Partnership key to global 'sustainability'

Industry players urge businesses to play a more active role in addressing climate change, and partner government and consumers to shape policies.

SINGAPORE--Businesses now, more so than ever, play a key role in the environmental equation, UN officials said Tuesday.

Speaking at the Business for the Environment Global Summit 2008 in the island-state, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner called the engagement of the business community "a critical part of the [climate change] conversation".

Steiner, also under-secretary general of the UN, said the business community, in its interaction with governments and consumers, can help bring about innovation in public policies relating to the environment.

Georg Kell, executive director of the UN Global Compact, added that responsible business practices, can and ought to be a substantive part of efforts to tackle environmental issues.

Kell said: "Businesses can, and often do, move forward where governments and policy makers do not."

Touching on Singapore's own efforts to build the country into a sustainable development hub, Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan also pointed to the need to build a supportive domestic and corporate community.

Mah said companies should be prepared to take initiative, and invest in making their businesses more eco-friendly. Such moves "need not come at the expense of profitability", he noted.

"Companies that learn to be more resource-efficient ahead of the competition can reap first-mover advantage in a new carbon-constrained world," said Mah. "Businesses that adopt environmental sustainability as a form of corporate social responsibility will distinguish themselves in a world of increasingly discerning consumers."

According to UN Global Compact's Kell, even the threat of an economic downturn should not dampen the momentum for businesses. Instead, it could offer added impetus to move toward energy efficiency.

Technology the way to go?
Technology is seen to be the solution to the environmental problem, findings of a global survey conducted last July have indicated.

Doug Miller, president of research house Globescan, reported that 58 percent of the 22,000 respondents believed that technology will have the ability to resolve climate change issues with little action needed on the part of people.

Mark Newton, environmental policy manager for sustainable business at Dell, told ZDNet Asia that technology is particularly useful in increasing energy efficiency, but should not be seen as a cure-all solution.

Drawing reference to a study by McKinsey, Newton noted that keeping temperatures in check required a combination of reducing emissions as well as improving efficiency.

Technology, he added, is in place today to help users operate more efficiently and cut emissions, whether in the realm of data centers or "less obvious applications" such as electrical utility generation. However, only as recently as two or three years ago, IT was designed mainly with performance in mind.

"Two or three years ago, nobody really designed IT equipment intentionally for energy efficiency--energy efficiency came with good [IT] design," said Newton. "It's only been recently that the idea of designing IT equipment intentionally to maximize performance per-watt, have we been able to see incredibly significant gains in IT efficiency.

Driven by higher public awareness, the emphasis on energy efficiency has seen a 40 percent to 60 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of products over the previous generation, according to Newton.

Technology however, will fall short without an attitude of conservation on the part of enterprises and individuals, cautioned Newton.

He said: "You can't just go forward with business as usual without rethinking about the way you operate and being more conscious of lifestyles, consumption habits and footprint on the planet."