Climate change

Man with vision to trade out of global warming

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am


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What does it take to turn a man trained as an engineer, economist and financier into a specialist on the trading of carbon credits? Answer: time, passion and a warming globe.

The multitalented Philippe Delhaise, now chief executive of Carbon Management Consulting Group and Capital Information Services, has turned to carbon trading after a career in banking and finance and having accumulated degrees in engineering, economics and philosophy.

A Belgian and the former boss of Belgium Bank's Hong Kong branch, Delhaise has worked in Hong Kong for more than 25 years. Now in his early 60s, he has turned to advising buyers and sellers of tradeable credits created by the introduction of carbon-reduction projects in emerging markets such as India, Brazil and China, as well as advising on complying with rules and on the prospects of the carbon-saving projects obtaining credits under a United Nations-run subsidy programme.

Carbon Management is the engineering side of the global consulting business he now runs from Hong Kong, while Capital Information provides risk management and financial modelling services.

Carbon Management was set up about seven years ago by a group of people approaching retirement 'who were touched by the global warming problem and wanted to do something useful for the world', Delhaise said. He was approached by the group, who preferred not to be identified, to run the firm after advising on its establishment.

Still a globe-trotter who spends more than three-quarters of his time away from Hong Kong and often wakes and wonders which city he is in, Delhaise no longer stays in five-star hotels during his busy travel schedule, which recently included 16 flights in 14 days in Brazil.

'We are more like a non-government organisation. We cannot sell our services at prices that would allow me to stay in the likes of the Hiltons,' he said. 'I had comfort when I was working in the ratings business but nowadays when I pay US$60 for a hotel room, that's a lot, and I fly low-cost airlines.'

He also traded offices in the glitzy towers of his former incarnation as a banker and financier for a modest workplace in an older building in Sheung Wan. But in between his demanding schedule, he finds time to treat himself to his one indulgence - skiing - at least twice a year.

Those who sift through Delhaise's reume would doubtless marvel at his entrepreneurial spirit and skilled time management. Not only did he earn four academic degrees in seven years, he went on to create five businesses in Hong Kong in the late 1980s.

Yet the former boss of the erstwhile Belgium Bank's Hong Kong branch, who earned bachelor degrees in electrical engineering, economics and philosophy and a master's degree in business administration in Belgium and the United States, is reserved when asked about his academic achievement. 'I'm not brainy, I just love studying,' he said.

Long before the amalgamation of Belgium Bank's Hong Kong retail and commercial operation into European conglomerate Fortis in 2000, and the operation's subsequent sale to ICBC (Asia) in 2003, Delhaise had a 13-year career with the bank in Brussels, Beirut, Tehran, Tokyo and Singapore. He quit as the head of the Hong Kong branch in 1986.

After frequent approaches over the years by headhunters to switch to other banks, he decided to become a headhunter himself and bought the Hong Kong franchise of British executive search firm Jonathan Wren. But he found himself 'not busy enough' and opened a French bookstore in Central called Parentheses in 1987 which he sold to a Swiss investor two years later.

A music lover with a degree in voice along with his other qualifications, he also set up around the same time Pacific Image, which he said was the first company in Asia excluding Japan to organise classical concerts, bringing such singers as Luciano Pavarotti and Kiri Te Kanawa to Hong Kong audiences. He also found time to be involved in the investment and starting up of a medical evacuation service for an insurance firm and a corporate travel agency.

While involved in these activities he continued his interest in the financial services sector. In 1987 he founded Asia's first regional rating agency, Capital Information Services, offering ratings on countries' sovereign risk and financial institutions' health.

The financial institutions side of the business was merged in 1994 into credit rating agency Thomson BankWatch Asia, of which he became president. Thomson subsequently merged into Fitch Ratings in 2000.

Delhaise warned in early 1996 - more than a year ahead of the Asian financial crisis - that Thai banks' liquidity was low and lenders were over-reliant on short-term foreign funding, which he said was dangerous in a nation with a large and growing current account deficit.

He also mocked his previous profession in a book he wrote about the crisis in 1999: 'Once the veils of respectability and rectitude that clothe the profession are parted, the business of banking can be seen as one of the easiest professions on earth and as one least deserving of the propriety and status that it enjoys.'

