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Much of what we as people – and company employees – anticipate with regard to climate risk is that new solutions will develop to manage emissions, remove CO2 from the atmosphere and generally reduce climate impacts. Many developments reported in the press are startups pursuing new technologies bent on reducing emissions at their point of generation, removing CO2 from ambient air (direct air capture), sequestering carbon in various ways or innovations in offsets. Certainly – just as in any business venture – only a few will survive. Failures will result from any number of factors like technical inability to scale technology, operating costs or even fraud. However, this interesting article highlights risks of relying too much on expecting new solutions to develop and be successful:

“…the centralised and extractive model of climate capitalism questionable. It just doesn’t work even at the core task of reducing carbon emissions in the first place. First comes the efficiency paradox. Sometimes call the rebound effect or Jevons paradox. Roughly this states that when you improve the efficiency of how a resource is consumed, you incentivise even more use of that self same resource. Often to a level even higher than it was before. So it is with shipping. If you save an operator some money from fuel costs and help them gain some ‘green’ credentials, the inevitable outcome is that they are more attractive to investors and will build more ships resulting in more actual emissions overall.

Secondly, the tech itself will most likely be used by those bad actors I mentioned at the beginning to further grow their exploitative operations. So the first customers of ‘clean’ maritime wind power are aircraft manufacturers to create more planes. Next will be oil companies to ship more oil, coal miners to ship more coal, and large conglomerates to ship more low-quality furniture and consumer goods.

Not only are you therefore not ‘saving’ the world and its oceans. You are most likely making it worse by creating the technology that enables the bad behaviours to flourish.”

I’ve read similar arguments and contradictions about the oil and gas industry’s use of captured CO2 in well fracking – while it sequesters CO2 underground, its use produces additional oil and gas (exactly what the second paragraph of the above excerpt decries). The story has very real and broad implications – will personal motivations of today’s incoming ESG workforce actually be an obstacle to new sustainability innovations? If they experience the personal conflict with business mandates as the author of this article did – that itself may be a barrier to successful commercialization of climate solutions. Something else to think about when considering long term climate risk and possible fairy tale solutions. Unfortunately in this instance, failure is not only an option – it should be anticipated.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile