Discover more from ESG on a Sunday
Week 13: When in trouble, just pretend everything is OK
In this issue: ▸ Desperation and self-delusion ▸ EVs and the problem of ‘me’ ▸ China vs fast fashion brands ▸ Solar geoengineering ▸ When science fiction becomes real ▸ Coal? Gone? Are you kidding?
I hope everyone is well and ready for a new round of ‘ESG on a Sunday’!
Desperation and self-delusion
The closer we get to the point of no return in relation to the climate crisis, the more desperate and reckless some of the solutions to the crisis will become.
That is just the way it is. Instead of trying to solve the underlying reasons, we tend to focus on tweaking the consequences in our favour by painting many of them green, convincing ourselves and each other that this “too” could be a solution.
We can’t blame ourselves for this. We are part of the problem and as such we have big difficulties comprehending the complexity we have created, dissect our own role and question our own motives.
The good part of this is that we remain optimistic, big-eyed and mostly convinced that we indeed are trying to do what we can. The bad part is that we grasp for the more and more risky solutions we have at hand or hope to develop, so we can all live happily ever after. Like we did before.
This is not only related to the field of technology (which I will touch upon shortly), but applies to almost all fields. All investments nowadays are sustainable. In my newsletter two weeks ago, I addressed the net-zero circus. We have many names for this, and this new narrative is dominating both business and politics.
Nuclear was out 10 years ago, now it’s back on the agenda. Gas was a fossil fuel 10 years ago, now that’s no longer the case, according to the EU. Some time ago it was impossible to use sustainability and profit in the same sentence. Now the words are very much complementary, as if they go hand in hand.
Like very experienced diplomats we are avoiding and reframing the conflicts with ourselves, and we are doing it so effectively that we no longer even comprehend their existence. As in, for example: “Yes, we can consume more and be sustainable at the same time”. Some companies, when you buy their ecological clothing, reward you with loyalty points with which you can buy even more of it and, most importantly, feel good about it all.
EVs and the problem of ‘me’
As a way to illustrate this conflict, let’s look at the current transition to electric vehicles (EVs) around the world.
The prenotion is that by the will of God – and all the other Gods in the universe – every person has a divine right to own his/her own car.
Now, we are aware of that fact that the current fleet of cars, given that it’s powered by fossil fuels, needs to be replaced by a fleet that is powered in a cleaner way. However, the question at this stage is not, as it should be, if we need new transportation systems. The question is how do we replace car A with car B where car B is powered by something better than fossil fuels.
The fact that an “electrified world fleet of cars” will demand a trillion megawatts more of energy (which we at this stage still mostly produce from non-renewable sources) is not the issue for anyone right now.
Neither is the fact that the materials we use to produce the batteries in car B are finite and associated with severe environmental and social issues. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which holds 70% of the world reserves of cobalt, is a failed state, and we ‘know’ extraction is nasty.
But… you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right? So we go on and do our environmental duty and buy our very own electric car.
And well, if we have issues with cobalt (as all EV companies have since we don’t have sufficient supply beyond 2030), we just move on to nickel. And when nickel is done, the tech gurus will surely find ways to use diapers in batteries…
The stock markets will react, things will correct and we just have to lean back, vote every 4th year, keep consuming (sustainably, of course) and things will be fine.
I mean, if you look at this from this perspective we are indeed on our way to make it, this is not bad at all.
We are protecting our divine right to own our own things and in this case our own ‘sustainable’ things. Ok, it is not perfect, Rome was not built in one year. But it is at least an attempt to change things.
The question is, are we really changing anything?
We are not debating and discussing if we need new transportation solutions in the cities and countries around the world where we avoid cars, where we construct solutions that are utility centric, i.e. focused on the need to move from point A to point B and how do we do this in the most efficient and climate smart way possible, collectively, not just to suit our individual needs and emotions.
The starting point for our solution development at this stage is still dominated by me, myself and I. But the very notion of sustainability has a collective tune, where we find and navigate collective solutions and compromises which will ultimately also benefit our individual freedoms, because everything is everything and it’s all connected.
We are continuously reminded that we need to work collectively in the age of the ego, and that is probably the change we need more than any of the technological changes we try so hard to develop.
China vs fast fashion brands
But some complexities, some unresolved equilibriums of sustainability remain unresolved. Like the one where the Chinese government initiated a boycott of several western brands due to their vague, but written, support to the oppressed minorities forced to work on cotton fields in Xinjiang.
For more than a year some big foreign apparel and technology companies have been walking a fine line on the human rights abuses committed by China against Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the north-western region of Xinjiang. These firms have been working to clear their supply chains of the forced labour of Uyghurs, hundreds of thousands of whom pick cotton under apparently coercive conditions.
