Irish NGOs at the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit

Representatives of a number of Irish NGOs were invited to New York by the Irish Government for the Sustainable Development Goals Summit last week. Here is Oisin Coughlan of Friends of the Earth’s take on the SDGs, where he stresses the importance of developing an Irish Action Plan for the goals. The brief article also contains the interesting statistics that Ireland is the 8th most generous overseas aid donor in the OECD but also the 8th most climate polluting country:

http://www.foe.ie/news/2015/09/24/ireland-can-be-proud-of-the-uns-global-goals-test-now-is-achieving-them-in-ireland-oisin-coghlan-in-new-york/

Also well worth checking out is Oisin Coughlan’s Twitter account, in particular for his coverage of the SDG Summit:

https://twitter.com/oisincoghlan/

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UN Sustainable Development Goals

Last Friday saw the official launch of the UN’s follow up to the 15 year old Millennium Development Goals, the “Sustainable Development Goals”. Ban Ki-Moon describes the 17 goals as a “blueprint for a better future”.

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51968#.Vgk9VPTyb3U

First of all, lets look at how the MDGS and SDGs compare:

Source: UN in collaboration with Project Everyone  

We can see that the number of goals has more than doubled, but what’s new? Altogether the new goals are far more extensive and refined. For example, “ensure environmental sustainability” has been expanded significantly to incorporate goals on climate change, conservation and ecosystem protection and restoration. There are also specific new goals on water, energy, inequality and sustainable cities. Although the MDGs on maternal health and disease have been scrapped, they are presumably subsumed under the new health and well-being goal.

Perhaps most interesting are the new goals on “sustainable consumption and production” and “sustainable economic growth”, and we will be watching to see how the UN interprets these concepts. What constitutes “sustainable consumption” in the developed world? How to quantify “sustainable economic growth”? And what, if anything, will these new goals mean for business?

A few clues for the latter question are offered by the report of the “Business and Industry” consultation group assembled by UN. The most recent report available is from September 2014, with an update due any day now. From here there is a general sense of “business as usual”, with an emphasis on the “positive role of business”, with the group appealing to government to implement “smart regulation” to “encourage”, (rather than enforce) better practice. The short consultation is available here:

http://www.stakeholderforum.org/fileadmin/files/SD2015%20Position%20Paper_Business%20&%20Industry.pdf

The announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals preceded the UN General Assembly, which runs throughout this week. Yesterday, Sunday, was designated as the day when the SDGs were due to be discussed, so more info hopefully anon about what was said. In the meantime, the Guardian is publishing reliably excellent and stimulating coverage of the Assembly, including this introductory article:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/27/un-70th-general-assembly-new-york-putin-obama-syria

And, closely related, they also have this report on the Pope’s speech to US congress last Thursday, where he reiterated his previous call for action on climate change and spoke out for immigrants:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/24/pope-francis-congress-speech

Finally, to mark the SDGs, here’s a link to an excellent collection of photographs from all around the world on the theme of inequality, including my favourite, from China, below:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/sep/24/photograph-inequality-sustainable-development-goals-poverty-climate-change-action2015

Volkswagen emissions scandal

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The big business news this week is that the enormous German car company Volkswagen has been caught cheating on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions tests in the US. In simple terms, it looks like the company rigged the engines of up to 11million of its diesel cars, so that when undergoing mandatory testing by the EPA, they would emit less nitrogen oxides (gases harmful to nature and human health) than they would when driven normally. This meant that the EPA passed these cars as environmentally fit to hit the road, little knowing that their engines would rev up and start spewing out up to 40 times the amount of nitrogen oxides once Volkswagen shipped them off to the dealers.

Volkswagen is the second largest car manufacturer in the world (behind Toyota) and this scandal is likely to have a huge impact on it; its market value has already dropped by €25bn since the news broke last Friday (http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/sep/22/scale-of-volkswagen-crisis-in-charts). German chancellor Angela Merkel has also got involved and has asked the company for “complete transparency” in explaining itself. Perhaps most interesting is that all this might have a knock-on effect; politicians and NGOS are already calling for more car manufacturers to be investigated… a victory for transparency.

This article in the Guardian does a good job of quantifying the environmental impact and explaining the story so far:

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/sep/22/vw-scandal-caused-nearly-1m-tonnes-of-extra-pollution-analysis-shows

CSR Reporting Seminar – EU Non-financial Reporting Directive

Today Trinity College Dublin hosted the “CSR Exchange”, a half-day seminar on CSR reporting, organised by Dr Deirdre Ahern of the TCD School of Law. The event was based around the new EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive and incorporated academic and industry viewpoints.

http://www.iclf.ie/irish-corporate-law-forum-events/csrxchange

At the seminar Dr Ahern spoke first, explaining the EU Directive, which will come into force in early 2017. The Directive will require mandatory “sustainability” reporting by large companies (>500 employees plus a balance sheet > €20m or turnover >€40m). The content of the reporting, however, is not yet clear, and the EU is expected to issue guidelines shortly.

