Sustainability comes with fits and starts (part 2)

Conflicting interests and unwanted side-effects
PostedApril 13, 2016, in  Step 7: sustainable excellence
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Sustainability has the momentum. Since the Paris Agreement the tide is beginning to turn, but not all that glitters is gold. There is bad news too; after all, change doesn’t happen by itself. Where money plays a role, conflicting interests are unavoidable.

Political instrument

Typical examples are the electricity companies Gdf and E.on. They are threatening to sue the Dutch government for billions, if they proceed to close the coal-fired power stations in the Netherlands. Actually, closing coal-fired power stations is not per definition a step forward. In Europe, there is an emission system for greenhouse gas emissions. If the emissions in country A are reduced, then in country B there is more room to emit more. There is a danger that the extra coal-power is then imported by country A. In other words: not using coal is not automatically a choice for sustainability. Sometimes it is no more than a political instrument with high symbolic value. After all, what politician doesn’t want to be praised for his/her sustainable achievements?

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Photo: Intel Free Press, Flickr Creative Commons

Maximizing profit

The same thing is true for corporate life: sustainability is often seen as a special project, as a noble contribution to a better world. The product range is expanded with a couple of sustainable products, but fundamentally nothing changes. The system is not improved; something is just added to it. That is why ‘sustainability’ is almost always a chapter/paragraph in an Annual Report, instead of being the guideline that connects all the processes. Maximizing profit is, and remains, the starting point for enterprise. That applies to Shell, for example: sustainability is on the agenda (again), but is certainly not the foundation for policy.

Unwanted side-effects

It is up to governments to show sustainable leadership. There are plenty of positive initiatives, but sometimes sustainability policy also has unwanted side-effects. For example, more and more is being invested in recycling waste. But what cannot be recycled, is burned, and provides ‘sustainable power’, which is then sold. She here the reverse reality: real sustainability is about decreasing waste, but that is not attractive if waste becomes a source of income…

Another example: e-waste. Within the European Union electronic waste may not just be dumped and burned. That is why it is being shipped en masse to Africa and Asia, where raw materials and components can be removed. This trade is often illegal and the ‘recycling’ takes place under poor working conditions. Lead poisoning is no exception. This illegal market is flourishing thanks to EU policy. 

Energy subsidies

Unwanted side-effects are a shame, but at least they are the result of positive intentions. It’s a different matter when there is conscious investment in pollutants, simply because sustainability is overshadowed by economic or social interests. The subsidies on fossil fuels are a good example of that. Each year 40 countries spend about 450 billion Euros(!) on subsidies on gasoline, diesel and other fuels, according to Research Office Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI). By comparison: about 110 billion Euros per year is invested in sustainable energy.

In developing countries energy subsidies are used to keep transport affordable for poor people. Remarkably, in these countries more money is spent on energy subsidies than on health or education. On the other hand, in wealthy countries the subsidies reach the energy manufacturers, eliminating any incentive to make their processes more sustainable. That latter also applies to the biggest subsidy providers: in countries where the fuel prices are kept artificially low, vehicles are significantly more polluting.

Ideal conditions

That has not gone unnoticed by the International Energy Agency (IEA). According to Chief Economist Fatih Birol, energy grants are even ‘public enemy number one’ for sustainable energy supply. Together, every year, grants are responsible for 13% more CO2 emission worldwide. To follow-up on the Paris Agreement, this must end. And that is possible: the oil price is at an all-time low. By getting rid of energy grants, CO2 emissions will decrease dramatically and huge budgets will become available for social investments. In short, the conditions are ideal. What are we waiting for? 

Next week: the risks of ‘Paris’ and the need for transformation. 

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PostedApril 13, 2016, in Step 7: sustainable excellence
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