Mark Clifford’s forthcoming book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency (Columbia Business School Publishing, March 2015), offers a hopeful take on major trends in the region, such as entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies working together to generate solutions in energy, land and water conservation that are efficient and sustainable.
His case-study approach looks at companies in China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, and the growing commitment to turning social and environmental problems into business opportunity.
We spoke with Clifford, also the executive director of Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council, and previously, editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, and publisher and editor-in-chief of The Standard.
Is Asia — China in particular — primed for its own Silent Spring moment? If so, what can an average citizen there do about the current plague from ravenous coal consumption that has brought fast-paced economic growth?
Yes. We will look back at Beijing’s ‘air-pocalypse’ of January 2013, when air pollution was as bad as a forest fire, as a decisive ‘Silent Spring’ moment. Government and ordinary citizens alike learned that the old strategy of ‘get rich, get dirty, get clean’ simply wouldn’t work any longer. Even the urban elite realized that there was no escape from the choking smog — pollution is one reason that affluent Chinese are leaving the country in large numbers. Even the best air filters don’t do much if you’re living in a forest fire.
The sea change you predict must come from major companies and public/private partnerships already doing business in Asia — but what’s their incentive to change?
Companies do not operate in a vacuum. Reputational damage can hurt profits. There are also many business opportunities, from providing clean water to solar and wind power to more energy-efficient and pleasant houses and apartments. Steep falls in renewable energy, led by cost-competitive Chinese manufactures, has upended the energy industry. Property developers that build more energy-efficient buildings often find that profits increase as a result of higher rents and sales prices as well as ongoing energy savings.
You cite technological and policy innovation as means for change, but where does the sustainability ethos come from to use them thus?
As resources become scarcer in a world of over 7 billion people — projected to be 9.6 billion by mid-century — sustainability increasingly will not be a luxury of the rich but a necessity for the poor. Countries that are facing existential threats to their survival will embrace an ethos of using resources — whether it be air, water or forests — more intelligently, with a longer-term perspective.
Singapore is an excellent example of how this is already happening. The country’s size is a bit smaller than New York City and the city-state historically relied on Malaysia for its water. Today it is largely self-reliant as a result of desalination plants, and some of the world’s most sophisticated water collection and treatment facilities. To save on energy costs, the country has adopted a plan that will see most of its buildings become green over the next 15 years, part of a well-thought-out long-term program that was conceived by the most senior levels of government but also enjoys widespread grass-roots support.
Is one concept of sustainability extensible across all cultures — or does it vary from one country and continent to another?
In a continent as diverse as Asia it’s no surprise that there are many sustainability models. What has worked for Singapore might not work in big countries like India, China and Indonesia. That said, there are some basic fundamentals.
- Government needs to make policy choices that are clear and measurable. There should be short-, medium- and long-term targets. Governments should use market forces as much as possible — using prices works better than issuing regulations. Stripping away subsidies for fossil fuel is a good place to start.
- Business needs to be innovative. Having top leadership committed to seizing sustainable business opportunities is a must.
- A strong civil society — especially NGOs and the media — is important. Civil society acts as a force for change and ensures that governments and businesses are doing what they should.
Will Asia become the next frontier for global sustainability practices for the West?
Although Asia’s sustainability efforts will hold many lessons for others, this is above all about Asians solving Asia’s problems. China’s construction of the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network over the past decade is transforming that country. In Singapore, dramatic water and green building programs have been part of a broader transformation. Similar examples exist around the region.
Why are you so hopeful against most obvious odds?
People usually do the right thing, once they’ve tried everything else. Asia’s environmental emergency means that this is increasingly a matter of survival — both political survival for governments and physical survival for individuals. We tend to overestimate how quickly big changes can happen — but we also underestimate how dramatic and powerful the long-term impact of these changes can be.
It was almost a decade between the publication of Silent Spring and legislation establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. There are hundreds of companies in Asia with the capital, the know-how, and the willingness to push sustainability practices forward. The companies profiled in The Greening of Asia are just a few dozen among the many hundreds already wielding their significant financial resources and human know-how to solve Asia’s environmental problems. This process will only accelerate.