However, he says the changes he sees are largely thanks to the younger generations, people like his son, who are moving up in the business world and taking on leadership roles from which they can demand change that’s not just about the bottom line.
“The biggest change in the last 12 months is the second generation. They are pushing us to think very carefully. A lot of them are inheriting their parents’ business, they want the world to be a better place. They’re more altruistic that way,” Koh says.
“Everybody is moving along this path [of environmental sustainability] … it’s not because of political censures. The reason is that businesses are transferring down to the new Millennials, the second generation, and they have a bigger voice.”
And in a country the size of China, with 1.4 billion people, these voices can be loud and effective.
“The research and development investment is something that is possible only in China because when China thinks [of an idea] it gets percolated down very quickly and they execute,” Koh says.
“You’ve got to be here, to really work here and really understand some of the idiosyncratic difficulties but also some of the possibilities. It’s not always rosy here, there will always be difficult moments.”
After his talk, downstairs in the grand ballroom, a lunch is served to hundreds of conference attendees, including analysts and fund managers. On trays being taken around the room are samples of plant-based burgers from Chinese company ZhenMeat, as a panel on stage discusses the importance of sustainable food and the cultural difficulties of encouraging this movement in China, where meat-based dishes are a major part of the culture.
“All the top 10 dishes in China are named after an animal,” ZhenMeat founder Vince Lu says, as he explains how his products try to emulate common meat textures and flavours.
“We try to educate that it’s better for your health, it’s better for the environment,” he notes.
There’s nothing subtle about this year’s decision to give the conference an environmental conscience, with biodegradable pens and lanyards, digital programs and several sessions focused on sustainability.
China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy Professor Lin Boqiang, who is on the World Economic Forum’s energy advisory committee, spearheads a session focused on the importance of making renewable energy sources a bigger part of the mix.
“We know that climate change is an indisputable fact … only a small minority of people disagree that climate change is one of the gravest challenges we face. However, one of the big problems here is that it’s not an urgent disaster,” Lin says, adding governments and the public still prioritised economic growth over the environment.
“Without a doubt we will see more extreme and more frequent weather. And that doesn’t mean people naturally prioritise it, we have talked about climate change for so many years but in reality under the Paris Agreement … so far government action has been very weak.”
His focus is on how China needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels as part of the energy mix. The proportion of coal in the energy mix is declining at about 1 percentage point a year in China, he says, from its current position of 59 per cent of all energy sources. However, more coal is being used every year as the demand is rising overall and, so far, renewables make up only about 5 per cent of the market, including biomass and nuclear.
“Now Chinese people are more sensitive to pollution than 10 years ago. People now are more willing to pay for cleaner energy,” he says.
Despite there being a desire for renewable sources, he does not see any trend toward slowing consumption as China’s economy grows.
“Everyone is working for higher income, why shouldn’t they in the developing countries?”
“We talk about climate change every day but we talk about economic growth much more than we talk about climate change, especially developing countries,” he says.
But upstairs, when Koh finishes the media conference, he looks out of the window over inner city Shanghai and reflects on how much China has changed in recent decades.
“My forefathers, my dad was from China, the southern part … But to go out and see China today I am sure my late father would be very pleased, it’s not easy but we have done very well,” he says.
“And entrepreneurs understand one thing – if you are not [focusing on the environment], you are going to be penalised. Because it is sustainability over traditional business … that is the paradigm shift. That really changes everything.”
Jennifer Duke attended the 2020 Greater China Conference in Shanghai as a guest of UBS.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.