Corporate response to climate change and the role of Tibet
Friday, 22 June 2007, 3:29 p.m.
By Tenzin Tsultrim
TODAY, CLIMATE CHANGE is a reality. We must accept the fact that our everyday technology has destructive capacities. Though unintentional, it has the power to change the global climate, threatening the very existence of innumerable species that even have not had enough time to adapt.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “Peace and the survival of life on earth as we know it are threatened by human activities which lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and nature resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things.” Over the last 100 years we have increased the atmospheric concentration of what we call greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several other gases. These are largely the result of the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, and also of the conversion of our forests into agricultural lands.
There are a number of major environmental issues today and climate change is one of them. Our earth’s climate is warming – about 0.6 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years – and further rise in temperature is predicted. The large majority of scientists believe that human activities are primarily responsible. The global climate change causes the sea level to rise due to thermal expansion of the ocean, melting of mountain glaciers, and melting of land ice in the Polar Regions. The rise in global consumption of fossil fuels due to the fast growth in the transportation and other industrial sector could contribute not only to air pollution but also to climate change.
Everything we manufacture generates greenhouse gases. The gases like chlorine, bromine, chlorofluorocarbons and halons have high ozone depletion potential. The destruction of the ozone layer would pose a major threat to all forms of life on earth. In the 1980s, the world recognised the ozone depletion as the serious problem and since then, there was an international agreement to cut down all of what we called the long-lived greenhouse gases, destructive to ozone layer. This is encouraging.
Climate change threatens natural resources such as food and water all over the world. Especially, in the tropics and subtropics, where most of the developing countries are situated, the climate change could have adverse effects on water, energy, human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. Most of the arid and semi-arid areas will become drier. There will be adverse effects on the stability or the reliability of hydropower, which is the key energy source for many developing countries. The glacial retreat and the sea level rise could cause the displacement of millions of people especially in the low-lying regions. This may lead to local unrest and regional conflict.
We mind-possessing beings have been far more destructive than any other beings. We must use our intelligence to accept the consequences of our actions. Everything we burn, in a car, a stove, a power station or a factory, produces more and more of the gases that heat our only planet so fast that many abnormalities and extremes occur with greater frequency.
The extremes of droughts and floods could bring in endemic diseases. Large number of people would succumb to heat stress and malnourishment due to reduction in agricultural production. Already there are signs of these changes. A report published by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) even links lack of food and hunger with AIDS. It shows that countries with a high prevalence of chronically hungry people are also afflicted by high rates of HIV/AIDS. Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute has explained the threat of a food crisis quite explicitly. He said the world food production is decreasing due to dwindling ground water table and spreading deserts. So combining the challenge of food security and climate change is very important.
Whatever the origins of climate warming, it is now a global fact and requires a global solution. There is an international convention, the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, setting a framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenges posed by climate change. It has the protocol called the Kyoto Protocol, which recognises that developed countries have admitted to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. Europe, Canada, and Japan all having ratified the Kyoto Protocol have shown political will and political leadership on the issue of climate change, though the USA and Australia have not. The Kyoto Protocol is just one small step but an important one in a very long journey to eventually stabilize the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.
Under this Kyoto Protocol, there is a gaining popularity of the “cap and trade” (carbon trading) system for reducing carbon dioxide emission. Many have welcomed this system as the best way to mitigate climate change. The potentially lucrative ‘carbon trading’ business provides incentives for polluting firms to change, especially if the market price for pollution credits is very high. However, critics doubt whether these trading schemes can work as there may be too many credits given by the government. They argue that emissions trading does little to solve pollution problems overall, as groups that do not pollute sell their conservation to the highest bidder. Some suggest tight controls are necessary in order to establish a reverse commodity market like “Green Tags.” So even if carbon trading is one solution to climate change, it also has serious limitations. Many feel that by allowing polluters to keep polluting, the system fails to change the underlying behaviour that causes emissions. Allowance levels under the European Trading Scheme were also excessive in most cases, which is one example of the present trading system’s limitation.
Today the ecological crisis continues at a greater speed under the influence of commercial interest, which is further driven by the competitive pressures of globalisation. Obsessed with economic excitement, we seem to have lost the sight of our own home being destroyed by ourselves. We are one planet, interconnected and interdependent, sharing one global climate system. The earth’s climate is already changing, and further greater change is inevitable, if we remain unresponsive. We need to make greater effort to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the source. If we have a genuine concern to protect our planet, not only the developed countries, but also developing countries such as India and China will have to start reducing their emissions.
