Rethinking Sustainability: Moving Beyond Individual Action

27 July 2023

Participant on the Executive MBA programme, Martin Jay, explores how technological advances and education can help drive us into a more sustainable future.

It seems like every month and every year we are setting a new weather record for something; June 2023 was the hottest on record in the UK. Climate change is undeniable and there is strong evidence linking climate change with “sustainability”, but should we be thinking differently about social and environmental sustainability?

On track to miss targets

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the mantra we hear, yet the majority of people are not willingly going to reduce a lot of their comforts or life experiences. People feel like they deserve a holiday or to have the air conditioning on, and they really do deserve those things. Bill Gates says, “Even if those countries and individuals who have enough abundance in their life and can cut back, that won’t be enough reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to sufficiently rein in climate change”, and charging a “green premium” does not work for those that can’t afford it. The UN figures show that we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from 51 billion to net zero by 2050 to prevent a global rise of 1.5 degrees. 70 countries have signed up to this, including the UK, EU members, the US and China. Sounds great, but we are way short of our targets. According to those UN figures, to keep on track we would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by -45% before 2030 - the current projection is an increase of +10%.

Should we switch the focus from individual action to technological advances?

People will simply not leave their luxury cars at home and queue for a bus in the rain, people will not switch their heating off in the winter for the sake of a global problem. Rather than focusing on what individuals can remove from their lives (degrowth), should more effort be put into technological advances for cheaper or same-cost alternatives? Can we have clean hydrogen for transport? Long-duration energy storage? Sustainable aviation fuel? Direct air capture to remove CO2? Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is a platform to invest in exactly these ideas at costs that will make them attractive options over less environmentally sound options.

What next? Embedding social and environmental sustainability in education

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is slowly becoming integral to all businesses and most companies now have ESG policies and targets. But, are we doing enough, soon enough, or should we be talking about it more? Should there be more teaching in schools and universities? Whilst WBS embeds social and environmental sustainability in its curriculum, could this be taken a step further with a core module?

Most of the focus in the news or the ESG policies I see seem to be on the environmental side of ESG and less on the social element. Social sustainability is equally important, so should we be talking about that more and including that in our policies and teaching, perhaps with specific courses on these social elements?

One thing my MBA has taught me is that no matter what question, the answer is always “it depends”. We need a mix of all these elements. We should absolutely reduce our waste, and reusing is much better than recycling, but degrowth will not solve the problem on its own. What we can do on an individual level is make it clear to governments and corporations that we want these policies and that we must stick to the targets we have agreed. The current level of greenwashing or superficial ESG policies is unacceptable in 2023 and we must keep learning and teaching to improve – the is a finite timeline on this issue and we cannot afford to miss it.