What is sustainability? Defined as “the ability for something to be maintained at a certain rate or level”, sustainability affects us all. The ability for societies to be maintained. The ability for the economy to be maintained. The ability for life to be maintained. In its essence, sustainability applies to us all. Without sustainability, what else can no longer be maintained? How long will it be before things start slipping?
Looking at statistics puts it into context.
- The earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and the years 2016 and 2020 were tied for the warmest years on record.
- The sea ice extent in the Arctic has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979.
- The acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30%, due to them absorbing more CO2.
- Ocean temperatures have increased by 1°C (critical levels are expected to be at 1.5°C)
Sustainable? No. What does this mean for the future?
The current situation
In November of 2022, leaders from around the globe met in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, to make decisions critical to the future of our planet.
Named COP27, the summit is the 27th of a series of annual summit meetings among global leaders that have been meeting for almost 3 decades. The beginning of these summits can be traced back to 1992, at the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), where countries signed an agreement stating that every country is treaty-bound to avoid dangerous climate change and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Perhaps the most famous outcome of the COP summits was the Paris 2015 agreement, where countries committed to holding global temperatures to well below 2°C, and limit heating to 1.5°C. This was actioned by NDCs (nationally determined contributions) which were targets set by each country to cut the growth of emissions by 2030.
At COP26 in Glasgow, countries assembled to set out new NDCs, after recognising that those agreed at Paris would still lead to 3°C of temperature rises. This summit focused on the much tougher 1.5°C. However, even if all the pledges made at Glasgow were met, temperatures would still rise to 1.8°C, and so the leaders agreed to update their NDCs annually. Cop27 will be the first of these meetings.
So, there’s a lot riding on COP27 and for countries to deliver ambitious targets that will halt temperature rises. To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Finding’s from IPCC reports state that there is still a slim chance of staying under 1.5°C, but it would require concerted efforts.
In the 1970s, William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale, suggested in several papers that if global warming were to exceed beyond 2 degrees on average, it would push “global conditions past any point that human civilisation had experienced”.
To put this into context- temperatures are already at about 1.1 – 1.2 degrees above preindustrial levels and scientists are calling the 2020s the crucial decade for climate. Leaders are realising that the issue of sustainability can be put off no longer. We have to start implementing it on a day-to-day basis to maintain our way of life.
“At two degrees (above pre-industrial levels) we see dramatic alterations to the ability of the Earth’s system to maintain the conditions that allow for human, and indeed other species, life” Maria Ivanova, Professor of global governance at university of Massachusetts.
Now, two degrees is accepted as the upper limit for global warming, with the lower limit, and a “best case scenario” being 1.5 degrees.
So, if we want to have a sustainable future, one where human life can be maintained, action needs to be taken on every level. After all, it is our own future that is at stake.
Setting targets for change
Clearly, there is work to be done- to stay within 1.5 degrees targets need to be set and met. It is the responsibility of governments, businesses and organisations to take action for the future, to contribute to creating a more sustainable world for us all to live in. Currently, more than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters (China and the US) have committed to reach net zero by 2050.
The UK has implemented carbon budgets, set over a 5-year period, which limits the amount of greenhouse gas the UK can emit, while the US has implemented the Federal sustainability plan, setting out a range of ambitious targets to keep the US on track to be net zero by 2050. But it is not just in the hands of government. To make a tangible difference, change has to come from all sectors.
Setting targets in business is just as essential as those set by world leaders. Already some of the big names in business have taken the leap, becoming trailblazers for sustainability. Apple aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, while claiming that every device will have a net zero impact. They are already carbon neutral across their global operations. And a third of UK businesses, including Vodafone, AstraZeneca and Sainsbury’s have pledged to eliminate their carbon emissions by 2050.
Science based target initiatives
Increasingly, companies are realising that setting targets for sustainability is the future. At the end of 2021, a third of the global economy market was working with a new global body known as Science based target initiatives (SBTI). They have become part of a worldwide campaign called Business for 1.5 committed to taking action aligned with 1.5 and net zero emissions. The SBTI have developed what is known as the net zero standard- a robust, science-based framework that provides a common understanding of what net zero actually means. Through SBTI, companies can set targets that are aligned with climate science.
Meeting targets is just as essential as setting them
Setting targets is one thing but meeting them is another. Without the action behind the words, target setting is useless. Being able to meet their goals means businesses have to look from the inside out, assessing where they can change from within the business.
Increasingly, it is being shown that incorporating virtual methods of working into business strategy is a key way in which businesses can begin to meet their targets. In fact, a report from nature identified that switching to virtual conferences can lower the carbon footprint from meetings by 94%, while the UN believes 14 of its 17 sustainable development goals can be solved or advanced through virtual work. Meetings, training or conferences that are held online dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of a business. For example, the average flight from London to New York and back generates a whopping 2688 kg of CO2. Finally, companies can dramatically cut down on their waste, paper and plastic usage and food consumption.
It takes proactive, forward-thinking solutions like these to ensure companies can achieve their targets and enable the business to continue to thrive in a sustainable and stable world.
At VTT, we realise that sustainability is the way forward and that, for business to continue to thrive, change has to happen. For us, building a future takes action in the present, now.
But why should my business change?
Sustainability isn’t just essential for the future of the planet; it is essential to the future of business.
It is time to introduce the concept of the triple bottom line. Business owners and corporations have previously been told there is one measure of success- profit. If a business is profitable — it is successful, right? This is known as the single bottom line. But what is wrong with it? Can this be maintained long-term? How sustainable is it?
- A business may be making millions in terms of profit, but at a cost of depleting the natural environment due to it’s factories, energy usage, wastage etc. When natural resources they need run out, the business will quickly flounder. It may be profitable, but is it successful?
- A business may be profitable, but it’s workers are treated poorly, underpaid and have poor wellbeing at work. As a result, productivity is poor. Profitable? Yes. Sustainable? No.
The triple bottom line is a concept that expands success metrics to include contributions to environmental health and social wellbeing, and a just economy, rather than just profits.
Profit, people and the planet
Profit, people and the planet are the three metrics used to determine success, illustrating that if an organisation is only focused on profit it cannot account for the full impact of running the business, and therefore will not succeed long term.
And it is proven to work. When Patagonia announced in December that it would donate all of its black Friday sales to environmental causes, instead of the 2 million in sales the company expected, sales climbed to 10 million. Showing social and environmental responsibility creates stakeholder investment. One meta-analysis of studies that looked at the relationship between performance and social and environmental sustainability found that 80% of such practices positively influenced stock prices, and 88% showed better operational performances.
A study by Deloitte looked at different climate scenarios and how they may affect us in the future. Scenario A, which was a “fossil fuelled global growth that prioritised short-term economic growth” would result in global warming of up to 4 degrees by 2100, resulting in “widespread economic disruption and a heavy burden on the economy”.
So, investing and committing to sustainability is not just an investment in the planet, it really is an investment in the future of both the economy and businesses. Every dollar invested in to transitioning to a green economy yields 4 dollars in benefits.
Back to the beginning
At the start, the question was — how long before thing’s start slipping? Ultimately, we determine that every day by the actions we choose. Actively choosing to change, setting targets for the planet, and meeting them, is the most sure-fire way to invest in the earth and our future.