Ecological Transformation and ESG

Choe Jae-chun, CEO of Biodiversity Foundation (Photo=Kim Gil-su)

Choe Jae-chun, CEO of Biodiversity Foundation (Photo=Kim Gil-su)

By Choe Jae-chun,
CEO, Biodiversity Foundation

SEOUL: Let’s connect the keyword of ecological transformation to ESG.

Together with Prime Minister Kim Bu-gyeom, I am serving as the co-chair of the Corona 19 Daily Recovery Support Committee. Prime Minister Kim Bu-gyeom is representing the government, and I am representing the private sector. Because I care more about the private sector, every meeting breaks my heart a lot.

I checked with the WHO this morning as well. The number of infected people has long since exceeded 400 million, and the death toll is almost 6 million. How can we humans, who used to be the lord of all things, to be treated so horribly by the invisible virus, the insignificant being?

Nevertheless, pathogens will never make us humans extinct. In the old days, the European Black Death killed only a third of the European population. Why couldn’t the other two-thirds be killed? It couldn’t kill thembecause it couldn’t infect them. So the epidemic is bound to end someday.

But the climate change behind it is an entirely different matter. Climate change doesn’t kill by infecting. It’s a problem that can end in an instant by worsening the human environment as a whole.

There are a lot of people who think, ‘It looks like we are being treated like this because we are too harsh on nature. The next problems, such as climate change and biodiversity depletion, could be much more serious.’

A strange thing happened. I’ve been warning about the climate crisis for a very long time, but I thought it didn’t work at all. However, as soon as COVID-19 broke out, the first question I was asked was, ‘Is this also caused by climate change?’

‘It’s not that the talk we’ve been talking about didn’t work at all’, ‘Many people at least know that climate change is scary’. It’s a separate issue how to do it specifically, but you think, ‘It’s not a normal problem’.

Bat bases in southern China raised by climate change

Yes, it is a problem related to climate change. A paper published by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK in May last year is quite interesting. The research team said, “For the past 100 years, bats that have lived mainly in the tropics have started to widen their distribution as the temperature in the temperate regions has risen little by little.” Analysis of 100 years of data reveals that there are several new bat biodiversity hubs in temperate regions. Coincidentally, the most representative place among them was the southern part of China.

About 40 species of tropical bats have been newly introduced there over the past 100 years, and each tropical bat usually lives with two or three types of coronavirus. The paper gave an average of 2.6, which means that over 100 new coronavirus mutations have flowed into southern China over the past 100 years.

One of them, in a bad sense, got along very well with us this time, so this amazing thing happened. So what can we learn from this paper? As long as climate change does not stop, this will only continue to happen.

Climate change (Photo: Biodiversity Foundation)

Climate change affecting Tuvalu (Photo: Biodiversity Foundation)

The people who live in Tuvalu in the South Pacific (pictured) are innocent. People living in Korea, people living in China, people living in the US and Europe are living too loosely, so the ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, melts and gets submerged. You can say, ‘If we were a little more careful, something like that wouldn’t happen’, but we can say sorry, but not one of us has completely changed his or her life for them. ‘Because it’s someone else’s business’ or ‘because it’s not our business’ It’s not such a big deal.

The changing landscape of disasters, the most dramatic case ‘COVID-19’

Last summer, massive flooding occurred in Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. Could it be that those countries have poor drainage facilities? It rained so much that the drainage system was colorless, so I was stuck. Until now, natural disasters like this have only happened in poor countries. When disaster strikes, it was common for wealthy countries to provide aid or volunteer work, but the game of disaster is changing. The most dramatic one is COVID-19.

Which country suffered the most from COVID-19? America. In the past, such epidemics only occurred in the third world, and advanced countries such as the United States had to provide financial support, but they suffered the most. Instead of having a disaster and no country to help, we are now in a situation that everyone has no choice but to go through.

Whenever we talk like this, sustainability is what we have in mind. The concept is that we should make sure that our descendants also get the benefits we get from nature now. But these things didn’t work at all.

Why would you? If the descendants are my grandchildren and my children, we will desperately do it. But there are people who will not even be able to see whether these descendants will appear in 100 years or 200 years. We worked hard only with words and lived our lives without thinking of putting it into practice.

