Can sustainable technology and access to it be inclusive? What does inclusive sustainability mean? Are we dividing ourselves further between those who can afford to be greener and fight climate change from those who can’t afford the newer upgrades to combat emissions?
The UN describes an Inclusive Green Economy as this: “In its simplest expression, such an economy is low carbon, efficient and clean in production, but also inclusive in consumption and outcomes, based on sharing, circularity, collaboration, solidarity, resilience, opportunity, and interdependence.”
Sustainability is not a lifestyle.
Inequality exists in how we can access new technology and processes across the global landscape. Sustainability is not a lifestyle as some have defined, it is a key to future life. We live in a world of stark contrast and always have, but at what point should we be blending these contrasts together to create something better? Recent events have brought much more to the forefront on racial inequality and barriers across class and many other divisions that are always boiling just below the surface. Being inclusive around many economic, racial, class, and gender issues is not a checkbox to tick or a trend, it’s an ongoing ever-changing frontier to push the boundaries for the betterment of society in whole including how we make progress in the fight against climate change. For this, we need ALL, we need inclusion.
Inclusive sustainability in words alone makes sense – for something to actually be sustainable you need to have supportive long-term access or solutions that will sustain you. If you are exclusive and not inclusive, at some point those things enabling you to sustain will run out. That exclusive pool is limited because of that very idea of being exclusive. Unless you are inclusive, including all – all people, all resources, all knowledge, to sustain you long-term for the future.
The "Three E's"
UCLA also has an interesting definition of sustainability tied to inclusion: “Sustainability is often defined as the intersection between the “Three E’s”: equity, environment, and economy. Too often in the field of environmental sustainability, the Equity piece is not given enough time and attention and is ignored to focus on more easily measurable environmental metrics, like gallons of water saved or emissions reduced.” The idea itself makes sense but how does it translate and what is the current situation?
Privilege grants access to more share of a resource, asset, or technology, or better resources in many terms. With sustainability, there are currently more exclusive groups who are able to use this progress and technology. This translates to being able to upgrade your heating system or appliances to high energy efficiency, lower cost, and better for the environment. While those who are outside these limits have lower-performing, more expensive, and in some countries are actually taxed higher for using these appliances while they can’t afford to upgrade. It follows us to the grocery aisle where the upper class buys organic, healthy, and sustainably farmed products and the lower class buys processed cheap products because of cost. It literally follows us down every road as some ride in new hybrid or electric vehicles while others keep their old cars running to the bitter end on gas-guzzling miles. And which is better, using a product and repairing it to end of life or recycling old products? Or buying new more energy-efficient products?
Sustainability is a global issue.
Around the globe, we are inextricably linked together through our shared, limited natural resources. If we don’t pay attention to what’s happening in other regions of the world, it will come back to haunt us and impact us in a variety of ways. For example, some may turn a blind eye to the Pacific garbage patch swirling around in the middle of the ocean. No one wants to clean up areas they don’t own or control. So debris washes up on tiny pacific atolls and islands taking over and changing their landscapes, while at the same time in other regions some of the tiny pieces of plastic may end up on dinner plates in the bellies of fish. Another example is the new airport being developed near Lisbon, right in the middle of an important wetland for bird species. Most of Europe would be impacted by this change in environment. At the same time, we have to consider the balance of sacrifice and personal impacts vs. environmental gains long-term. This is where business, government, and regulations can help make it easier and financially feasible for communities to enact these needed changes. We all gain by helping protect these natural resources globally.
So what do we as businesses or individuals do about all of these abstract and high-level ideas? We brought in some perspectives from experts in climate change and carbon reduction from our global associates. Watch for more regional sustainability-focused topics to come.
Inclusive Sustainability Q&A:
We have asked Charlie Quann (pictured left below) who leads Antea Group USA’s Climate Change and Carbon Management and Science-Based Targets service lines, and Klaas Nijs (pictured right below), who leads Antea Group Belgium’s Business Development & Innovation, Climate & Water to answer a few questions on this topic of Inclusive Sustainability.
What actions can we as individuals or companies take to be more inclusive around sustainability and green economies?
Klaas: As individuals – it’s mostly about investing in the right technologies as soon as they are proven to work and become affordable. More affluence is not per definition exclusive when it comes to sustainability. We need lots of early adapters to drive change and reach economies of scale. The fact that some renewables (e.g. solar) are now the cheapest (and most decentralized) form of electricity production in a lot of regions across the globe, is a HUGE driver for climate mitigation, but also development. That would have never happened, if a lot of people hadn’t invested savings into those technologies when they were 5x the cost of today..
What is more damaging perhaps, is creating specific subsidy regimes around new technologies that are not “equitable” by their design, and can lead to Matheus effects. This is however, not an individual’s responsibility, but more so for policy makers.
As companies – they key is to work with the communities around you. For example, when investing in RE projects, it can be beneficial to include citizen stakeholdership, as a sign of local involvement and embedding. Or why not take it one step further, and set up local energy communities to the benefit of all? More often than not, these kinds of efforts make business sense too, depending on the specific location.
Charlie: Companies are starting to pursue values and objectives that are inclusive of environmental and social priorities instead of only profit. While far from perfect, we see this most exemplified in the relatively recent rise of the B corp. B corps have legal obligations to consider ESG impacts in addition to profitability. As individuals we have to support climate justice and environmental justice initiatives and expenditures in our communities. It is the most vulnerable peoples who are often at the highest risk of being catastrophically impacted by climate change. As communities, we need to invest in the projects that will enable those communities to adapt to a changing climate.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing in this space?
