Sustainability is the Zero Point, Let’s Talk about Regeneration

There were several different takes on COP26, some calling it a sign of hope, others a disappointment, but to climate activist Greta Thunberg, it was simply a “failure” and “PR event”. She may not be wrong. A convention which holds so much potential for establishing global strategies to tackle the climate crisis also looks to be that which is impeding real climate action; a bundle of empty promises and lacklustre pledges. It is clear: a fundamental shift is needed in our conversations about climate, taking us from current notions of stainability to much needed regeneration. Those showing real thought leadership in this space need to be given a bigger platform, especially at events like COP. This includes environmental groups, indigenous peoples, the climate vulnerable nations and those on the side of climate justice. Instead, COP was swamped by lobbyists from fossil fuel industries, which, if they were a country, would have had the largest delegation. Until we see drastic changes, we can only expect the continuation of failed government policy, corporate greenwashing, and ecological collapse.

The business world’s last 20 years of reporting, pledges, and commitments to “sustainability” is not enough to restrict warming to 2 degrees. Sustainable business’ failure is demonstrated by the recent onslaught of climate-related disasters such as European floods which took the lives of almost 250 people this summer, and the 2019/20 Australian wildfires which killed or displaced 3 billion animals.Yet, corporations seem content with a cursed business-as-usual approach which could cause a devastating 4.5 degrees of warming. We are talking about a future situation where heat stress-related deaths reach a quarter of a million by 2050, and, by the end of the century, sea level rises displace 470-760 million people and halve plant yields, causing global food and climate refugee crises.

World leaders at COP finally acknowledged that burning coal hastens the climate crisis. Well, to be fair, not all world leaders were blessed with the same degree of enlightenment, as the UK Government recently announced it was opening the first coal mine in 30 years. At first look the abandonment of coal seems an encouraging move, until you realise that Western nations had begun a transition away from coal several decades ago with the rise of oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy. Then, it begins to look like a pathetic attempt to pin the blame for climate change on developing/transitional economies such as India and China which are still way behind in terms of historical emissions; yet which lack the infrastructure and/or finances to fully part with coal. Global strategy for climate action needs to take into account each country’s level of development, yet this move seemed to demand the most from countries which suffer from some of the worst rates of poverty globally- in the absence of meaningful support to aid their transition.

Jumping on the Sustainability Bandwagon

The incapacity of “sustainable” businesses to bring climate justice lies in the very essence of their being. There is a constant struggle between their desire to do good and make profit; owing to the fact that their business operations and Purpose do not align with the interests of People or Planet. Until their “raison d'être” evolves into something more than producing goods and making profit, such companies can only strive to do less harm - relying on quantitative ESG metrics to promote their brand reputation to an increasingly environmentally- conscious audience. Most businesses completely neglect the value of Place, either neglecting or worse still harming their local environments and communities, then marketing their products as “sustainable” by planting some trees on the other side of the world and using some recycled plastic: this is a farce. This is compounded by a failure in leadership and cognitive dissonance: typified by leaders like Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder who had a podium at COP26, and whose company pollutes freshwater and marine ecosystems with a whole van’s worth of plastic every 70 minutes. While sustainability is a broad church and includes a group of noble, committed actors, the wider movement, in many ways, has been hijacked by a corporate elite whose only interest is greenwashing and egocentric acts of grandeur (such as going into space) which elevate their status and increase their already extravagant wealth. In the middle ground, incrementalism reigns supreme as companies drag their heels towards 2050 targets so far off as to render them toothless.

ESG is a mirage

Nowhere is this disconnect more prevalent than in the world of ESG (Environmental and Social Governance). Recently Bloomberg magazine did an expose of MSCI’s practices under the title: The ESG Mirage. MSCI is one of the world’s most influential ESG ratings house, counting BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager, with $10 trillion under management, as its biggest customer. These ratings are often used by ESG funds and ethical investment vehicles which promote themselves as environmentally and socially just. Bloomberg looked at 155 companies which MSCI had rated, and whose ratings were boosted, often for vague reasons, and with no regard to real world harms and climate impacts. Actual emissions or impact seem to be overlooked. Bloomberg marks JP Morgan Chase for special attention:

“......which since the announcement of the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015 has underwritten more bonds for fossil fuel companies—and earned more fees from them—than any other bank in the world. MSCI upgraded it in December 2020 to BBB. The rating report cited the bank’s self-described green credentials: the publication of its first “climate report”; a committee it had formed on “green projects”; and the underwriting of $14.6 billion in so-called green bonds in 2019. It didn’t mention the bank’s fossil fuel bonds, which dwarfed green bonds in dollar volume.”

Real sustainability is the zero point

What are we sustaining anyway? Nature or capitalism? Can we keep growing a capitalist economy fuelled by exploitation and extraction while keeping its impacts within safe ecological boundaries? The report card to date is not positive. Perhaps our system is effectively cannibalizing itself and is doomed to destroy itself? The dominant capitalist system has already breached safe sustainable thresholds and is now threatening the future of life on the planet. And that’s not just about climate change and carbon in the atmosphere, a number of other planetary boundaries (scientists have identified nine vital systems all life depends on) have been breached. Being sustainable is therefore only a neutral zero point. And we need to get back to the safe space urgently. Beyond that, we need to upend our extraction and exploitation mindset and adopt a climate justice lens. Only this can put us on a pathway to thrival.

Regeneration holds the key

As outlined above, sustainability and ESG approaches do not challenge modern systems of exploitation and extraction which view Nature as a resource. So we have to go beyond sustainability; we need Regeneration. There is currently no shortage of thinking or alternative models; the most inspiring of which we outline in our Business as Unusual Booklet. It is only by challenging the status quo that we can shape our own Regenerative future.

Beyond the frameworks, Regenerative pioneers are carving out an alternative vision of the future; driving innovation and making systemic changes. Although still at the fringes, they are making headway. At the enterprise level, there are some very exciting companies challenging the old mindsets, and not just in the net zero and beyond space. Whether that is a company like OLIO working to eliminate food waste, or Riversimple fast-tracking decarbonisation in transport, or Choc Chick wiping slavery from cocoa production, regenerative entrepreneurship is offering us a lifeline out of the current ESG quagmire.