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If we leave it to our kids to fix the planet, it may be too late

Last year, 6.1 million deaths were linked to air pollution and nearly 30 million people were affected by extreme weather events. Despite the threat posed by environmental problems to our lives, accountability in tackling these problems has been murky and actions, downright passive.

If we leave it to our kids to fix the planet, it may be too late
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The other day, sipping on my strawless kopi-o peng at Orchard Road I witnessed an army of National Environment Agency volunteers in white polo shirts walking down the street, checking for errant smokers outside of smoking areas marked by orange lines.

It is clear that when it comes to public health, the laws here are strict, and for good reason.  

Globally, seven million deaths a year are linked to tobacco, and 1.6 million to diabetes.

Now let me share another set of numbers: 6.1 million deaths are linked to air pollution and nearly 30 million people were affected by extreme weather events last year.

Environment-related threats impact us in a way that is as real and tangible as drugs and chemicals. Natural disasters like extreme weather events have escalated at an unnatural pace. New Zealand just named climate change as its “greatest security threat”.

But despite the imminent threat that environmental problems pose to humans, accountability for these problems has been murky and actions, downright passive.

Environmental issues are still seen as necessary evils in the push for economic growth by governments and profits by businesses.

Climate, plastic and air pollution, wildlife extinctions and many others are often seen as not important now. Instead, we hope for it to be fixed somewhere down the line by the next generation.

Look no further than global action on climate for an example.

Last December, with only 12 years to limit the rise of global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, world leaders at the climate summit in Poland needed to take clear steps on climate change but progress was limited. If nothing changes, we’re looking at catastrophic global warming.

Today, oil and gas resources are still subsidised.

A wasteful take–make–dispose linear model of production is an accepted norm and most businesses have, at best, a vague understanding of the damage and harm that their raw materials cause to the environment.

With every day that we postpone action, we are systematically driving irreversible damage to a planet that provides us with all the resources that we profit from, and survive on.

We are witnessing a rapid loss of nature. Over 60 per cent of species populations have declined in the last 40 years.

Most of us would probably have noticed the symptoms of our collapsing planet. But we continue to succumb to the greatest temptation of all time: Procrastination.

Year on year, it is getting hotter; more species go extinct; more forest is lost, and more ocean fish stocks deplete. These have real and imminent danger to us in the form of lives, livelihoods and access to natural resources.

So when we see another dead whale washing up with plastic in its belly, or when wildlife species go extinct — let’s not just get sad, but take action.

Our planet is already at its limits, but every single environment challenge we face today has a solution.

Renewable energy gets more accessible and cheaper by the day; more companies are reaping the benefits of a circular economy where waste materials are converted to valuable resource inputs, and food can be produced sustainably without further destroying natural habitats.

Case in point: Singapore's recent "Towards Zero Waste Grant" to support ground-up initiatives that drive waste reduction and recycling will promote a circular economy and help in our fight against single-use plastic, food waste and recycling contamination.

Someone reminded me recently that the best thing you can do for your loved ones is to take care of yourself. The same logic applies here.

Why ask your kids to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves? With time running out, the solution is to change at scale — and fast.

The private and public sectors have to accept the fact that without a healthy and thriving environment, there is no society and definitely no economy.

On issues like climate, we need governments around the world to not just meet, but increase their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

It is laudable that governments from Asia Pacific countries met in Singapore recently to strengthen the region's agenda for the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in March.

This underscores the countries’ commitment to cooperation in addressing global environmental challenges.

Let’s continue to call on governments to be ambitious and show real action on looming threats that will impact us in this lifetime.

For businesses, it is unfortunately still the norm that short-term gains are prioritised over our planet and ultimately, us.

We need to start supporting brands that will manage our natural resources more responsibly. Let’s refuse to accept business-as-usual as the norm, and increase our expectations of how they should act to protect our future.

A health threat is sometimes all it takes for us to jump into action: to start caring, to start acting. With our planet, the warning signs are already there.  

For 2019, I wish that we all break out of short-term thinking — we have the data, the scenarios and the remedies, all we have to do is act.



Kim Stengert is chief of strategic communication and external relations at WWF-Singapore

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