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The great green paralysis, and what to do about it

Brilliant but boring strategies are often the solution rather than corporate pledges without substance

Are 'green' innovations such as e-scooters really helping anyone? Mazur Travel/Shutterstock.com
Are 'green' innovations such as e-scooters really helping anyone?

A virulent strain of “go green quick” mentality is plaguing corporate boardrooms, where the relentless pursuit of sustainability pledges is eclipsing genuine industrial climate action. 

Rather than acknowledging that operational change may be the best way to enact a meaningful climate transition plan, more and more businesses are replicating sustainability report templates that only capture a fraction of their operations. 

The same organisations are often crowned as sustainability “champions”, despite deliberately under-reporting their practices and in doing so becoming masters of the art of “green hushing”. 

This trend is on the rise, as companies increasingly opt not to publicise details of their sustainability goals, to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing. 

Empty pledges

Contemporary supply chains often neglect climate targets in favour of maximising production and cost efficiency. Yet these interconnected networks are exposed to volatility caused by numerous factors, from large-scale global events and climate-related disturbances, to consumer demand for sustainability and bottlenecks in transparency. 

This has resulted in an influx of “sexy” solutions like carbon capture and e-scooters that feed the insatiable appetite to achieve net zero. We are witnessing a feverish scramble for corporate pledges without substance, and commitments that promise transformational action without real motion. How did we get here?

First, we must recognise that sustainability is nothing new. Circular economy principles can be traced as far back as 1603 Edo-era Japan, during which time a movement of self-sufficiency emerged, compelling the nation to derive creative ways to conserve energy, optimise resources and eradicate waste. 

Japan’s rulers feared Christianity would spread and in response closed off the country’s borders for over two centuries, acknowledging that the country was on the verge of ecological collapse due to deforestation. 

What we now term “waste to value” practices flourished – from upcycling textiles and using ash for fertiliser production, to reassembling broken ceramics with excess starch from sticky rice.

“Mottainai”, loosely translated as “what a waste”, is still deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, conveying a sense of regret over discarding everyday items and instead encouraging their repair.

Shifting norms 

Following the Industrial Revolution, the world’s commercial ecosystem was built around the notion of an uninterrupted, cheap supply of fossil fuels. Currently, the global consensus is that hydrocarbons must be progressively phased out for a future that heavily embeds renewable energy. 

However, to build an energy system viable enough to meet the demands of the growing population, critical minerals are needed – and lots of them. The scale and speed of a transition to renewables would have to be unprecedented. 

To put it into perspective, since the Industrial Revolution the world has mined 700 million metric tonnes of copper, according to the US Geological Survey. It would need to mine, process and distribute the same amount in a tenth of the time to meet 2050 net zero projections. 

Companies and investors need to recognise the significance of re-imagining supply chains, by directing their efforts away from current production methods. Yet reality tells a different story.

A PwC report this year found that while the industrial sector creates 34 percent of emissions, investors directed less than 8 percent of climate tech venture funding there between 2013 and 2022. The current investment landscape does not reflect the priority areas for climate change – namely, resource management and changing manufacturing practices. 

Instead, mobility-related emissions (related to low-carbon modes of transport) make up around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, despite securing almost 50 percent of investment, a McKinsey & Company report found last August. 

Have venture capital funds fallen for the allure of enterprise jargon and a fear of missing out, rather than really wanting to solve real-world problems? Unfortunately, nobody can e-scoot their way out of this conundrum. 

The ‘unsexy’ solution 

Even though carbon capture and similar technologies hold promise, resource-intensive innovations are not congruent with two fundamental aspects needed to dramatically reduce emissions: accessibility and scalability.

As history demonstrates, invisible and often boring strategies can accelerate the solution to global problems. 

Take the unsuspecting shipping container, which revolutionised global trade by standardising the movement of goods, accelerating globalisation. Prior to the shipping container, cargo handling was expensive, inefficient and labour-intensive. The key to its success was simple: standardisation. 

Containers were constructed to specific dimensions, allowing them to be efficiently packed between various modes of transport, addressing the pain points of repacking, cargo damage and long unloading times. 

This brilliant, yet unsexy, invention facilitated methods of intermodal transport that created the blueprint for modern-day logistics. 

The reality of a 1.5-degree future remains guarded by a culture of gatekeepers intolerant of internal change. However, financial and operational resilience is a valuable by-product of an effective climate transition plan. 

For the laggards, there are still plenty of delusions to engage in such as purchasing carbon offsets that remove indigenous communities from their homes, planting trees that will inevitably be ravaged by wildfires or investing in last-mile delivery solutions in areas with high levels of food insecurity. 

Either way, organisations should ask, what are we solving for? After all, necessity is the mother of innovation.

Rana Hajirasouli is founder of The Surpluss, a UAE-based digital ecosystem where businesses share surplus resources

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