Klaas: What we see happening in Europe, is that the internalization of fossil fuel emission costs, has created a (sometimes violent) backlash in some countries, like France (‘gilets jaunes’ movement). The energy transition is delayed by social concerns surrounding coal mine workers in Poland, or municipal finance schemes related to browncoal operations in Germany. This is why the EU Green Deal has a specific focus on the ‘Just Transition’ aspect of this plan. In order to deliver on the PA goals, the Green Deal will have to be inclusive by nature. This means that we not only need to invest in technologies to create frameworks to make R&D, infrastructure, companies… more sustainable, but at the same guarantee that we include all groups in this transition, especially the ones that are at risk of losing their jobs, or can’t invest in green technologies that lower household bills like PV.
Solutions are often sought in even more subsidies, but the success of these programs are very dependent on the architecture of those frameworks, and can lead to inefficiencies, or at worst, abuse of public funds .Some of the more innovative solutions therefore lie in cost reductions via further R&D, social innovations, digitalization , innovative financing solutions, reschooling/-tooling programmes etc. Like in many aspects of climate change, there is also no ‘silver bullet’ here. It will take a combination of many different policy initiatives to successfully drive this transformation.
Charlie: It is impossible to achieve perfect equity in the climate justice space, so the biggest challenge is striving towards that goal to make the low carbon transition as equitable as possible. As our low carbon future is built out, new challenges and inequities will arise, and we will have to do our best to adapt and address them. Some solutions are very simple, such as pricing water so that every person has affordable access to enough water to sustain human life.
What small steps or progress have you seen others make towards inclusion around climate change? Are there industries/companies/examples that you look to for inspiration or examples of innovation?
Klaas: Locally, we can see companies really working together with the communities they are rooted in, to realise renewable energy projects, find new ways of managing diminishing water resources…
Innovations there can oftentimes be found in small but meaningful projects, like for Ardo, a large plant-based frozen food company in Flanders. The company constructed a 25 km long underground pipeline network to distribute purified waste water from the vegetable processing company over 500 ha of agricultural land in the immediate vicinity. This cooperation between agriculture and industry is unique in our region, and is quickly becoming an inspiration for similar initiatives, now also supported by our government.
Charlie: Honestly local governments have had to be leaders in this space. My municipality offers free energy and water audits to help people reduce consumption, and there are even some rebates for implementing the opportunities identified. It is a small thing, but the perspective needed is that clean tech can’t only exist for the wealthy. If 1% of people are carbon neutral, we are missing the mark. It takes a really comprehensive approach, and it is never perfect. As investors divest from fossil fuels, there are a lot of laborers that will need training to pivot to other industries. We will need to invest in grid infrastructures so that clean electricity can move around regions efficiently and be utilized in areas that don’t have the means to implement clean power assets.
Is it better to reuse or use a product through end-of-life, or is it better to upgrade technology or energy systems to be more efficient? Or does it really depend on the material/product, how should we as consumers or businesses think about this?
Klaas: It really does depend on the product. LCA cycles of different products, in different regions and over different timeframes are radically different. It’s going to have to be a nuanced answer, in any case.
Take – if you will - the example of a simple fridge. If I keep my old one, it will be more inefficient to use. It could have an energy label of C-F for example. I can buy a new one immediately, with an energy label up to A+++, but that fridge needs to be manufactured, shipped, and installed (in this example, admittedly a small operation)... all creating climate and environmental impacts along the way. Also, the old one will have to be dismantled and discarded or recycled, the refrigerant is most likely a powerful greenhouse gas so needs to be carefully recuperated, there is a possible opportunity cost (perhaps the next generation of fridges will be more efficient) etc. So maybe – from a strict environmental point of view – it could be better to extend the lifetime a bit longer, and ensure the ‘right to repair’.
This is of course, just an example, and maybe even a faulty one, but it goes to show that making these kinds of assessments is complicated, and they can shift rapidly when new technologies are introduced, like in the example of electric vehicles vs stringent emission norms for ICE cars.
Charlie: I drive a gas-powered 2007 Toyota Yaris with a manual transmission. It is the most fuel-efficient vehicle I could find that fit in my $3,000 budget when I had just taken a job with Antea Group after my masters program and needed a way to get to and from the office in Loveland. I will likely not switch to an EV until it is more accessible and there are used options available. The environmental benefit can be large, but it depends on numerous factors such as the emissions intensity of your local electric grid, the amount of money a person has to spend on transportation costs, the type of vehicle a person currently has, etc.
So it really depends. For the most part using a product through end of life is preferable, but not always. Clothes are a great example of something that is better used to end of life, where it typically take 30 uses to break even on the environmental footprint of an article of clothing. There are some technologies that are so much better than their alternatives that upgrading is a much better option. LED lighting is a great example. The energy saving of LEDs compared to fluorescent, incandescent, metal halide or other lighting is so substantial that it just isn’t worth waiting. There are also mercury concerns with fluorescent that enhance the case for switching to LEDs.
For more ideas and strategies on sustainability check out our available sustainability services offered globally, and continue to follow our blog and LinkedIn page for more of this series on regional sustainability perspectives and challenges around the world.