What they have not done is boast about these efforts, fearful of angering the Communist Party and the 1.4bn Chinese consumers. An online furore stoked by the Chinese authorities the past couple of weeks suggests that Beijing may be tiring of this double game.
China’s government, increasingly keen to punish critics of their Xinjiang policies, is forcing foreign companies to make a choice they have been studiously trying to avoid: support China or get out of the Chinese market.
Nowadays, China is a great world power, and you don’t tell China how to run things anymore, and above all, you don’t criticise China.
Xinjiang is the largest cotton producing area in China, and it produces nearly 20% of the world's cotton and is, therefore, a central part of the global supply chain.
Now the question is: will western brands have to choose between respecting Human Rights or profits? Or is it a both and in this case too? Sustainable with a twist.
The spooky thing is that all of the companies, after the boycott was staged, took away their public statements from their webpages. The CEO for H&M declined to answer questions from journalist by pleading media in Sweden to “have understanding” that she cannot say anything.
Of course as a business leader you want it all. That your brand is both associated with all things sustainable and you want to be able to sell to all markets in the world.
The question is: how much does sustainability really cost? And are we really prepared to fight for it and pay for it?
The issue with fast fashion (and the Swedish PM)
As I wrote in my one of my previous newsletters (this one), H&M’s business model is not sustainable at its core. It is centred around volumes of cheap labour, volumes of cheap clothes in 30 different collections every year and enormous use of resources in some of the poorest countries in the world.
On the one hand, H&M were forced to express some (although rather vague) criticism against the severe human rights abuses and by doing so underline their CSR programs.
On the other hand, they are not really addressing the gigantic business centric social issues embedded in their entire supply chain: The millions of women working in the fast fashion industry’s supply chains that are not paid a living wage.
The Chinese boycott went truly political when the Swedish Prime Minister went public to support H&M, stating that he believes that companies should “take responsibility for the working conditions of employees all over the world, so that employees are treated with respect”.
I posted a public message to him with one very specific question. You can find it here. I hope to get an answer soon...
Will solar geoengineering give us hope?
Let’s move beyond planet Earth, we move (like Bezos and Elon, but not to Mars) to the Bill Gates founded “block the sun” project.
Science fiction? No. Possible technical solution? Well, it is called solar geoengineering and refers to a set of emerging technologies that could manipulate the environment and partially offset some of the impacts of climate change. Solar geoengineering cannot be a replacement for reducing emissions (mitigation) or coping with a changing climate (adaptation). Yet, it could supplement these efforts.
Solar geoengineering seeks to reflect a small fraction of sunlight back into space or increase the amount of solar radiation that escapes back into space to cool the planet.
In contrast to carbon geoengineering, solar geoengineering does not address the root cause of climate change. It instead aims to break the link from concentrations to temperatures, thereby reducing some climate damages.
Believe it or not, all of this is driven pretty much by various defence research centres in the US and some other countries.
There are several technologies for this approach, including injection of aerosols (fine droplets or particulates as fine as powder) into the stratosphere, where they would scatter some sunlight back to space, thus cooling the planet by reducing the amount of heat that enters the lower atmosphere.
Marine cloud brightening is another way to reflect solar radiation back into space. This would use automated ships to spray droplets of seawater into the atmosphere above the ocean where they evaporate to form an elevated concentration of sea-salt aerosols which seed higher concentrations of cloud droplets in clouds over the ocean, increasing their reflectivity.
If you want to read more, here’s a good piece from Forbes.
When science fiction becomes real
But all of these science fiction-like solutions have some real consequences.
Under pressure from indigenous people and environmental groups, Sweden’s space agency on Wednesday called off a landmark first test of technology that aims to slow global warming by dimming sunlight reaching Earth.
The Swedish Space Corporation said it had decided not to conduct the technical test, which uses a high-altitude balloon, that was planned for June near the Arctic circle town of Kiruna by Harvard University researchers.
The SCoPEx project test would have involved releasing a tiny amount of reflective material 20 km (12 miles) into the atmosphere, to help researchers better understand how such solar geoengineering might help cool the planet. Read more.
Coal? Gone? Are you kidding?
When a French utility got rid of the last of its European coal plants in 2019, the company touted the move as a step toward its goal to eliminate carbon emissions.
But Engie SA didn’t close its four plants in Germany and the Netherlands. Instead, it sold them to Riverstone Holdings, a US private equity firm that used the newly acquired assets to start a power company serving customers in Western Europe.
At Engie, a $29 billion multinational utility, the goal is to dismantle coal plants or convert them to gas or sustainable biomass, which have lower carbon footprints. If those options aren’t feasible, Engie sells the plants, company spokesperson Andrea Petolicchio said.
The utility still has coal plants in Portugal, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Morocco, but plans to exit the sector by 2027. How do we solve this?
That’s all for now. Have a great week!