The future of environmentalism and ESG
Over the course of his career, environmental activist Dr Renard Siew has acted as an advisor to the Malaysian government, worked with displaced communities, coached talented young scientists and trained entrepreneurs. He was involved in implementing the environmental agenda for Sime Darby, a multinational conglomerate based in Kuala Lumpur, and has trained journalists in a bid to help improve climate literacy.
Climate change was the central theme for policymakers at this summer’s G7 summit in Cornwall. And later this year, Glasgow will host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), about which Siew says, “If there was one particular event that’s going to define our future, this will be it”.
Siew has made it his life’s work to help find solutions to the climate crisis. So, what are the roadblocks we need to break through in order to begin the monumental shift required for a low-carbon future? Firstly, Siew feels there’s a very real disconnect between what’s expected and how it can be achieved.
“A huge transformation needs to take place within organisations,” he says. “ESG – environmental, social and corporate governance – is, rightly so, becoming a buzz word among businesses. As a result, people are starting to take a good look at how they can abate their practices and analyse what their direct impacts are, not just on the environment, but on society as a whole.
“That said, I get the sense that there’s a disjoint between what happens at the national level and what happens on a business level. We have governments proudly proclaiming that they’re going to achieve a 45% emissions reduction, but when you start drilling down, you find that a lot of corporates have no clue as to whether what they’re doing actually supports the national agenda or not. If we have any hope of survival, all parties need to be absolutely aligned with regards to this.”
What, in his opinion, is preventing this alignment? “One of the cardinal sins of climate science is that we tend to talk about it 30,000 feet above the ground,” Siew explains. “We use a lot of jargon, a lot of different terms. A layperson probably wouldn’t understand this lexicon, which is why climate literacy and advocacy work is so important.”
One of Siew’s recent projects was to help train journalists in Malaysia so that they can report on climate impact in a way that is accessible to the masses. But in what other areas do we need to make leaps and bounds to be able to tackle the climate emergency? Siew references a research project for which he was exploring ESG rating tools.
“What they do is sort of rank the performance of different organisations based on how well they incorporate sustainability,” he says. “Another use of these tools is to educate investors on socially responsible companies, companies that are doing the right thing. This is, without a doubt, a trend that is growing, and it’s very encouraging to see fund managers doing so.”
Siew believes, however, that the proliferation of the number of ESG tools has ultimately created confusion among investors. “If you look at sustainability in general, there are so many different frameworks out there. And the outcomes of these really differ.
“For example, if you were to use two rating tools to measure the performance of company A, you might get two completely different outcomes. This is because the benchmarks and the criteria that they use varies. This creates a lack of direction.”
Where, then, does Siew think the future lies when it comes to the environmental emergency? “I think data science is going to be both extremely important and significant,” he says. “In the past, for example, we might have collected climate stats, only for these to be reported as weather events or changing weather patterns. But these days, people across multiple industries are using this data to assess their climate vulnerabilities, what the risks are and where the opportunities are.
“And I think this is what we’ll see more of, and what we need to see more of – leveraging different data sets for greater insight.”
He stresses, however, that no one person can tackle this alone.
“We all need to be able to rely on the correct use of artificial intelligence to enhance these sets, because we’re dealing with possibly hundreds of them. We need the right tools and technology to make full use of them.”
It seems that, if there’s one thing we can conclude from Siew’s years of research, it’s that intelligent collaboration is key for ensuring the survival of our planet.
Renard Siew also serves on the WEF Global Future Council on SDG Investment, is a Community Champion for Southeast Asia, and a Global Lead for the Global Shapers Climate & Environment Steering Committee.