5 Areas that need radical sustainable change
When the UN set out its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the global sustainability crisis was already severe. Businesses have a fundamental role in remedying the situation, and not just because of the need to fulfil corporate social responsibility. Consumers are gradually turning towards brands that embrace sustainable, environmentally conscious strategies. Failing to consider sustainability could mean that businesses lose the respect of their customers. There’s also the small matter of the survival of the planet. Here, we look at five vital building blocks for a sustainable future.
1) Power generation
Fossil fuels won’t be around forever, but they are still the most reliable way to generate energy. Solar, wind, and tidal energy have proven to be viable alternatives to non-renewable power, but by their nature they are inconsistent and unpredictable. In order to make the transition to renewables, no single option should be entirely relied upon. Investors could also look to less explored options to support the renewable ecosystem as it matures. This includes biofuels, geothermal power and a range of interesting propositions.
A number of major corporations have enthusiastically supported renewable power generation, including legacy oil and gas companies BP and Shell. These two energy giants have made pioneering moves to create the necessary infrastructure for clean energy use. The businesses that follow them now will be able to grow alongside the infrastructure rather than suffer incompatibility further down the line.
2) Power storage
Once you’ve found a way to generate sustainable energy, you need a place to store it. Batteries, however, have caused a continual headache. Despite various promising projects, lithium ion remains the most effective way to store power. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with lithium ion. They are expensive to manufacture and erode over time. There are also safety implications due to high energy density. Even so, batteries are the most efficient way to store both non renewable and renewable energy.
Whatever your opinion of the company’s CEO, Tesla has gone some way to building a bigger, if not better, battery. The Hornsdale Power Reserve battery proved that wind power can be stored and used even when the wind turbines are not generating energy. Alternative storage solutions include thermal, hydro, and biofuels, but they remain grossly undervalued. The issue is that many companies are reluctant to take a risk on surrogate power storage, but the reality is that they must.
3) Food production
In 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that more than 10 per cent of the world’s population was suffering from chronic undernourishment. As the global population increases this percentage is expected to rise. Thankfully, advances in agricultural technologies (AgTech) and bioengineering techniques could provide at least part of the answer.
CRISPR has also contributed to a brighter future of food. At Tokushima University, a team of researchers have applied CRISPR to crop production to develop seedless fruit. These crops do not need to be fertilised, and therefore can be grown on demand without relying on nature. A more novel approach to sustainable food consumption is 3D printing. Today, 3D printed food focuses on aesthetics and design, but as the technology becomes cheaper and more materials can be used, food could be 3D printed at mass speed and scale. But, in order for these promising developments to continue, the story remains the same: more education, and more investment.
4) Carbon emissions
Burning natural gases and fossil fuels creates harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that contribute to climate change. One of the methods used to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is carbon capture, in which carbon is collected and trapped. Numerous carbon capture projects are underway, including the creation of carbon enriched concrete by Canadian company CarbonCure. And, earlier this year, NET Power successfully completed the first fire of its CO2 demonstration power plant in Texas.
Carbon capture is still relatively niche, and few fully understand the extent of their carbon footprints and how to reduce them. This lack of awareness (or perhaps wilful ignorance) has no doubt extended to businesses. In the UK, businesses are required to report their annual greenhouse gas emissions. Mandatory carbon reporting is expected to save four million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2021. Other governments such as France have followed suit. International businesses should prepare for similar compliance.
China caused a global shockwave when it announced the end of almost all plastic imports, forcing governments across the world to recognise the scale of the plastic problem. Hopefully, we will see a domino effect as countries and companies gradually accept the extent of plastic build up, and put strategies in place to reduce it.
The plastic problem has opened up a huge opportunity for startups, but again these younger businesses have to contend with a lack of resources and influence. Accelerators and incubators should be encouraged to pay particular attention to startups that are explicitly sustainable. One of the biggest issues with plastic consumption is simply a lack of knowledge. There is a role for organisations, both public and private, to inform consumers about what is in the products they use and how plastics can be limited.
In the past few years, businesses and consumers have gradually come to recognise that they need to take sustainability seriously. This has resulted in notable advances in power generation, power storage, food production, carbon emissions and plastics. But, in each case, there is far more that has to be done. Organisations should view sustainability as a continual and increasingly difficult challenge – but one that, through collaboration, education, and investment, can be overcome.
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