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When Will Businesses Catch Up to the Climate Crisis?
We pressingly need to reframe our environmental conversation; lest we fall prey to an uncontrolled economic system. One that wreaks havoc through habitat degradation, worker exploitation, and resource scarcity.
20 July, 2021

Circa October 2020. California’s most devastating wildfire season yet has spawned a classification of its own; the first ‘gigafire’. The world economic forum is calling 2020 the warmest year since reliable records from the 1800s. And the arctic has been said to be in a ‘death spiral’, questions arising of how much longer it will exist. In essence, it is nothing short of an emergency that inspires the founding of the Green Enterprise Institute in the fall of 2020.

Now a UK- registered charity we began in a KCL dorm room, ‘envisioning a carbon-neutral world’ and decided to helm a mission to take the practical steps towards such a world. A small but dedicated team of trustees, from then, has developed the organisation remotely and is now deploying a series of departments with day-to-day activities ranging from research to education, advisory, and community outreach. 

Our goal is to aid small, medium, and large businesses accelerate the economic decarbonisation of the global economy. Headquartered in London, we have created a rich remote work environment with collaborators living and operating internationally (London, Oxford, NYC, Singapore, Nairobi) and using the latest resources and technology to stay connected. Long-term, we aim to provide a global public platform where various stakeholders can work collaboratively and in a non-conflictual way, contributing cutting-edge science, innovative entrepreneurial practices, and groundbreaking policy to the effort of rewriting the role of business in carbon neutralisation.

To this end, we also aim to provide in-house support to businesses transitioning their firms and to educators preparing the next generation of Green entrepreneurs. Midway through a period of rapid expansion, we are onboarding passionate and talented volunteers – as well as offering numerous prominent positions to outstanding candidates – here.

Business in a Decarbonising World

Alarms of mounting urgency are pointing towards the role that business plays in the climate crisis. We pressingly need to reframe this environmental conversation; lest we fall prey to an uncontrolled economic system. One that wreaks havoc through habitat degradation, worker exploitation, and resource scarcity. 

The pandemic has taught us the value of addressing problems locally before they extend beyond control. A coalition of respected academia tells us that we have a mere decade left to flatline our emissions trends before catastrophic warming of 2-4 °C is irreversibly locked into the system. The presence of numerous feedback loops (e.g., the uncontrollable release of methane from thawing arctic permafrost) may drastically shorten that timeline. Anticipating a century of devastating planetary changes, we should be rapidly decarbonising the economic mechanisms driving emissions. Instead, this mobilisation is not occurring. Below the veneer, consumption trends spiral dizzyingly upwards and the global economic engine advances unremitted.  

The environmental crisis is admittedly a system-wide problem, but it is also a deeply economic one. Even as governments globally battled forest fires in 2020, unregulated farmers torched thousands of acres of trees to clear space for farmland. Politicians achieve office stymied by profit motives, backed by lobbyists. Cries of climate activism are overshadowed by the latest tech release or IPO.

The economic impacts of the climate crisis are astounding. Major disasters in 2020 alone cost us an estimated $210 billion, estimated to be a $1.9 trillion annual rise by 2100. Global action to re-engineer the economic engines pushing our ecosystems past their tipping points is a must. To strive for complete sustainability, that does not offset our future for short-term profit. 

Businesses must not merely be treated as environmental scapegoats. They can also be agents of profound good, because of – and not despite – the power they wield within society. That same power makes true regulation very difficult, requiring that capitalism be ultimately reimagined by its stakeholders – from within and below. Not only is this reimagining possible; it is also necessary, as we all kneel before a collective fate. 

Labour challenges, increase in insurance budgets and severed supply chains- climate change poses a significant risk to business operation too. Deloitte has reported that extreme weather events have a direct impact on 70% of all economic sectors worldwide. Despite adapting to avoid this is in the best interest, short term thinking pervades and has only worsened. Sustainability initiatives are being cut back on even more due to the pandemic, from 30% in 2020 to 37%.

Green Enterprise is not sufficient on its own to build this world, but it is necessary. We cannot predicate our patterns of production and consumption upon rules written before the atmospheric conversation. To do so will merely perpetuate scarcity, vulnerability and conflict.

Green Enterprise Principles for Economic Decarbonisation

These principles serve as guidelines for businesses attempting to climate-consciously operate as part of a carbon-neutral world economy. They were developed and are regularly updated by GEI’s trustees to meet the need for a blueprint that businesses of any size and from any sector can use to begin reimagining their role in the economy. They are rooted in research sourced from the world’s leading sustainable development labs – including Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Columbia University’s Climate School, and the NUS’s Environmental Research Centre. Questioning important premises of traditional enterprise and attend to the practical steps that businesses should take to contribute to economy-wide decarbonisation:

1. Neutralising Emissions with Efficiency.

The first principle is based on the Hippocratic philosophy of “primum non nuocere” – first, do no harm. Most productive activity expends energy and resources and emits CO2 into the atmosphere. However, many of these emissions are a consequence of outdated processes, rather than an essential quality of product or service creation. All businesses should proactively engage in minimising inefficiency and long-term resource use. Thinking holistically and adopting circular-economy practices can even prove extremely lucrative when executed at scale. Could any expenses be sustained in the present that in the long term would save the firm money and make it more sustainable? Are there actions at any step of the business process that use more resources than is reasonable? Changing these patterns is a core element of becoming a Green Enterprise.

2. Innovating Net Zero Practices.

The second principle involves a radical transformation of the system. At every level of analysis, business patterns can be creatively re-engineered for carbon neutrality. Creating new systems, solutions, and markets – and innovating beyond the currently explored sphere of sustainability – can make incredible economic sense at a macro and micro level. It may also be the only way to mitigate against the systematic shocks that traditional enterprises are likely to feel at every level in upcoming years. Going forward the economy not only requires a neutral environmental impact, but also one capable of institutionalising – in perpetuity – resilient, sustainable, and dynamic human to nature interactions. Firms stand uniquely poised as innovators for the task ahead. By leap-frogging as first adopters of revolutionary technologies, systems, and values, they can transform the world for the better, prevent trillions of dollars in economic damages, and channel the profits – around $12 trillion per year by 2030, according to some estimates – into lucrative Green expansion and consolidation.

3. Abstract Values & Long-Term Awareness

Some practices, institutions, and values emphasise immediate returns and ignore the problem of repeatability across time. Otherwise the principle idea of ‘the tragedy of commons’ is played out. Businesses are necessarily rooted in the present – with monthly deadlines, quarterly reports, and annual quotas. Yet their impact can greatly transcend that time frame. The cultivation of long-term values amongst the individuals in those firms is a difficult but necessary meta-step for the implementation of the first two principles. Not only can acting for the good of several generations set a business trajectory that ensures tradition, legacy, and financial resilience, but it also can be deeply fulfilling for the individuals who undertake it.

Current research may be insufficient to provide a single path towards a profitable carbon-neutral enterprise. International business values may also be deeply misaligned with economic decarbonisation. We can only hope that moving forward, visionary and trailblazing entrepreneurs choose to act on the profound financial and moral imperatives for the possibilities of sustainability currently extant in the global economy.

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