We have only one planet to live on. We also need a global understanding that our selfish consumption is finite. World population is estimated to expand 50 per cent by 2050, leading to an extraordinary growth in consumption. Over the decades, there has been a dramatic change in the pattern of consumption leading to the fast depletion of our natural resources. Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” Our living planet has limits. We must know our limits, and accept them and live within them. We can no longer hope that technology will magically solve this problem or that tree planting will compensate for our industrial pollution. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “There is suffering on this planet and there is a need to strengthen our love for our planet and our service to the living Earth…We think we can control nature, which is a false perception.” Rather than arguing among governments as to who is more to blame, who must pay more and do more, if we face up to difficult decisions now, our children will thank us.
My country Tibet, so distant from centres of industrialisation is also now heavily impacted by climate change. Tibet, roughly the size of Western Europe provides steady and reliable environmental services throughout Asia. The rivers such as Yellow River (Machu), Yangtze (Drichu), Salween (Gyalmo Nyulchu), Mekong (Zachu), Satluj (Langchen Khabab), Karnali (Macha Khabab), Indus (Senge Khabab) Arun (Bumchu) and Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), all originating in Tibet directly provide water to over a billion people downstream. Now as our glaciers are melting, the capacity of these rivers to continue provide its services is being threatened.
Not everyone knows the permafrost of Tibet, which is anything but permanent, is rapidly shrinking due to climate change. This means water locked in the soil during winter now melts and drains away earlier, before sprouting plants in spring can send down roots to reach the water. This dramatically reduces plant growth, and changes the pattern of vegetation in huge areas. According to a study carried out by Chinese scientist Bian Jianchun and his colleagues, ozone depletion is also indicated over the Tibetan Plateau, the highest plateau in the world.
Tibet, a country that has been under Chinese control for the past 50 years, profoundly influences global climate dynamics. The Tibetan Plateau is a major driver of planetary air circulation and climate. Although everyone knows Tibet is intensely cold in winter and spring, in summer it heats fast; its plateau-wide low pressure draws inland the vast cloudbanks that amass in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The role of Tibet in drawing far inland the great monsoons of Asia was only recently discovered by meteorologists, as they gradually realised that the much better known El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (extensive warming of the central and eastern Pacific) is only part of the reason for cyclic droughts and floods in many places. The realisation that the entire planet is a single climate system, with the Tibetan Plateau as a key driver of the monsoons, came at the same time as scientists realised that man made emissions can affect the planetary engine of climate. Since it exerts such an influence on the jet stream and on all the monsoons, Tibet can be an important part of the solution.
If we look closely at Tibet, we see vast grassland and millions of animals, wild and domestic, antelopes, snow leopards, yaks and sheep. The herds, like all ungulate ruminants, emit greenhouse gases, but the net effect of 2.5 million sqkms of grassland and a huge area of wetlands is that Tibet is a vast carbon sink, soaking up an enormous amount of anthropogenic gases such as carbon dioxide. These grasslands are however, degrading and even desertifying as the fragile top soils washed away, leaving only bare rock. This has become a major issue in Tibet since the Chinese intrusion and receives almost no investment for remediation. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there has even been indiscriminate clearing of forest, and Tibetans were helpless to stop the loggers coming in.
Forests produce very critical ecological goods and services. They protect our watersheds. They help to control air quality and the earth’s climate as Dr. Bob Watson, chief scientist and director of the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (ESSD) section in the World Bank has expressed: “forests are more valuable standing than they are cut down.” For almost a decade now, the official policy in Tibet has been reforestation. But in reality, the amount spent has been small and the methods used are often unskilful such as aerial dropping of seeds, rather than employing Tibetan villagers to care for seedlings. If ever there was a case for payment for environmental services, this is it. Tibet needs investment in pasture repair, to re-sow native grasses and restore forest.
Today the role of corporate social responsibility is gaining momentum across the world. In Tibet, so far there have been a few foreign companies investing because of the remoteness and lack of infrastructure. It is also due to the complex bureaucratic administration that is especially sensitive with the Tibet issue. Most investment in Tibet until now comes from central and other rich Chinese provinces. But China has been pouring huge amounts of money into Tibet to built infrastructure in order to facilitate the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). China needs foreign investments to fund the various and massive so called development projects often carried out with complete negligence of social responsibility. Tibetans have no rights to even voice their legitimate concerns. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that the commercial and corporate interest comes at a time in Tibet’s history when ordinary Tibetans have no real say in their country’s development. He appeals foreign companies who think of working in Tibet to consider carefully about the ethical value.