Now wearing his environmentalist hat, the challenges he faces are no less difficult than those he dealt with in the finance sector, he says. The biggest issue is that most developers of carbon-reduction projects - such as clean energy production and overhauling of industrial equipment to improve energy efficiency - only want to pay for advice after their projects win UN approval to obtain carbon credits.

Under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), credits are purchased by polluters in developed nations - mostly in Europe - to offset their own carbon emissions as part of commitments made under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on global warming.

The money is used to subsidise qualified emissions-reduction projects in developing nations, and the projects' developers need to go through lengthy approval procedures to obtain credits.

Delhaise said that out of 100 projects aspiring for credits that came to the attention of Carbon Management in 2007, only 22 were found to be good enough to be examined closely, of which four succeeded in winning UN registration.

'Since then we have learned earlier in the game to reject projects that have no future,' he said. 'Now it's more like one in six or seven projects that will make it.

'Still, all the work we do from day one until registration might never get paid for, and it happens a lot, even though we are much better than the industry average.'

In India, the company faced an uphill battle to collect fees for advice, a task not helped by a legal system that often favoured domestic firms over foreign ones. 'India is the world's champion,' he said. 'They let us do all the work and then they say, 'sorry my friend, we don't recognise the contract with you.' You can sue them, but in India, it takes 20 years to get redress.'

Despite the setbacks, Delhaise said it was difficult to raise consulting fees to offset lost revenues from non-paying customers, since there were too many 'fly-by-night' companies in India, the Philippines and Brazil that promised registrations but could not deliver.

'We had several clients from India and Brazil coming to us recently and saying they were stuck with failed contracts and wanted us to salvage them,' he said. 'But it was too late as the projects had already been implemented.'

Still, he said an advantage in India was that its engineers were used to the requirements of a bureaucracy and were willing to prepare hundreds of pages of documents for each application for registration at the UN, which their counterparts in such nations as Brazil were reluctant to do.

In spite of the problems facing the carbon credit consulting industry, Delhaise is optimistic that demand for his company's services will rise. He believes more countries will eventually join Kyoto Protocol signatories to cap national carbon emissions and use market mechanisms to allocate resources to reduce emissions through credits trading.

Expertise in demand would include measuring carbon footprints and helping companies make strategic decisions, like whether to outsource production to nations with less stringent emissions requirements or whether to stay put and buy credits to offset emissions, he said.

Companies would also face the prospect of carbon footprint-based taxes, he predicted, which would probably be levied by governments in developed nations to help poor nations pay to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Even if manufacturers outsourced their production to nations that tolerated more polluting manufacturing, they might face carbon taxes when importing their products back to developed markets.

'For example, carmakers in, say, Germany will be told, if you think you can escape your greenhouse gases reduction obligations by making your products in Poland or India, think twice. One way or another, we are going to tax you,' he said.

Little progress was achieved last December in Cancun, Mexico, in talks to agree on a future incentive regime for global carbon reduction efforts after the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of next year.

Still, Delhaise believes that as long as the most advanced developing nations like China, India and Brazil agree to carry a reasonable level of the burden by cutting their economies' carbon intensity, 'the political balance will be in place for progress'.

Even if no agreement was reached in the global conference to be held in Durban, South Africa, late this year, he said the only option was for the Kyoto Protocol to continue with some possible modifications.

'Kyoto, in spite of its shortcomings, is a good and fair system,' he said. 'The [coming] system, whatever it may be, will likely be awfully complicated. You can see Kyoto is already horrendously complicated.'

Some 10 companies, mostly from China, came under scrutiny by the UN late last year for allegedly overproducing an ozone-damaging gas against the spirit of the carbon trading rules. The European Commission subsequently proposed to ban European Union firms from buying credits generated by projects that destroy certain greenhouse gases.

Seven years on, Delhaise conceded that Carbon Management was 'no doubt a very bad investment so far' from a financial perspective. But he was enjoying the work tremendously and its investors were willing to sustain losses for quite a while. 'This global warming problem needs crazy people to resolve it,' he said.