Why we need to stop talking about “Sustainability”


August 31, 2021

Why we need to stop talking about “Sustainability”

Climeaction Strategy 2021

In today’s modern world “Sustainability” is one of the most frequently used words by economists, businesses, engineers and politicians. We can barely read an article or listen to an interview from a business, economist, engineer or politician where “Sustainability” is not used multiple times. To be honest the word is really starting to bug me – we use it ourselves at Climeaction in our proposals, documents and will have a whole section on sustainability services in our new website which will be launched next week but I would love to find a different word to use to describe certain areas of the Climate Action story. The word has just become over used and its very difficult to really define what it means anymore.

What does “Sustainability” mean?

But what do they mean by it? Well, lets start at the meaning of the word from the Oxford English Dictionary:

The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.

OK – Well that seems simple, so every time they say sustainable they are referring to avoiding long term depletion of natural resources. So how many companies in the world are truly sustainable? Let’s start with how many write sustainability reports?

Sustainability Reporting

The 2020 KPMG Report on Sustainability Reporting found almost all (96%) of the world’s largest 250 companies (the G250) report on their sustainability performance. For the N100 –5,200 companies comprising the largest 100 firms in 52 countries – 80% do. Source: here

Well reading this you would think wow – There are lots of sustainable companies, after all, so many of these companies in all those 52 countries write sustainability reports.

But when you dig a bit deeper and think about the Climate & Biodiversity emergency we are all currently living through and the impacts it is already having on the world from Canada, Germany, the USA, Africa and right across Asia and even here at home in our blistering heatwave you have to ask yourself what does it now mean to be sustainable?

Is this Sustainable?

Is this sustainable? Can we sustain the level of damage we are doing to earth’s ecosystems and still meet our needs without compromising the needs of future generations? The answer is simple – No we can’t.

In approximately 6 years we will have breached the 1.5 deg C limit on temperature change, we have already seen the news that the Amazon is a net emitter of CO2 now rather than our earth’s lungs – See here. We have started a chain of events that if we don’t act today to reduce our emissions and take carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, as fast as we possibly can through meaningful actions rather than token “Sustainability” actions we are all in trouble. And yes – I understand there is far more to “Sustainability” than just the Climate Change element, however each and every aspect of the UN SDGs will be impacted by Climate Change. How can we ensure no poverty if a large proportion of our land is unlivable or ensure sustainable life below our water if the ocean temperatures are increasing so much that we are essentially killing our marine ecosystems slowly?

Science Based Targets

The only measure that I really hold as being true action in “Sustainability” by a business is committing to Science Based Targets.

Why? Well because it’s a public commitment that you will listen to the scientists and take actions that will reduce your emissions by as much as the scientists tell you is necessary.

It is a very difficult challenge for any company to adopt and meet the requirements of emissions reductions through the Science Based Targets Initiative. I know how difficult it is as I sat scratching my head for a while when asked to help a company work out how they would do it – the company had been a leader in energy efficiency, energy management and carbon reduction for years so when they went about trying to look at committing to the SBTi they were the victims of their own success, but none the less we collectively found a strategy and the company has since made that commitment.

So how many companies have made that commitment – As of today the SBTi website states that there are 813 companies who have signed up to Science Based Targets and 665 who have made 1.5 deg commitments. I don’t pay much attention to the 665 as they simply had to fill in this form. So 813 companies are truly taking Climate Action globally and these companies should be free to use the words “Sustainable” or “Sustainability” freely – after all, if they meet their commitments and many will have to, driven by investor and market pressure, they will be sustainable companies taking appropriate action to help to limit the impacts of Climate Change.

So who are the companies in Ireland who have signed up to the SBTI? Check them out here:

And globally? :

There is also the SME Climate Hub – yes its not an difficult process to commit to this, but as we advise all of our clients in the SME sector – commitments should only be made after you have a practical plan in place to achieve your goals. Commitments without plans and strategies are just wishful thinking and what if you don’t achieve those goals – what damage could it do to your companies reputation? I know the one client of ours up there so far who has made this commitment have a practical plan to meet their emissions goals. Many more to come though! The companies which have signed up for the SME Climate Hub in Ireland are:

Startup Commitments

As a new business Climeaction is considering how we can design our business so that we have a net positive impact on Climate Action and this should be easy for us as we already have identified more emissions savings than we have created in our business, but what about when we grow – how do we limit our impacts – it’s a tough question that many start up companies may have and one we are still trying to wrap our head around but we will have the answer very soon and when we do we too will make that commitment publicly.

Climeaction was formed to make a difference. We want to change the narrative from “Sustainability”.

Show me your plan!

I would encourage any readers of this article to ask your suppliers, competitors or other businesses when they talk about “Sustainability” – Show me your plan to reduce your emission in line with Climate Science. It is only by asking these tough questions that we will spur true transformation. And maybe by sharing our plans we can help each other to achieve our goals.

We need to transform the way we do things in the next five years to truly make an impact on Climate Change. We need to be open, transparent and share knowledge.

The challenge with Climate Action is that everyone in the world needs to act at the same time, there simply won’t be enough Climate Action or Energy professionals in the industry to do the work for companies.

One of the key differentiators in our business is that we create capacity within the organizations we work with to continue taking Climate Action after we finish our assignment.

Action not words

The word that needs to be used is ACTION. And action needs to have a practical plan in place. If a business didn’t have a 5 year financial plan in place you would question their economic sustainability so why not question their Climate Change Sustainability. The answer is very easy to understand also:

Climate Action has a definitive measure, its measure is Tonnes of Carbon reduced, avoided, or removed from the atmosphere through direct intervention.

If a company doesn’t have a plan in place which aligns with Climate Science or approximately 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 then they are not sustainable.

Let’s delete “Sustainability” from our vocabulary for the next 10 years and instead talk about Climate Action, because without action there won’t be any “Sustainability” on this planet.

What we do

We are helping our customers to take Climate Action, set targets and create plans to practically reduce their emissions across their full supply chain and reduce costs to provide them with measurable results. Results expressed only in Tonne of Carbon or Cost. Not some abstract measure of “Sustainability”.

How we do it

We have developed a framework by which we can transform companies so that Climate Action becomes embedded into the way they do things.

What does a true Climate Action plan look like – well the above illustration gives you an idea.

Paul Murphy
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