The transition to an environmentally sustainable future is one of the most ambitious projects in human history. And Europe is already playing a leading role.
The 2019 European Business Summit in Brussels brought together key figures representing industry, business, the energy sector, environmental campaign groups and policy makers to discuss the role technology can play in that transition.
Although there are many perspectives on the best path to a greener Europe, there is consensus on the need to get there quickly.
The key to sustainability isn’t proscriptive, it’s creative. A circular economy which makes the best use of resources will not just help the planet. It will create new jobs, and opportunities for businesses to add value and grow.
At the heart of the circular economy is innovation. Industries and businesses are investing heavily in new technologies that reduce energy use and waste, and allow materials to be reused. Not only is this cutting carbon emissions, it is also a way of tackling other environmental issues such as plastic in the oceans, air pollution, and water contamination.
Getting regulation right
This involves getting the tricky balance of regulation right. There is a need for creative and visionary lawmaking at a national and European level, that provides incentives for innovation, rewards sustainable practices, and sends clear and consistent messages to investors.
Technical innovation may well need to be supported by systemic change, particularly in sectors that prove reluctant to adapt fast enough. But, as Jyrki Katainen, Vice President of European Commission for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, argues, banning or restricting polluting activities can only go so far. Regulations which end up forcing industries out of Europe to places where environmental standards are lower will be counterproductive, without any benefit to the planet.
The technologies driving sustainable innovation go far beyond new fuels, materials and manufacturing processes. Data is transforming the way energy is used. Marc Lallemand, Global Chief Information Officer for French multinational Engie describes digitalisation as being at the heart of everything they do.
Smart energy systems allow households and businesses to be more energy efficient. Renewables rely on data processing to accurately predict fluctuations in supply and demand. Digitalisation also allows local energy communities to trade renewable energy between consumers equipped with solar panels and wind turbines.
Industry – part of the solution, not the problem
There is a tendency to portray certain industries as the “bad guys” when it comes to sustainability. But as representatives of the chemical and fuel industries point out, they are often the same ones that have actually been responsible for the most far reaching innovations.
Improvements in the most energy intensive sectors will have the greatest effect on efforts to reduce carbon emissions and prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. And the energy that will power the sustainable transport of the future will largely be distributed using existing infrastructure – whether it is electric, biofuel, hydrogen, or one of the myriad other possibilities currently being researched.
Consumers driving change
The drive to a more sustainable economy is in part a response to consumer demand. Europeans value sustainable products, and are willing to pay a premium for them. They are also prepared to punish companies and brands that don’t deliver on their green promises.
But there is still a need for businesses to lead, and not just follow. Companies have a major role to play in showing what the possibilities are, and in shaping the narrative around the sustainable transition. There is a fear among some sections of society that the transition to a sustainable future will cost jobs, and hit those least able to afford it the hardest. Businesses that thrive by creating new jobs and improving quality of life are best placed to counter that.
Ambitious goals for a bright future
There are other reasons to be optimistic.
Jyrki Kaitanen points to the changes that have already happened over the last two decades. Once, governments set targets, and industry resisted. Now, he says, politicians set a target of a carbon neutral Europe by 2050. And it is businesses that are telling him they can do it sooner.