In the meantime, we’ve been trying to somehow tie the temperature rise to less than 2 degrees over this century, but seeing that it doesn’t work, a biologist like me struggles. We feared that if the Earth’s temperature increased by just 2 degrees, we could lose nearly half of the biodiversity we see today.

Seeing the outstanding leadership of Dr. Hoesung Lee, who is now the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I also ran the organization once. If there is an IPCC on the climate change side, then on the biodiversity side, I chaired an organization called CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) for two years.

I knew how difficult it was for President Ban to run the organization. Nothing was going to happen. It was almost impossible to reach an agreement with representatives of hundreds of countries around the world. Chairman Hoesung Lee has shown amazing leadership. He persuaded all those people to lower the temperature rise by 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees.

At that time, scientists reached an agreement on ‘when will the temperature rise to 1.5°C’ and the calculation was between 2030 and 2052. However, according to the IPCC 6th report released last year, this time is advanced by 10 years. Earlier, scientists said that the 1.5 degree rise was in 2030, but when is it advanced 10 years? 2020 was the year before.

The longest rainy season in history in 2020 “It’s no longer a business”

Until now, we thought that this climate crisis was talking about a distant country. no. This is something that can happen to us now. In 2020, it rained for 54 days in Korea. Just two years ago, we experienced the longest rainy season ever. Korea was submerged in water. It’s not someone else’s business.

We thought it would only happen in 100 years or 200 years. No! It has been happening since last year. It’s not someone else’s business, and it’s not something in the future. Now, we have come to a point where no one can predict what catastrophe we will face from this climate crisis if we do not act.

Climate change is closely linked to the problem of biodiversity. The biggest wildfires in Australia are those caused by climate change. It was the largest loss of wildlife since we documented nature.

I think this COVID-19 is also a problem of biodiversity. I think it’s a matter of climate change and perhaps even more serious biodiversity issues.

Have you ever heard of a blue ocean? This concept was created by Professor Wichan Kim of Insead Graduate School of Business in France. In short, it is a new market with not many competitors yet. From what I’ve observed, this is the biggest blue ocean in the history of the virus. Viruses are doing so well that it is difficult to manage their facial expressions.

delivering his lecture at the AsiaN forum (Photo: Kim Gil-soo)

Choe Jae-chun delivering his lecture at the AsiaN forum (Photo: Kim Gil-soo)


Let’s take one example. Humans, Homo-sapiens, appeared on Earth about 250,000 years ago. Most of the 250,000 years we’ve lived, about 240,000 years, most of the time, we’ve been living as a truly insignificant primate species. Then, over the past 10,000 years or so, the number has increased abruptly since humans started farming, and it has come to dominate the earth today. So, biologists have calculated our existence.

Going back 10,000 years ago, just before we started farming, how much presence do humans occupy in the Earth’s ecosystem? I think our number was around 50 million at the time. Multiply that by 60 kg to get our weight. At that time, we accounted for less than 1% of the total weight of all mammals and birds on Earth. In other words, we were the kind of beings we couldn’t even see where we were.

However, over the past 10,000 years, we have undergone several revolutions such as the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the information revolution, and the number has increased tremendously. If we calculate again now, it is about 7.8 billion. Multiply 7.8 billion people by about 60 kg to get the weight of the entire human race now. I added all the livestock we currently raise, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks, and chickens. As a result, we and our livestock account for 96% to 99% of the total weight of all mammals and birds living on Earth at this moment. There was no such reversal in nature. In just 10,000 years, it was less than 1% and then reduced the rest except us to 1-2%, completely covering the Earth.

Therefore, almost 99% of the bacteria or viruses that want to move and settle down, saying, ‘If it is attached to a wild animal, it will be uncomfortable and difficult to live.’

Ecological sin is the original sin of man.

Unless we correct this extreme biodiversity imbalance, it will only continue to happen. It is our homework to figure out how to solve it. It was Pope Francis who knew this so clearly and warned him. The Pope made a great declaration in 2019 to include ecological sin as the original sin of man. They say there was a backlash from the church, but after hearing the Pope’s explanation, I can’t refute it.

