2020 was named “The Year of Climate Action” by the UK government in a grand public relations exercise designed to prepare the media groundwork for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which was to be hosted in Scotland by the UK government.
This was seen as an opportunity for Britain to show its intention to continue (despite Brexit) to engage with the wider world and play its part on the world stage.
Then Coronavirus happened, and COP26 was delayed until November 2021.
The first of a series of climate change tipping points is expected to be reached by 2030, which could according to Yale School of the Environment ‘fundamentally disrupt the global climate system’ .
That leaves nine years. No wonder the public is becoming anxious. Governments are understandably distracted but are not addressing environmental issues quickly enough, that in the long run are even more serious than the Covid-19 epidemic, which has at this point in time caused the deaths of over one million people.
These targets which governments are belatedly attempting to address are related to fossil fuels and other emissions causing global warming on a scale which humanity may be unable to reverse, but they are one of many problems caused by human activity in the environment which can eventually lead to human deaths.
One of the other major byproducts of human activity is the production and waste of plastics and other materials which do not degrade in the environment in the same way as organic material, but break down into micro-plastics which can be ingested, but not digested by fish and humans. Marine organisms in the Artic and the Mariana Trench (the deepest point in the ocean) have been found to have eaten plastics. The only other way to destroy these materials is through incineration which causes further damage to the environment as toxic gases are produced.
Recycling is the key to the series of adaptations required of us: not only because that means that waste material does not end up in the wrong place, but also because it can save some of the energy expended to manufacture a similar product as well, because it takes less energy to recycle existing products than to create new ones.
In the EU the average person produces half a tonne of household waste, and only 40% of that is recycled and in some countries 80% of household waste goes to landfill, which is really a form of waste storage and never a solution to the problem.
While this situation clearly needs improving we should point out that at one time nothing was properly recycled and in countries like America the average person ‘wastes’ twice that much.
The key factors influencing the amount of waste produced by a country are: the population, the degree to which that country is ‘developed’ and the average income in that country, but there is no simple relationship between these factors. Richer countries produce more waste but also have systems in place to deal with the waste output of households.
There is also a colossal amount of waste produced in industrial manufacturing and in particular in the construction industry. In a BBC analysis of UK waste produced in 2016 the proportion of waste classed as ‘household’ was 27.3M tonnes and this was outweighed by a figure for ‘commercial’ waste of 41.7M tonnes but the greatest sector by far was ‘construction’ which produced a shocking 136.2M tonnes of waste.
However, the purpose of the report was primarily to highlight the terrible practice of exporting waste. Waste Management companies in the UK and in other developed countries have been exporting plastics to poorer countries who they pay to dispose of the plastics rather than recycling.
Most of this plastic is burned using open fires but some will end up in the Pacific Ocean and if it is not eaten may well join the Great Pacific Garbage patch: an area of ocean densely littered with plastics from the surface to the ocean floor between Hawaii and California that has grown to be 1.6M square kilometres, which is three times the size of France.
Public awareness of environmental calamity has to have reached an all time high for the issue to make headway through the inertia of politics. Even though climate change denial is still a problem the tide of public opinion has turned.
President Trump complained in a tweet in 2019 about 16-year-old Greta Thunberg winning Time Magazine’s person of the year:
“So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”
Greta was asked in an interview what she would have said to him if she had met him at the UN climate change summit her response was:
“Honestly, I don’t think I would have said anything. Because obviously he’s not listening to scientists and experts, so why would he listen to me? I probably wouldn’t have said anything, I wouldn’t have wasted my time.”
We are backing the 16 year old girl in this fight!
In Britain the ruling conservative party tends to use environmental initiatives as a green banner to wave in order to distract from policies of subsidies for fossil fuel companies and allowing housing developers to join small towns together, but the UK government has also been forced to act in order to show that it still has some grasp of reality.