Broadly, companies will be expected to report on four areas: Environmental Matters, Social and Employee Matters, Respect for Human Rights and Anti-Corruption and Bribery. The Directive does not provide a reporting framework, and companies can choose from an existing framework e.g. the GRI Guidelines, or the UN Global Compact, or simply create their own framework. The Directive also asks companies to “comply or explain”, meaning that they do not have to comply with all requirements, as long as they explain why. As Dr Ahern pointed out, the Directive leaves plenty of “wiggle room” for “vacuous” or “token” explanations. Her conclusion was that it is a “stepping stone” towards regulated CSR reporting.

http://ec.europa.eu/finance/company-reporting/non-financial_reporting/index_en.htm

Dr Ahern was followed by Maura Molloy of Business in the Community Ireland (BITC), who explained the organisation’s “Business Working Responsibly Mark”, which evaluates organisations based on their “performance” in four categories: Workplace, Marketplace, CSR Governance, Environment and Community. Companies receive the Mark after successful completion of a questionnaire and a follow-up audit. She stressed that BITC aims to work with companies, and does not publish the “performance” of each organisation.

http://www.bitc.ie/business-working-responsibly-mark/

Ms Molloy spoke often of the business case for CSR, and highlighted the business benefits for organisations of receiving the mark e.g. employee engagement, cost management, investor relations. She noted that nobody invests in CSR without thinking “there must be some business benefit to doing this”

The business case was also high on the agenda for the post-coffee speakers, Jack Golden and Naomi Cooper of CRH, building materials manufacturer and Ireland’s largest company. They described how sustainability “adds value” to the company through “cost savings”, “green marketing”, “ESG investments” and more. They also described some interesting cradle to cradle manufacturing processes, e.g. Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP – http://www.apa-mi.org/reclaimed_asphalt_pavement_%28ra.php).

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the morning, however, was when the representatives of CRH were asked, at the closing Q&A, if they could link CSR reporting to a direct financial benefit i.e. “does reporting increase your share price?” The question and ensuing responses illustrate how quickly the business case can fall apart when challenged. The CRH representatives admitted that, as far as they saw, their Sustainability Report did not affect share price, and further noted that large contracts were won primarily on a low-cost basis. They cited one case in which sustainability had affected the outcome of a tender, but referred specifically to their safety record rather than their overall sustainability “performance”. It was clear from the questioner’s reaction that he was not sufficiently convinced to institute sustainability reporting in his organisation.

In closing, Dr Ahern suggested that the contribution of the EU Non-financial Reporting Directive might be to “help influence CSR norms”, rather than any seismic change in CSR reporting practices. However, as panellist Dr Ciara Hackett of Queens University Belfast pointed out, the EU has mooted further reporting legislation in the future, so we can hope that “norms” will continue to evolve.

Electric Picnic Part 2: Global Green

Electric Picnic has big ambitions to be a “green” festival. Along with the recycling initiatives outlined in the previous post, a large area is allocated for “Global Green”, a village of sorts showcasing “alternative” businesses e.g. Cloughjordan eco-village, and “eco” arts and crafts. The festival is also awash with “farmers markets”, vaguely alternative (and delicious) food vendors (e.g. http://www.natashaslivingfood.ie/), and sustainability-related discussions taking place in the “Minefield” area.

The glaring irony is that a festival like this is probably one of the most unsustainable things we can do! As the Irish Times reported, Electric Picnic 2015 used 13 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 39,000 people for a year (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/51-000-people-one-field-electric-picnic-in-numbers-1.2342350). If the festival could be powered entirely by renewable energy, then we might be getting somewhere…

With all this at the back of our minds, here are some pictures of the Global Green area, and the interesting businesses, artwork and workshops to be found there:

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First things first, a map of the Global Green eco-village

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Friends of the Earth used this interactive “Yellow Brick Road” to raise awareness of climate change

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Some nifty onsite artwork made from “recycled” materials

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Some of the activites taking place in Global green (left to right): painting stones at Cloughjordan community farm, make your own headband and welly upcycling

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Finally, a few of organisations encamped in Global Green: Riot Rye Bakehouse, Dublin Cycling Campaign and Cloughjordan Community Farm

Electric Picnic Part 1: Friends of the Earth

Electric Picnic, Ireland’s largest annual music festival, took place last weekend in the ground of Stradbally Hall, Co. Laois. The festival added a number of “green” initiatives this year, including a 20c refund for the return of plastic cups, and “every can counts”, whereby people who returned a bag of aluminum cans to specific bins were entered into a draw for free tickets to next years festival:

http://www.electricpicnic.ie/information/staying-green

In addition, Electric Picnic also enlisted the help of Friends of the Earth (www.foe.ie) in recruiting 50 “Green Messengers” to be stationed on site to talk to picnickers about recycling their waste. I volunteered as a Green Messenger and, armed with litter-picker, bin bags and clipboard, set off to work as the “bin police” for the three days of the festival.

