One Planet

The Paris paradox

Govts, businesses and global public are both problem and solution in climate change fight

Visitors descending on Paris over the past week for the United Nations climate change conference might have spotted some thought-provoking ads at outdoor spaces across the French capital.

At first glance, some of them looked like the real thing, depicting corporate logos and short, snappy slogans. They were anything but.

One poster, featuring global automaker Volkswagen in the style of a classic VW ad, reads: "We're sorry that we got caught. Now that we've been caught, we're trying to make you think we care about the environment. But we're not the only ones."

Another, on Exxon Mobil, declares: "We knew about the impact of fossil fuels but publicly denied it."

These so-called "subvertisements" were the work of Brandalism, a British-originated guerilla art group that installed these unauthorised artworks across the city to "highlight the links between advertising, consumerism, fossil fuel dependency and climate change".

Other prominent corporate sponsors of the climate talks, such as AirFrance, GDF Suez and Dow Chemicals, were also targeted, along with a few heads of state.

Brandalism noted in a statement that major polluters, by sponsoring the talks, "promote themselves as part of the solution - when actually they are part of the problem".

Environment activists forming a message of peace in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Sunday as the World Climate Change Conference took place in the city. The writer says one of the great challenges in the push to save the planet is that climate
Environment activists forming a message of peace in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Sunday as the World Climate Change Conference took place in the city. The writer says one of the great challenges in the push to save the planet is that climate change does not exactly capture the public imagination, which is why UN talks are important as they keep the issue at the top of the global agenda. PHOTO: REUTERS

"We want to challenge the role advertising plays in promoting unsustainable consumerism… Because (it) force-feeds our desires for products created from fossil fuels, they are intimately connected to causing climate change," it said.

The artworks - aptly installed on Black Friday, Nov 27, a day of mass shopping - have since gained worldwide attention and gone viral on social media, despite being taken down quickly by the authorities.

They expose uncomfortable truths and a paradox that lies at the heart of the Paris talks.

And that is, business and government are both the problem and the solution.

Almost 200 nations are meant to ink, for the first time, a global treaty to tackle climate change at the UN conference. It is a process that began back in 1995 but has not achieved much - global emissions have risen 63 per cent in that time - due to domestic politics and business interests.

Brandalism says it wants to expose the hypocrisy and corporate greenwashing behind the talks, which they claim are increasingly dominated by the private sector.

While the guerilla group has a point, its view is overall too simplistic and cynical.

Yes, there are business interests at the talks; but over the past decade, there has also been substantial progress in the private sector on climate change.

Sustainability reporting, for instance - where businesses account not just for their financial results, but also environmental and social impact - is increasingly being mandated in more countries.

A growing number of firms have also set public targets to reduce their emissions by embracing new business concepts such as the circular economy, which keeps resources in use for as long as possible.

Companies like Ikea, Google, Microsoft, under a global RE100 initiative, have committed to use 100 per cent renewable electricity, propelling a global momentum to increase corporate demand for clean energy.

Like it or not, given that businesses are an integral part of the global economy, any solution requires their involvement.

In fact, the global public is also both the problem and the solution.

Many people say they want a greener, better planet - but how many are willing to shop less, travel less and abandon the wasteful consumerism that has come to dominate their societies?

In a recent straw poll among my peers, I asked if they understood what was climate change, and if they cared about it. Most came back saying they "vaguely" know the issue but that it was "super yawns". They care enough to maybe read about it, but not enough to change their lifestyles.

And therein lies the great challenge.

Climate change doesn't exactly capture the public imagination.

First, climate science is complex and, let's face it, unexciting. Then, the findings are bleak and the challenges long-term. We are told we need to reform our global systems and change the way we live to avert a global catastrophe.

It's not the best news story. But this is precisely why the UN talks are important.

They ensure that climate change is kept at the top of the global agenda, and that the entire policy machinery is - slowly but surely - transitioning us to a low-carbon world, even if the public does not care to think about it. In its absence, this would be a world in which countries take unilateral action to impose environmental regulations of their own liking, with no global coordination or monitoring on how the international community is faring. It would be a free-for-all world that would spin out of control.

Critics like to say that all the emissions generated by the UN meeting could be put to other use. Media reports estimated the conference would produce an extra 300,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, mostly due to air travel. The UN is offsetting the emissions generated from the event, and delegates like myself are offsetting their own travel. But even then, I would say these emissions are worth it.

No matter what happens by the end of this week, the UN summit has already achieved what was formerly impossible - getting all countries to publish a national strategy to tackle climate change.

Whether they are ambitious enough is a separate question - and everyone agrees they must be scaled up - but at least these targets are now subject to public scrutiny.

This is where you and I - as members of the global public - can play a role. Why? Because businesses and governments respond best to their voting citizens and consumers.

We need to place expectations on them - and each other - to pursue responsible policies, business strategies and consumer decisions that promote fair, sustainable growth.

At the very basic level, this means being educated about the issue, choosing to consume with care, recycling and re-using wherever possible, buying only from responsible businesses and voting for governments that are pursuing fair, inclusive and sustainable policies.

We should do so not because we are environmentalists, or tree-huggers, but because these issues affect our daily lives.

The global effort to tackle climate change will not end in Paris; it is a constant, evolving process that will dominate the policy and business spheres in the following decades. But it is one that also requires us, as individuals, to continually reflect on and review our own actions.

  • The writer is editor of Eco-Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication. This is a monthly column on the environment.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'The Paris paradox'. Print Edition | Subscribe