BR Cover Story: In Pursuit of a Sustainable Future

Mihai-Alexandru Cristea 02/11/2021 | 12:24

The pandemic has taught us that caring for the environment is the key to a good life. A sustainable community needs access to local products, green agriculture, organic food, nature-based solutions, and a healthy circular economy. At the same time, it must implement smart city solutions, eco-friendly transportation, and sound waste management policies. Representatives of companies that are highly involved in local communities talked about the way we can create a better, more sustainable life for ourselves at Business Review’s Environmental & Sustainability Summit, a Zero Emissions event organised with the support of FEPRA.

By Aurel Constantin

 

Sustainable solutions are already in place or are being implemented in several industries. For example, there are ways to make agriculture sustainable and to make sure that our food and water are used more efficiently in order to cover the needs of a growing population. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve really shifted from an intensive model of growing crops to a more environmentally-friendly and highly-optimised way of producing every crop in the world. The idea is to produce more with less and have a smaller impact on the environment. It is our responsibility as individuals and as companies to achieve that goal,” said Remi Dei-Tos, Row Crop Seeds Production Lead at Bayer.

The pursuit of sustainability in agriculture leads companies to find solutions to grow better crops while using less water and fewer fertilisers. “When farmers learn that they can obtain better crops by using these solutions, they obviously begin to adopt them. So far, our network of farmers has been very supportive of such solutions and they are fully on board,” said Dei-Tos.

Bayer has come up with a way to use less water in irrigation systems and it is helping farmers implement the solution, either directly or through partners. “The technology allows farmers to see exactly when a plant needs water and how much it needs, instead of just using estimates. If we want to go into detail, we can map out the soil to figure out which parts of the plot retain more or less water. We can then adjust irrigation so that we only use water when and where it is needed. We are making massive investments in these types of irrigation solutions,” the Bayer representative explained.

Water is an essential element for the beer industry as well. Agricultural irrigation systems are complex and expensive, and though water management may be simpler in a factory, it still raises many challenges. “Through our water management system, used water gets treated and re-enters a new production process, so it doesn’t go into the sewer. That’s how we manage to use as little water as possible. We have some clearly-established targets and our goal is not to waste any water at all. We try to recover all the waste that results from the entire production chain so it doesn’t end up in the garbage. At the end of last year, we were able to reach our zero waste goal as we recovered all the waste, including yeast, which we dried and used as animal feed,” said Alexandra Barroso, Legal and Corporate Affairs Director at Bergenbier.

 

Irrigation versus rainfall

Agriculture also benefits from technologies that allow water to be deployed with very little evaporation. “Spraying water is a method that is still being used today, but this mode of irrigating wastes water through evaporation, and that water never even touches the plant. As such, we are deploying new techniques to direct the water into the canopy and we are reaching 80 percent efficiency, which is very good. But the next step involves drip irrigation, which means installing some pipes in the soil in order to maintain moisture levels. This is the best method, with an efficiency of 95-98 percent, allowing us to use the exact amount of water that is needed, at the root of the plant,” said Rami Dei-Tos of Bayer.

Weather prediction is also very important in the context of sustainability, as knowing exactly when it will rain helps you significantly reduce water waste. “It is pointless to irrigate while it is raining; you’re just washing the water away.”

It goes without saying that such an advanced water management system doesn’t come cheap. The initial investment can be substantial, but the benefits are immediate. “The cost of water will never stop growing, so in the end the investment will be offset. We were the first ones to launch a system like this, but we hope to implement it at global level and offer solutions at lower costs. So far, we have been supporting farmers in this direction. We are not promoting irrigation for the sake of irrigation, but as something that can be helpful for the farmers, even if they operate in a good climate. There’s never enough rain, so irrigation will help increase production,” Dei-Tos explained.