DSCF1585A Green Messenger attends the Electric Picnic bins, Sept ’15

2015 was the first year Electric Picnic operated a recycling system, and some teething problems were evident. For example, there was a lack of co-ordination between the two companies contracted to dispose of the waste, one in charge of recycling, the other in charge of general waste, further complicated by the addition of Friends of Earth to the equation.

Most festival goers were receptive to recycling, with the only item causing notable confusion being the separation of coffee cup from lid. FYI – cups are compostable, lids go in waste – who knew! Electric Picnic had also worked with the food vendors on site to make the food waste, including cutlery, fully compostable. Although some companies held tight to their styrofoam cups. Yes Heineken I’m talking to you. Compostable cup lids would be top of my list for next year.

Green Messengers also petitioned members of the public to support a price for solar electricity, to ultimately enable owners of solar panels to sell their excess energy back to the government. Again, festival goers were largely receptive, the most common question being “do they [the government] not do that already?” Selling to the grid is currently possible with wind, but not solar energy. To “sign” the petition online, click here:

http://www.foe.ie/takeaction/solar-revolution/

FOE Green Messengers were also entitled to place in the eco-campsite, a small campsite run by UK group Be Your Environment (http://www.beyourenvironment.com/bye%3Demc.html), where campers must recycle their rubbish and keep the campsite spotless, to the extent that I brought my general waste home with me in a bag. If the idea of a no-waste campsite doesn’t sound revolutionary, just take a look at this image of the “Oscar Wilde” campsite, the day after the 2013 picnic:

Meanwhile, here’s this year’s eco-campsite:

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According to the powers that be at Electric Picnic, the plan is to introduce recycling and compost bins throughout the campsites in the next couple of years, so maybe soon picnickers can wake up to the happy little haven in the pictures below.

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The Eco-campsite, Electric Picnic 2015

CEOs views on climate change

PWC has just published it’s annual CEO survey, which this year includes a specific section on climate change, with an eye on the UN negotiations in Paris in December (COP21). The report is mostly written in fairly anodyne “business case” language, with lots of talk of “risks and opportunities” and taking a “strategic view”, but it includes some interesting statistics, such as the fact that 56% of CEOs are worried about the “risk” of further climate change regulation. Almost 2,000 CEOs were polled four times in the past year to generate the data.

http://download.pwc.com/gx/ceo-pulse/climatechange/index.htm

In the report, PWC distinguish between four stages on the “climate leadership journey” (sic): sceptics, operationalists, opportunity seekers and advocates. They see the latter as those “taking an activist stance with policy makers”, an interesting description and the first time I’ve seen “activist” and “CEO” in the same sentence…

One of the most interesting statistic from the analysis is that only 46% of CEOs believe that the outcome at COP21 will have a significant impact on driving action on climate change, which raises questions as to the importance of what goes on at Paris. Instead, they call for governments and the public to do something about climate change, a passing of the buck familiar to me from my PhD interviews. However, 75% of CEO do believe that “better info on impact of business” will drive action on climate change. Perhaps that is something for researchers to tackle…always assuming business will listen to the results!

Private sector funds island school teaching post

Here’s an unusual instance of corporate philanthropy: an executive at Zurich Insurance has organised for the company to pay for a second teacher at a primary school on the tiny Irish island of Inis Meáin. The school was in danger of closing as it had only one teacher, but the Department of Education was not forthcoming, so now the private sector has stepped in.

http://connachttribune.ie/white-knight-rides-in-to-save-galway-island-school-098/

This is interesting for a few reasons. First, could this happen at other schools? I’m sure there are lots of schools that would benefit from an additional teacher – what’s to stop parents who work in high places in the private sector from doing the same as Zurich Insurance? What would this mean for the Department of Education? Second, what effect (if any) might this have on the children at the school? It certainly gives them a very positive image of big corporations… Although it could be a lot worse – I vividly remember Coca Cola’s “educational” visit to my school when I was about 8 years old!

To be continued…