Lagging far behind in material development, Tibet needs development. However, it is welcome only if it benefits Tibetans themselves and is environmentally friendly. So far all development projects are top down and most projects such as the Gormo-Lhasa railway and other large-scale construction have harmful effects on both the people and the environment of Tibet. Often such projects are designed and implemented from distant cities like Beijing and completely lack local people’s participation. This railway, which even Chinese president Jiang Zemin acknowledged as having ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¹Ã…â€œpolitical significance’ is favouring the influx of Chinese migrants coming to Tibet, snapping economic and other opportunities from the Tibetan people. The result is the marginalisation of the Tibetans in their own land as they are less educated and less skilled than the Chinese migrants. Very little investment has reached rural Tibet where over 80 per cent of Tibetans live farming and herding. China’s urban biased development draws more Chinese leading to the creation of new towns and cities with distinct Chinese characteristics. Such development policy undermines the Tibetan culture and traditional values. In 2004, Central Tibetan Administration has published Guidelines for International Development and Sustainable Development in Tibet, addressed to donors, corporate and foreign investors, articulating the need of change towards a future where Tibetan people can maintain their culture and spiritual traditions and live sustainably.
With the growth in industrialisation, China has been heavily dependent on coal for their energy. This causes massive amount of air pollution. As now China begins to make shift towards clean energy, it turn on to tap Tibet’s entire river systems for hydropower. China is known to already have the world’s largest number of dams. Damming of rivers and the river diversion from the south to the parched northern region of China are a matter of great concern as they will impact the life of millions of people downstream on the Asian subcontinent and harm the ecosystem as well. Often this is done without consultation with the downstream nations. There are also plans to build cascades of 13 dams on Salween River and to divert the Brahmaputra River, which will deprive the downstream populations from their rights to livelihood. Bangladesh already fears that it will turn into a desert in the near future as water flow in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river will fall drastically if China goes ahead with its plan. Fearing similar effects in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, India too has expressed its concern.
In all intergovernmental forums China, now the second biggest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet speaks for Tibet. In effect, this means Tibet is voiceless. This is especially so when it comes to climate change, since China strenuously objects to any limits, any controls, targets, quotas or mandatory reductions in its emissions. China’s refusal to accept its responsibility to reduce the emissions is reinforced by the attitude of the USA. The United State has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol arguing that China, world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases was granted exemption. It argues that it also has adopted effective measures for combating global warming issues on its own. The USA will not agree unless the protocol includes a binding target for China and other developing countries. The result is a stalemate: China will not agree unless the USA agree, and vice versa. This gives both of them perfect opportunity to deny responsibility. Each has a vested interest in the stalemate persisting, so they can escape accountability.
This is not a time to argue over who is to blame. We could waste years, even decades, arguing about rights to pollute, precedents and principles. We do not have decades to waste and action is needed now. The nations of the world, seeking selfish competitive advantage deny the bigger picture; our universal planetary responsibility to care for the one envelope of air we all breathe without national boundaries. If we leave climate change to the governments of the world to solve, we may have to wait too long, longer than the world can afford to wait. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “This planet is our own home. Taking care of our world, our planet is just like taking care of our own home. Our very lives depend upon this earth, our environment.”
There is no doubt climate change is a serious threat. Fortunately there is now a growing number of multinational private sector companies all voluntarily committing to reduce their emissions. This is commendable but we do need the rest of the countries and others in the private sector to also show political will and agree to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Corporations actually have more scope and opportunity to abate their greenhouse footprint than anyone. Dr. Madhav Mehra, President of the World Council for Corporate Governance said, ” The governments of today and politicians particularly, have lost the moral authority. For the first time in human history, the business has the power to make a difference to human lives and can fill the vacuum eminently.” Corporations could do more than governments are likely to do. United Nation’s Environmental Program views today’s corporations as environmentally responsible, having strategies to include a “triple bottom line” of sustainable development.
