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Some Good News For a Change: Mark Clifford’s The Greening of Asia

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 30, 2014

Mount Kinabalu appears through the clouds over Kota Kinabalu, capital of the east Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, in this March 8, 2002 aerial photograph. Known as "aki nabalu" or "home of the spirits of the dead" to the Kadazan Dusun locals, Kinabalu is Southeast Asia's highest mountain, standing at 4,095 metres (13,432 feet). Picture taken March 8. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad Mount Kinabalu appears through the clouds over Kota Kinabalu, capital of the east Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, in this March 8, 2002 aerial photograph. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

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Picking up a copy of Mark Clifford’s new book The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency (Columbia University Press, forthcoming March 2015) is a good way to start the New Year. Clifford, the executive director of the Hong Kong–based Asia Business Council, offers an in-depth look at how entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies in Asia are making important contributions to energy, land, and water conservation and efficiency through technological and policy innovation. Coming on the heels of the recent U.S. and Chinese pledges to do more to address climate change, the book adds to the sense that there is real potential to change the world’s environmental future for the better.

Published as part of the Columbia Business School Publishing series, The Greening of Asia adopts a case study approach to charting Asia’s green path forward. Clifford offers an engaging mix of personal profiles of business leaders that reveals how and why these leaders have adopted such a strong commitment to integrating best environmental practices into their businesses. For example, Malaysia-born Olivia Lum, founder and chairman of Hyflux, a Singapore-based global leader in membrane technology and desalination plants, first got a taste of doing the right thing by working at Glaxo Pharmaceutical, which was one of very few companies that treated its wastewater in Asia when there were no economic incentives to do so. Lum went on to found Hydrochem, which later became Hyflux.

Clifford also backs up his positive vision with impressive numbers. Hong Kong’s Swire Properties’ property portfolio grew 7 percent in 2012, but its energy consumption dropped by 11 percent; 22 percent of India’s Infosys’ power comes from renewable sources, and the company is aiming for 50 percent; and Manila Water in the Philippines provides water to more than three times the people that the government managed to serve before water provision was privatized—many households now pay one-twentieth what they did previously.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is Clifford’s ability to place the cases in the broader context of the region’s economic and political situation. He has worked in Asia for almost twenty-five years, and understands the political economy of the countries in which these companies operate. He notes, for example, that China’s top-down development of wind power has resulted in spectacular rates of wind turbine production. However, a failure to develop enough grid connection, distorted pricing policies, and weak quality control have also contributed to a situation where China is better at “installing wind turbines than generating electricity from them.” In 2013, although wind turbines accounted for 5 percent of installed capacity, wind produced only 2.6 percent of China’s electricity in 2013; overall, China continues to lag behind the United States in wind generation as a result.

Clifford’s book is not without its weaknesses, but they are mostly editorial. Case studies transition somewhat abruptly, leaving the reader to figure out the connection from one to the next. Also, as with any case-study driven book, it is not always clear why one company was selected over another, except that the author had great access to particular companies or people. These are small points, however. Overall, the book is a terrific reminder that innovation and a core commitment to sustainability can push change in ways in transformative ways. That gives us all something to celebrate in 2015.

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