The biggest problem with rainfall is that it doesn’t always happen at the right time. If we look at the same crop before and after irrigation, we’ll see that the yields are completely different. “You get about 8 tonnes without irrigation and 13-14 with irrigation, so the profit obtained by farmers is much higher. In the end, it is sustainable and brings more value to farmers. This is the role we can play as a company,” Dei-Tos added.  “We are working with our partners to deploy this water management system. So far, we have implemented it on almost 10,000 ha, another 10,000 ha with an irrigation system, and almost 1,000 ha with dripping irrigation or adjusted irrigation systems. This is all being done here in Romania, with Romanian farmers.”

 

Local, sustainable farming

To have local farmers producing every type of crop, Romania needs to update its legislation. One of the problems encountered by beer producers in the past was the fact that they couldn’t find enough hops in Romania, so they had to rely on imports. “The problem wasn’t that Romanian farmers didn’t want to produce more, but that they faced various legislative impediments. The Romanian Brewers’ Association also includes producers of raw materials, and one of its greatest achievements was that it managed to obtain the legislative changes needed to produce more hops. That also helps reduce costs, because when you import a lot of materials, prices increase along the chain,” Barroso noted.

Other entities are also committed to show farmers how they can turn to 21st century agriculture. “Our mission of Ateliere Fara Frontiere is to integrate into the labour market those who are able to work, but find it difficult to find jobs for various reason. Organic agriculture is quite complicated, as it requires both major investments and a large workforce,” said Lorita Constantinescu, Deputy Director at Ateliere Fara Frontiere. “It is important for people to understand what organic agriculture means, which is why we organise visits to the farm,” she explains.

Ionut Badica, Project Manager at Sol si Suflet, argued that “increasing the natural fertility of the soil is a key component in positive agriculture, and without that efficiency we cannot talk about positive agriculture.” And since there are no positive farming courses in schools, Sol si Suflet started an internship programme at their farm.

 

Sustainable communities

Green agriculture and water management systems are just a part of a sustainable community. “We all know that communities play important roles in our lives. Our entire activity is split between communities, whether we’re talking about friends, families, offices, neighbourhoods or artistic communities. Having a sense of community unites and it definitely makes our tenants feel better, as it gives them the opportunity to connect with people with similar values and preferences. We experience the need to create and develop strong communities even more during this period, thus the need to communicate more with tenants and provide them with access to amenities like multimodal football courts, outdoor gym activities, and outdoor spaces when they can work or relax and feel safe,” said Antoniu Panait, Managing Director at Vastint Romania.

“There are two ways in which we develop large and sustainable communities. On one hand we have communities that we started years ago, such as our core project Greenfield Baneasa, which need to be transformed into sustainable communities. On the other hand, we have the new developments that we are planning, which will meet all the sustainability criteria we are committed to from the very beginning,” said Constantin Sebesanu, CEO at Impact Developer & Contractor.

“I am often asked whether sustainability is a trend or a fad; I say it’s a must. We need to create viable communities and improving people’s lifestyles is not something that we even need to push, because it’s coming up anyway. We just need to stay one step ahead of it. We have just conducted a survey inside the Greenfield Baneasa community and one of the questions asked during a focus group was about how people had experienced the pandemic inside Greenfield. About 85 percent responded that the only place where they would have wanted to live during this period was their home in Greenfield, which was extraordinary to hear,” Sebesanu added.

“Building sustainable communities is not easy. Our focus must be distributed to several crucial elements, from mobility to waste management, from the near-zero emissions buildings we are planning to the BREEAM Excellent standards we are looking to implement. At Greenfield Baneasa, we just got the permit to implement geothermal energy that will not only cut down on carbon emissions but will also reduce costs and turn us into a more affordable community. We are also probably the first real estate developer to have built a public school and a public garden inside our community. A year ago, we also brought public transport to Greenfield Baneasa: there are two lines that were introduced in order to reduce traffic within the community. We are also planning to add a magnetic train. Imagine how much time our residents are saving by having a school there, how much more quality time families can spend together instead of sitting in traffic. And this actually reduces traffic in the entire city, not just in our community,” Constantin Sebesanu explained.

