Beware false sustainability solutions

Posted on April 24, 2017 in Comment by . Share this article

Professor Peter Horton is the Grantham Centre’s Chief Research Advisor. This blog post was originally published on, as part of the Grantham Centre’s work with Business In The Community for Responsible Business Week.

Find out more about the Grantham Centre at Responsible Business Week

Professor Peter Horton FRS

It is inescapable and undeniable that we live in a finite world. It is also becoming widely accepted that we are using resources and polluting air, land and water at unsustainable levels. That’s why the term ‘sustainability’ is pervading many aspects of government policy, locally, nationally and internationally, and prompting business and industry to radically change the ways they operate.

Evidence based on scientific analysis underpins these policies and changes, but this analysis is not without its problems. It is frequently inadequate in scope, or distorted and diluted, creating solutions and interventions that are over-simplistic at best and, at worst, subjective and with a bias towards convenience. There are obvious reasons for this: sustainability challenges are wrapped up in complex political, cultural, economic and social issues which, according to some, supersede the clear scientific evidence. This is foolish. The laws of nature are not up for debate. They cannot be adapted to fit a prevailing economic model or political philosophy.

Unfortunately, this attitude is common, and leads us down a dangerous path, to innovations that are hailed for their sustainable credentials by those with vested interests, but which often turn out to be costly and fail to deliver on their promises. Ideas, products and technologies are badged ‘green’, become popular, get backing from pressure groups, and an infiltrate everyday life. It is easy to be convinced that we are making changes to create a sustainable future when we are not. But to be lulled into a false sense of security might be as bad as doing nothing at all.

We need proper scrutiny of the measures that are supposed to be helping us reach a sustainable future. A holistic view is essential – a system-wide assessment that considers every step of the process. For instance, electric vehicles are seen as a solution to our dependence on petrol and diesel. But what about the massive increase in the demand for electricity this would create? How will this be met? How many new power plants will have to be built? And how sustainable are the materials that go into all the batteries we’ll need?

There are many other examples. Greenhouse gas emission reductions in the UK are measured partly based on coal being replaced by imported wood-chips. Burning wood is seen as sustainable because trees are renewable – “we can always plant more”. But this ignores the complex physiology and life cycle of trees, and the dynamics of CO2 capture through photosynthesis and growth. Similarly, we are all impressed by the idea of biofuels that can power aircraft, ignoring the fact that a key issue in the greenhouse effect of aviation is not only the amount of CO2 emitted but the fact that it is emitted into the upper atmosphere – CO2 from biofuels is no different in this respect.

We may also be seduced by the idea that materials made from biological sources are more sustainable than those from made from fossil fuels, but are they? In food production, much is made of the dangerous environmental impact that is driven by our patterns of food consumption and by an intensive agriculture system dependent on unsustainable levels of input.  Many appealing solutions have been put forward – organic farming practices, or substituting animals with other protein sources, such as artificial meat and insects. But are any of these options truly sustainable? Have they been subjected to a rigorous system-wide analysis or are they merely based on subjective preference?

In no case is this more evident than in the debate around the effectiveness of the measures agreed at the Paris meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP21, in 2015. Detailed scientific scrutiny is exposing defects and showing that even if each country sticks to its emission reduction plan as promised, global warming will not be kept below two degrees Celsius. And that target’s not low enough to prevent severe climate change anyway.

In medicine, there are robust, standardised procedures to determine the effectiveness and safety of new products and treatments. If we care this much about the health of our bodies, we should care just as much about the health of our planet. We need a system to assess whether new interventions, and the policies behind them, will actually deliver on the sustainability promises they make. This applies not only to big global challenges, but also to small ones, the decisions we make in our everyday lives. We need evidence, not propaganda, however well intentioned, to empower ourselves to choose a sustainable future. This is the big challenge.