I’m not as confident as the Pope, but I’ll keep it brief. All beings in this world were created by God, and one of them threatened, killed, and plundered other God-created creatures because he was a little strong. The Pope said, ‘If God is looking down on you, what is original sin if it is not original sin?

This time we were very lucky. It originally took 10 to 15 years to make and deliver a vaccine. This time, we made a vaccine in less than a year. Thanks to life science, we are now recovering some stability. Imagine for a moment that there was no vaccine developed. We’ll have to live like this for 15 years or so. But now we’re thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll get back to our daily lives’. But what if this continues to happen once every few years? Then what will happen? The next time this happens, life scientists will be up all night again. If we make a vaccine as soon as possible, even one person’s life will be saved. It will take another year at the earliest. Another 5 to 6 million people will lose their lives in that one year. The economy will collapse again, and we will have to go through this cycle once every few years.

No matter how lucky we are, is this the life we want? I don’t think so. So, as soon as this happened in early 2020, I introduced ‘I made two vaccines’. Behavioral and ecological vaccines. The behavioral vaccine is something that our people have been very, very diligent in doing well this time. Wash your hands well, wear a mask, and practice social distancing. It’s the vaccine we can do to protect ourselves.

On August 10, 2017, chimpanzee grandmother Jane Goodall and her student ecohumanist Dr. Choi Jae-cheon are having a conversation with the Asian Journalists Association at Eco Talk hosted by Jeon Hye-sook of the Democratic Party of Korea. (PhotoP Yonhap News)

On August 10, 2017, chimpanzee grandmother Jane Goodall and her student ecohumanist Dr. Choe Jae-chun are having a conversation with the Asia Journalists Association at Eco Talk hosted by Jeon Hye-sook of the Democratic Party of Korea (Photo: Yonhap News)

I think there is a better vaccine than that. We want to vaccinate it so that bad things don’t come from the natural world to our human world. If you do the ecological vaccine properly, you can fundamentally prevent this from happening in the future.

In an interview with a foreign media outlet, I said, ‘I am not the first person in the history of mankind to speak of an ecological vaccine,’ and then he asked who said it. So, you’ve heard a lot about it. Dr. Jane Goodall, my advisor, Professor Edward Wilson, and documentary maker Sir David Attenborough, many people talked about it every day. Let’s protect nature.” Yes, ecological vaccine is just another word for nature conservation. Ecological vaccines require many people to participate. A vaccine can be effective when at least 70% to 80% of the members of society are vaccinated together.

The virtuous cycle of the international community-state-company-individual

As I said before, it is very difficult, but international organizations including the United Nations are our hope. However, it is because each country gets together and somehow achieves an agreement and works together. Countries also need to show leadership. President Moon Jae-in made a difficult decision, and our country is now heading towards carbon neutrality in 2050.

I believe that the most outstanding organization in modern society is a corporation. But I think the world can change if that company gets ESG. When companies start to change, I think the world can change very quickly.

One more thing. The rest of the rings are private. When we start to change, the international community changes, when nations show leadership, businesses begin to change, and each of us responds to it, I expect the world to change.

ESG has evolved that way. ESG can be said to reorganize sustainable development that the UN has been doing for a long time. Issues such as the environment, society, and governance are not something we have to do all of a sudden. I think we can do it if we take a long breath and properly organize the work we have been doing so far and work it out step by step.


Choi Jae-cheon is Korea’s highest authority on the theory of evolution. He mainly studies ants, so he is also called ‘Doctor Ant’, and recently he also got a new nickname, ‘Ant-Man’ on YouTube.

He served as a professor at Seoul National University and as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology.

Currently, he is the CEO of the Biodiversity Foundation, a chair professor at Ewha Womans University, and a co-chair of the Daily Recovery Support Committee.


This lecture was delivered by Choe Jae-chun at the AsiaN Forum marking its tenth anniversary.

The forum, ‘Next Leadership Toward Active ESG’, feature prominent figures and experts, led by former United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon who delivered the keynote speech.

AsiaN is the media arm of the Asia Journalist Association (AJA).

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