If you want to breathe, eat and tackle climate change then..... #beatairpollution
As some readers will know, I have provided substantiating evidence and data sets to explain why Olam has put sustainability at the heart of our business. Recently I came across another bit of compelling evidence that has reinforced the urgency of the challenge that we have on hand. According to UN Environment, ground-level ozone pollution “is expected to reduce staple crop yields by more than a quarter (26%) by 2030”. As a leading global food and agri-business, this is a clear risk to our future supply sources and revenues. And potentially the price of food in the future.
A type of air pollution, ground level ozone occurs when Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) react with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) in the presence of heat and sunlight. Many of us know this better as ‘smog’. Often invisible, we see the residues on shirt collars and window frames, grimacing as we realise we are breathing in the same. We also hear it in the asthma attacks of family and friends as the lining of their lungs become swollen and inflamed due to the allergens. Now imagine plants and crops having their own smog challenges. As the US National Park Service explains “ozone damages plants by entering leaf openings called stomata and oxidising (burning) plant tissue during respiration. This damages the leaves and causes reduced survival”.
Furthermore, let us remember that ground level ozone is far from being the only type of air pollution; others come in the form or large and small particulates, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene and others. Depending on where we live, these pollutants find their way into our lungs. According to this article from UN Environment “globally, 93% of all children breathe air that contains higher concentrations of pollutants than the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe to human health. As a result, 600,000 children die prematurely each year because of air pollution”.
You may not realise it but climate change is also a form of air pollution, attacking the health of our planet. The greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) trap heat within the ozone layer, causing temperatures to rise. Worryingly, CFC-11 has suddenly started to spike.
And the causes of all this pollution? Our cars, our heating sources, our industries, and yes, even agriculture. For example, if the ammonia that rises from both fertiliser and livestock waste meets with other pollutants like nitrogen oxide, it creates tiny particles called aerosols. So the seemingly distant landscapes of the rural and the industrial come together in our air and yet again, the impact of activities in one region reverberate in another as particles travel downwind. The same occurs from burning waste, agricultural or otherwise, and of course, vegetation and forests.
At Olam, we have a direct and vested interest in tackling anything that could impact the future of agriculture. But such complex and interconnected challenges like air pollution and climate change are impossible for any organisation to solve on its own, especially when we are also trying to address water insecurity, soil degradation and farmer poverty at the same time. As Chair of the World Business Council For Sustainable Development (WBCSD), I am privileged to help bring together stakeholders from across all ecosystems to understand how best to deliver impactful change across multiple inter-dependent areas.
The WBCSD Cities & Mobility programme offers a space for interactions between city officials, policy makers, planning advisors, businesses and citizens to build a common vision and develop suitable innovative solutions for urban areas that take into account potential unintended consequences. For example, as people increasingly move to cities to live and work, and as technology and data offer new modes of travel for both the individual and the global organisation, how will this impact our roads, built environment and air quality? Companies such as Arcadis, IKEA, LafargeHolcim, Michelin, Microsoft, P&G, Saint-Gobain, Skanska, Toyota, and others are working together to create more healthy living spaces in cities to help people enjoy a high quality of life with lower environmental impacts. Our mobility and built environment systems need be decarbonised, which will go a long way to reduce air pollution in our cities as well.
With such diverse causes of air pollution, every business leader has to assume responsibility and take concrete action. But equally, there’s only real benefit if we act together. In the last decade, we had a lot of talk about the need for collaboration, indeed some might say it is a lot of hot air. But I have seen the results from such programmes and I know the benefits we as Olam are receiving in knowledge, new partnerships and financial savings. This kind of collaboration can also help to ensure that we connect the dots between issues and take a systems approach to transformation. The world held up the 1987 Montreal Protocol on CFCs as a sign of success for how to work collaboratively regarding environmental crises, but one might argue that as our focus has shifted to another crisis – namely climate change – past polluting behaviours have re-emerged. And this is despite CFC pollution being related to climate change.
So this World Environment Day I urge business leaders, large and small, to reach out to city authorities and other organisations to help assess what can be done in your region. Understand how and where your product and services benefit or inadvertently contribute to pollution. This invisible blanket is smothering our planet, putting a price on fresh air, your health, your family’s health and even our food. Let’s ‘Re-imagine’ together so that by 2030 films like this one are for the archive only: Walk Home
Sunny is also Chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)