 

Financing green projects

Financing green projects in Romania is the job of both commercial banks and public institutions, which are complementing each other. “We invest our money in strategic sectors where commercial banks are not yet ready to invest because of commercial risks or various other factors, but also because unlike us, commercial banks are profit-driven. Our financing is actually very competitive; we are the cheapest solution on the market in terms of financing and we also provide longer tenures. You can repay a debt over a much longer time compared than you would to a commercial bank. Usually when we support the public sector, in this case communities, municipalities or counties, we can go up to 40 years, depending on the economic lifecycle of the project. When we support the private sector, considering the type of investments we are involved in, the cyclical nature of business, and the dependence on the market, we can only go up to 12-14 years,” said Lara Tassan Zanin, Head of the EIB Group Office in Romania.

”The EIB has a history of more than 25 years in Romania and it is contributing to an average of 1 percent of GDP every year, meaning around EUR 1.3 billion, of which half goes to the public sector and the other half to the private sector. In the public sector it’s a mix of national agencies, supporting education, transport, energy, and all other sectors to which we can contribute. In the case of the private sector, we support both large corporations and SMEs, through intermediated lending via commercial banks,” Lara Zanin explained.

But it is not easy to find green projects in which to invest. Why is that? “The first and most important answer is related to the political commitment. You know better than I do that there is a high rotation rate at the government level, in both the central and local offices, while the projects the EIB tends to support usually require long-term financing, which means a long-term commitment to prepare the project, implement it, and take it to the very end. When ministers change three times a year, it’s hard for us to maximise our potential in this country, because we have to start from scratch every time and reconfirm commitment from the top,” Zanin noted.

“The second source of difficulty comes from planning, and I think this is very relevant to the topic of sustainable communities. There is no commitment to planning, especially to urban planning. When we talk about sustainable communities, we talk about a multilayer, multidisciplinary type of planning which goes from energy efficiency to sustainable mobility or other related technologies that can benefit from this type of investment. Now, more than ever, if you want to build sustainable communities, you need to have smart planning and to remain committed to it,” the EIB representative argued.

 

Transportation and mobility

Adrian Huma, Sector Head for Automotive, Transportation & Logistics at ING Bank Romania, said that commercial banks are committed to financing sustainability projects. “Transportation, mobility, and automotive are sectors of interest for us as a bank, both globally and locally. And making these sectors sustainable, including from a credit portfolio perspective, is of the utmost importance. We are globally committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the lending portfolio that we have committed towards these sectors, in line with the provisions of the Paris Agreement. We are on track with this strategy (through the Terra project), and the progress is published on the bank’s website,” said Huma.

“We are very interested in getting involved in these types of projects, and we would also like to see as many projects as possible in Romania that encourage the sustainable development of both the automotive sector and the transportation/mobility industry. In order to see more projects in transportation and mobility, it would be helpful to first set up a legal framework to help project development and implementation, and we are really looking forward to that happening,” Adrian Huma added.

ING Bank recently launched a green loan for the acquisition of electric and plug-in hybrid cars, with a special interest rate that is 2 percent lower than the market standard and with very light qualification conditions: no advance, no CASCO insurance, no leaving a car key at the bank; clients only need an invoice from the dealer to certify that the car they are purchasing is an electric or hybrid plug-in.

“I think the first condition to integrating green cars into a smart city is having those green cars and having that smart city. The number of green cars around us is growing, but the total number is still small, for various reasons, including high costs and lacking infrastructure. We also have a chicken or egg-type dilemma here. The more developed the infrastructure, the more people will choose to buy such cars, and vice versa. If there are enough cars, then more investments will be made in infrastructure projects,” Huma concluded.

 

The Environmental & Sustainability Summit was organised by Business Review with the help of Gold Partners Bayer, Bergenbier, Impact Developer & Contractor, ING, and Vastint; Silver Partners BRD Groupe Societe Generale, CMS, EY, Garanti BBVA Consumer Finance, Restart Energy; Event sponsors Dentons and Volta; and Sustainability Partner FEPRA.

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