Human beings have experienced an incredible period of development for more than a century. Global average life expectancy has increased from around 30 years in 1900 to more than 70 today. The global economy is around 80 times larger than it was in 1900. It has been a period for life-altering inventions and discoveries. There have been step changes in every industry – and many new industries have been spawned.
As we traversed this path of spectacular development, however, we took natural resources for granted. We believed there were more natural resources than we could use and that we could live in whatever manner we found convenient; ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, pollination and soil fertility would not be compromised. The way in which we adopted new technology showed that we valued its conveniences much more than its consequences. It is also clear that we did not treat all people well all the time.
Consequently, we are now at a stage where we are many times more prosperous than a century ago, have a much higher chance of living a long life, enjoy marvellous opportunities in education, employment and enjoyment – and yet the olden days are still viewed with a golden hue.
Unintended consequences of the technologies invented and used by human beings include polluted air, water scarcity, polluted oceans, degraded soils and contaminated food. The fossil fuels that have given us energy and caused a revolution in mobility are now considered villains, as is the hitherto wonder material as plastic. The carbon that is emitted as result of humans’ modern lifestyles is causing the earth to become warmer much more rapidly than ever before.
The latest UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report states that greenhouse gas emissions grew at an average of 1.6% per year between 2008 and 2017. It further adds that with the policies currently in place, the world is heading for a 3.5°C temperature increase this century compared to pre-industrial levels. This is way above the 1.5˚C rise that scientists believe will be a sustainable level for people on earth.
It is very clear that we need to reboot the world and do things differently. There is a nagging feeling that the regular people of the world are not aware of this problem – and that even if they are, they are not willing to adopt a climate-friendly lifestyle.
A recently released report flips this belief on its head. A pan-India survey commissioned by the Mahindra Group in 2019 – set to be published later in 2020 – revealed that four out of five Indians are aware of the impact of their actions on nature and climate change, while 83% expressed ‘interest’ in making lifestyle changes such as carpooling, using public transport or electric vehicles and 70% claimed to be informed about the environmental issue of water conservation. Such awareness and good intentions are not, however, matched by actual behaviour. Although the number of individuals willing to purchase green products and lead a greener life has increased a lot in the past few years, there is little evidence to suggest that the purchasing of green products has increased by much.
Despite concern for the environment and a generally positive attitude towards sustainability and green products, only a quarter of the respondents can find suitable alternatives that help them lead a greener life. While 88% of the respondents believe it is the lack of affordable eco-friendly alternatives that prevents them being more environmentally considerate in their daily lives, 89% believe that they would be able to address climate change more actively if companies offered them alternative solutions. The study reveals that the biggest barrier to sustainability is no longer consumer awareness or attitudes – the challenge lies in the availability of alternatives that are sustainable, viable and affordable. This is what makes sustainability the biggest business opportunity for this generation.
If alternatives are to be made available to help people adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, then they must have access to renewable energy, there must be alternatives to plastic, homes must be designed to leverage natural sources of light and energy, appliances must be energy-efficient, electric mobility options must be abundant, and cities must be designed to enable the use of public transport. In short – people must have alternatives if they are to lead a life that is not carbon-intensive. The pursuit of ‘alternativism’ is a key solution to the climate problem.
But alternativism is not only about adopting solutions when they are available; it is also about adopting practices that are already available. It is about turning lights off when illumination is not required, about turning off taps – and using water-efficient taps – to prevent wastage, installing dual-flush systems, ensuring that clothes are used and not just kept in the wardrobe, recycling old clothes, not wasting food, actively looking for and using alternatives for plastic, segregating waste at home, not littering public spaces, using public transport wherever possible, driving less, hiring electric vehicles wherever possible, and so on. As you can see, each of us can do a lot right away.
This is not to say that new low-carbon solutions are not required. Flexible solar films, powerful and low-cost batteries, easy ways of using hydrogen, bio-fuel, net-positive buildings, and alternatives to conventional plastic are just some of the solutions waiting to happen. The survey shows that people are ready to adopt new solutions – and we can build momentum right away by nudging people towards adopting the solutions that are already available. Maybe then we won’t have to venture into the territory of changing food habits to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5˚C.
Anirban Ghosh, Chief Sustainability Officer, Mahindra Group
This article is republished from the World Economic Forum.