OPINION: Cleaning up our act

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - As the world is heading fast to a point of no return, governments must know “business as usual” is no longer an option.

2019 has been a landmark year for climate change issues. Around the world, we have seen people taking to the streets to protest, many of them children and young adults who fear for their future. Large areas of South Asia sizzled in the extreme heat. The protesters’ message was simple: businesses are not doing enough to tackle climate change. And nor are governments. Rapid transformation is increasingly becoming crucial. 

The past 12 months have brought yet more dire warnings about the future of the planet. The most recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the earth’s oceans and frozen regions are changing alarmingly quickly, while greenhouse gas emissions are altering the planet’s seas and cryosphere. The pace of this change is faster than even the most conservative forecasters had anticipated.

The UN report stated that, since 1993, the rate of warming in the oceans has more than doubled. The melting of the two great ice sheets blanketing Greenland and West Antarctica is accelerating as well, leading to an increasing rise in sea level. West Antarctica’s glaciers may already be so unstable that they are past the point of no return.

Citizens around the world are, rightly, wondering what the business and governments are going to do to address these issues. The problem we face is that our precious planet is trapped in an economic system which is based on the one-time use of natural and material resources. Most businesses entities operate along a linear model.

Then, there is the population challenge. Think about it: the population of our planet has grown from three billion in 1960 to over seven billion at present. Some forecasters believe that we will reach ten billion in the not-too-distant future. Too many people are placing a strain on too few resources. We need to start thinking differently.

“Business as usual” is no longer an option. The current economic orthodoxy is clearly not sustainable.

The only way to ensure that there is enough food and water to secure prosperity will be to move from the “linear” to a “circular” economy. We need to develop and deploy technologies to create a renewable resource-based economy. We simply cannot continue using up materials and dumping the waste by digging a hole in the ground. That way lies the environmental Armageddon.

However, while so many fingers point at the private sector, business and industry alone cannot make the transition from a waste-based economy to a renewable one. We know this based on the experiences of the past decade where, despite many pious intentions from the business community, the linear, wasteful economic model remained the norm. And the pace of required change has been painfully slow compared to the ways we have harmed Nature.

But securing Nature in the business of Sustainable Development cannot be an “us and them” game. The only way forward to fulfil all of our long-term goals is through the public and private sectors working in tandem, hand-in-hand, side-by-side.

There is often suspicion by business when we talk of “government intervention”. Some suggest that we should let the free market prevail, that the laissez-faire economic philosophy should always prevail, that healthy competition will always lead to a perfect allocation of resources. But the market does not always know and respond best. History has already told us that, especially where the environment is concerned.

The contemporary economics narrative speaks volumes about market failures. A clear example is environmental pollution which is caused by a failure of the market. In short, in many industries around the world, it still makes better business sense to pollute the environment than to operate responsibly. This can no longer be right, however. There must be sizable sanctions for those who damage the environment—in the way of making those that do not comply, pay a huge price. The only people who can ensure this happen to be the range of regulatory bodies in our governments.

In a complex economy on a crowded planet, we need a set of rules that properly account for the planetary stress that our global economy has created. We need rules to ensure that the economic life of goods does not destroy the planet, so that it can continue to provide us with food, air, water and other basic necessities.

On a limited menu, the role of the government in building a sustainable economy should include a number of things, including (but not limited to) the following:

One, increasing funding for basic science education and research needed for developing resource-efficient technologies.

Two, using tax system, government purchasing power, and other financial tools to steer private capital toward investment in resource efficiency and other sustainable technologies and businesses.

Three, investment in sustainable infrastructure, for example, renewable energy, smart grids, electric vehicle-charging stations, mass transit systems, waste management facilities, water filtration systems and sewage treatment systems.

Four, regulating land use and other private activities to minimise the destruction of eco-systems.

Five, working with private organisations, civil society as well as local government bodies to ensure that the transition is well-managed.

Six, measuring our society’s progress toward sustainability by developing and maintaining a system of generally accepted sustainability metrics. This, in turn, should facilitate the integration of sustainability into our overall management of the economy along with the setting of a national sustainable economic policy.

Seven, learning from use-adaptation of sustainable technologies in the countries of comparable economic condition who take care of their environment responsibly.

The Bangladesh government has already committed to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are fully embedded into and aligned with our economy. Perhaps the most effective mechanism for coordinating progress towards the SDGs could be through wider national coordination and implementation via the departmental planning process. Business and industry, including the SMEs, merit to be involved much more robustly.

As stated before, our serious, complex sustainability challenges cannot be addressed by the private sector and free market alone. These require wider—deeper—innovative governmental actions and need collaborative thinking between regulators, businesses and industry and, where appropriate, civil society organisations.

The future well-being of this country and the industries depend on the Bangladesh government playing a more strategic and future-oriented role to bring about the transformation needed for a sustainable economy.

People often comment that Bangladesh seems to do best when confronted with a crisis. Well, the crisis is here, now. However, one could use the analogy that we are “in the eye of the storm”—which is probably why many people cannot appreciate and feel the seriousness of the present situation.

All things considered, it is time for strong, proactive and decisive governmental actions to lead the way in tackling climate change, with the business community robustly involved and by its side.

(Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). Email: mostafiz@denimexpert.com)

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