sustainability Bond Framework.

In addition, Qatar Stock Exchange (QSE) introduced an ESG Guidance in 2017 to assist listed companies wishing to incorporate ESG reporting into their existing reporting processes.

While Bond and sukuk issuance in Qatar reached $28 billion in 2019, the market is largely driven by government issuance and commercial banks for corporate issuances, with the exception of Ezdan Sukuk in 2016 and 2017. The development of green sukuk in the country with the enabling ecosystem could facilitate corporate sukuk issuance, thus enhancing market liquidity.

In conclusion, promoting a green recovery in line with the country’s economic diversification objectives and climate mitigation strategies will require the development of an enabling ecosystem for the development of green finance in Qatar. Developing a pipeline of bankable green projects at the country level, market awareness, and promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance will provide the basis for further innovation and policy action, such as green labels, frameworks, and incentives.

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2021 will be defined by the more long-term crisis facing humanity: Climate change

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Rather than low-tech and often unworkable solutions (reduced or no travel, mass vegan diets) governments are increasingly embracing technology to help us understand and influence the climate – rather than merely respond to it. This should become the norm for public authorities across the world.

China’s weather modification programme, for example, could be a lifeline for workable solutions to climate change globally. The technique, known as cloud-seeding, uses silver iodide and liquid nitrogen to thicken water droplets in the cloud, leading to increased rain or snowfall. 

The technology has been used to prevent droughts and regulate weather before major events, like in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Chinese cabinet has announced that its weather modification programme will cover half the country by 2025, with the aim to revitalize rural regions, restore ecosystems, minimize losses from natural disasters and redistribute water throughout the country.  

And China’s ambitious ‘Sky River’ programme could eventually divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually across regions, which could protect millions of people from the effects of drought and water scarcity. 

Although critics have, without evidence, described these projects as ‘weaponization of the weather’, the humanitarian and development potential is huge. 

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is truer than ever with regards to the climate. The world faces a climate-change induced water crisis, with 1.5 billion people affected globally. 

The UN predicts that at the current water usage levels, water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. 

Carbon emissions are unlikely to be eliminated in high growth economies in regions like Asia, meaning that the world must develop a way to manage emissions’ effects on the climate. 

Whilst it is true that the basic solutions of eating less meat, cycling to work and cutting back on international flights can help to curb our carbon output in the long-run, it does nothing to help those who suffer from flooding or water scarcity today. 

Ultimately, technology is an essential part of the solution.

Big Tech is leading the charge in tackling climate change through the use of Big Data and machine learning. In November 2019, a group of data scientists published a paper entitled ‘Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning’. The paper laid out 13 different applications of using machine learning to tackle the impacts of climate change. One such application was using machine-learning to predict extreme weather events. 

Such an application is already being put into action. For example, Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world; approximately 5 million people were negatively affected by flooding last year alone. In order to help combat this, Google teamed up with the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme to develop a flood notification app that is approximately 90% accurate

The app, which is enabled by AI flooding simulation, provides the population with timely, updated, and critical information that can help users make informed decisions on the safety of their families and friends. 

The same technology has been used in both India and South Africa, and has the potential to save thousands of lives and livelihoods. It is these sorts of innovations that we must rely on to help those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 

It is not only cloud-seeding and weather prediction technologies that will provide humanity with a route out of its biggest existential threat. Breakthrough battery technology, green hydrogen, 5G-based smart grids and carbon-negative factories are set to become commonplace in our fight against rising CO2 levels. 

As a global society, we must set our political divisions and some critics’ technophobia aside, and step forward in a spirit of international collaboration.

Similarly to how the pandemic showed the need for united global action, climate change will do the same. And just as technology and science was a key part in how the pandemic was brought under control, climate change can only be addressed through tech-based solutions.

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The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them

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Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.

In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.

If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?

This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.

Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.

From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.

This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.

TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.

TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program

Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.

The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.

TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.

To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.

Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.

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