Fires in Australia. Flooding in Miami. Droughts in California. At times, the news can be overwhelming. The signals are clear — our natural environment is under stress. Climate change, in particular, poses an existential threat that could impact billions of people, upended lives, reshaping communities, stressing economies, and ultimately degrading our quality of life.
The challenge before us is daunting. To achieve the Paris Accord’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5º C will likely require the complete “decarbonization” of the global economy by 2050. In other words, we will have to reduce total annual emissions of greenhouse gases to net zero. This will require not modest efforts to reduce emissions, but a wholesale transformation of numerous sectors. Complete electrification of vehicles, 100% adoption of renewable energy (or at least zero-carbon sources) for electricity generation, decarbonizing industrial processes either through electrification or other means. This will not be easy, to say the least.
So is all hope lost? In my recent book with co-author, Ronnie Chatterji, we explore “Can Business Save the Earth?”. Our fundamental thesis is that business will have to be part of the solution. We require massive innovation in disruptive sustainable technologies if we are going to have any hope of addressing the looming threat of climate change. Markets and business can be a powerful catalyst for such disruptive change when motivated to act.
What is clear is that marginal changes to existing practices will not get the job done. Recycling paper waste and adopting energy-efficient lightbulbs are all fine and good, but they are literally a drop in the bucket of our global footprint. Please, by all means, pursue them. Every little bit helps. But keep an eye on the big picture. Ask yourself, “are there ways for my business to help catalyze the transition to sustainable technologies?” For example, leading technology companies such as Amazon and Microsoft have provided huge momentum to utility-scale solar and wind electricity generation by working with utilities to decarbonize their data centers.
Even if you are a nascent entrepreneur or work at a small or medium-sized enterprise, you have a role to play. Can you help innovate new sustainable solutions for existing needs and markets? Every new technology started as an idea in someone’s garage, lab, or office before gaining traction and scaling impact. Can you leverage your business to influence public policy or shape global supply chains? The most socially responsible action your company may take is to be politically responsible – helping drive, and not hinder, the necessary transitions to sustainable technologies by arguing for policies that support sustainability.
The transition to a sustainable economy will not happen until a whole host of stakeholders, from the public and private sector, work to shape the conditions under which disruptive sustainable technologies flourish. Every business, big or small, has a role to play.