Corporations have the choice. They can hide behind their governments and encourage governments to delay as long as possible any regulatory restrictions. This has been the strategy of many Chinese and American corporations, looking to governments to protect them from mandatory quotas. Meanwhile European corporations have made great progress in reducing their emissions. Soon it will be the turn of India’s big corporations, as India’s economy accelerates. India too will have to decide whether to be a laggard, fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable, like China and the US do now. Indian corporations may well be tempted to argue, as the Chinese do, that climate warming is the cumulative result of two centuries of industrial emissions by the rich countries, and other countries have the right to catch up and should not be made to pay for the legacy of past mistakes of others. But this argument is both selfish and short sighted.
The problem of climate change cannot be solved by one nation, or by some nations. It is no longer the problem only of the industrial nations. All countries, developed or developing, can take collective responsibility for cutting consumption, waste and the endless pumping of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the air we take into our lungs every minute to sustain our life.
Climate change has far reaching implications for business. Corporations deal with the world, as it is their strength. Corporations that fail to recognise reality go out of business. Today’s business should run on true principles of transparency, equity, accountability, integrity and responsibility that could provide the true incentive for driving the corporations. The meaning of business today is no longer just an economic instrument. The true meaning of business can be noted from what the eminent management thinker Charles Handy had to say. He said: “The principal purpose of a company is not to make profit, full stop. It is to make profit in order to continue to do things or make things, and to do so even better and more abundantly. To say that profit is a means to another end and not an end in itself is not a semantic quibble, it is a serious moral point.” Corporations need to actively take the initiative to address social and environmental issues.
There is great opportunity for corporations to become lead players. Rather than hiding behind their governments, waiting until legislatively required, corporations with a genuine concern for the future can do themselves and the planet a favour by acting now to reduce emissions, whether required by law or not. When corporations discover they can create their brands, stand out from competitors, take a position as a market leader by taking real action to reduce their carbon emissions, they save the planet and themselves. The trend is clear. Around the world, concern is rising. We cannot wait until we are forced to do so by disasters and by emergency legislation. Human security is precious. When corporations join carbon-trading scheme that value carbon not just as a token gesture as at present, but in ways that reflect the actual environmental cost of carbon, then Tibet has a major role to play.
The role of forests in stabilising the atmospheric temperature is well known. The removal of atmospheric carbon is known as carbon sequestration. Under the Kyoto Protocol, allowable carbon sinks include afforestation and reforestation activities undertaken since 1990. The grasslands and the wetlands could also be included as carbon sinks. About 70 per cent of Tibet is rangeland with huge area of wetland as well. There is an obvious scope for corporations to offset emissions, in a meaningful carbon-trading regime, by financing effective reforestation of eastern Tibet, and the regeneration of pasture across Tibet. Any corporation sincerely concerned for Tibet will also ensure that the planting of grass and trees is done with the active participation of Tibetans, not just by a remote central authority. Given the worldwide awareness of Tibet, this will also be beneficial for corporate reputations and its growth.
Tibetans have always believed in interdependence. Tibetans also believe we must act in this life in ways that are beneficial for coming generations. Our coming generations also have the right to a clean and sustainable environment. There are strong Tibetan traditions that moderate greed and teach us to distinguish basic needs from insatiable desires. Now we are all realising we dwell at the bottom of a common planetary ocean of air, which we cannot afford to treat as a free sink for all our gaseous wastes. Now the whole world is discovering that the air we all breathe is indeed one single envelope of air, common to us all, humans, animals and even insects. Tibet has much to offer to a world rediscovering interdependence.
The Tibetan people have great cultural values that cherish compassion rather than selfishness, the long term rather than the short term. Climatically, geographically, culturally and linguistically Tibet is a country, with much to offer to corporations, which want to be part of the solution to climate change.
Climate change is perhaps the biggest risk humankind has ever faced. Our insatiable desire led us to the further exploitation of the natural resources. In our attempt to improve the quality of our life, we have caused deleterious impacts on our Mother Earth. World must now realise that it is time for a paradigm shift from a model based on competitiveness and consumerism to a sustainable development approach through cooperation and international partnership. This can help us fulfil the basic human needs and balances economic activities with social and environmental goals. There is no time to loose.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “Our marvel of science and technology are matched if not outweighed, by many current tragedies, including human starvation in some parts of the world and extinction of other life forms. Exploration of outer space takes place at the same time the earth’s own oceans, seas, and fresh water areas grow increasingly polluted, and their life forms are still largely unknown or misunderstood. Many of the earth’s habitats, animals, plants, insects and even micro organisms that we know as rare may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capability and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late.”