An episode of the BBC documentary series Blue Planet 2 that concentrated on the effect of plastic in the oceans, broadcast footage to 10.3 million viewers in the UK and showed a pilot whale mother with her dead newborn calf, which had according to the narrator David Attenborough been killed because the mother’s milk had been contaminated by micro-plastics. This led to such an outpouring of anti-plastic comments on social media that it was reported in all of the national newspapers.
Sir David Attenborough is very much a national hero in the UK. He has been working on wildlife and nature documentaries for over 50 years for the BBC and as such represents the attitude of the UK public to a much greater extent than the political classes. He campaigns constantly for environmental causes, often bringing a degree of legitimacy to other campaigns in the eyes of the British media as he did when he televised a conversation with Greta Thunberg who had encouraged school children to skip school to protest. He also recently warned another more extreme group of environmental protesters called Extinction Rebellion that they risked ‘disenchanting a great number of people ’ if they continued on their course of law-breaking disruptive protest activities. This has led, along with his humane and scientifically based approach, to him being seen by the British establishment as the voice of reason in the climate debate. The 94-year old broadcaster recently broke the record for the fastest time to reach a million Instagram followers (previously held by Jennifer Aniston). This has now swelled to 4.7 million, with 17 million watching his first video post.
This (along with the 10.5 million followers of Greta Thunberg) is of importance as an indicator of the moral attitude of the younger generation toward climate change who are often falsely portrayed as shallow and unthinking in their use of social media.
So we can see an overwhelming public support for action on environmental problems and governments (particularly the EU) making belated moves in the direction of addressing these. At the current rate of progress the changes in public policy are perilously close to failing and it requires the efforts of people from all backgrounds to address the issues in every way they can.
The business community is increasingly called upon to make up for the shortfall in government actions to address environmental problems: that is, to do more than say the right words in public relations statements and make donations to the right causes. If we are to be successful as a species in tackling this greatest of challenges business and industrial activity must make fundamental changes in the way it operates.
One of the concepts guiding business and industry in their campaign of adjusting their activities to coincide with the principles of environmentalism is the ‘circular economy’, or ‘circularity’.
Gartner describes the circular economy as “an economic model that separates the ability to achieve economic growth from the consumption of natural resources. Circular economic business models encourage continuous reuse of materials to minimise waste and the demand for additional natural resource consumption”
This is a step beyond recycling ‘used’ products in that every stage of the lifecycle of a product is seen as an opportunity to cycle the materials and the energy they contain back into the system.
The first stage is to minimise the materials and energy used to produce, and the second is to have a seamless and dynamic system to reuse any byproducts that would otherwise be wasted at each point in the process following a traditional model of manufacture. With the correct application of these principles, extended to the wider business network to include supply chains and distribution, only the bare minimum of material or energy is wasted.
One of the consequences of the correct application of these methods to such an operation is a vast reduction in the costs of production and this is providing large-scale businesses with sufficient motivation, along with the primary benefit of achieving environmental parity or balance, to invest in research in this area.
The key requirement for creating a circular economy is complete transparency of every aspect of industrial and business activity: something which is to some extent already available in the form of ERP.
As part of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) SAP SE and Topolytics are launching a project that aims to bring together and analyse data concerning waste from ‘consumer goods, retailers, waste managers, investors, NGOs and local government’ .
The Waste Insights Project aims to create a prototype solution for cross-party integrated waste management for presentation at COP26, which would be an enormous step toward a global circular economy and SAP’s ambitious long-term goal of a plastic-free ocean.
“Sixty-one per cent of people globally do not have access to or know how to use recycling infrastructure. The AI showcase with the Scottish Government’s circular economy agency Zero Waste Scotland, demonstrates the power of innovative technologies in identifying the opportunities to recapture waste materials and accelerate the transition to a circular economy.”
The data gathered from co-innovation partners, including BrewDog, Coca-Cola European Partners, and DS Smith feeds into Scotland’s Waste and Resources Map – a live view of materials flows from, through and out of Scotland. This enables government, investors, waste managers, consumer industries and start-ups to define strategic priorities and build national recycling infrastructure where it’s needed the most.
Co-innovation partners are able to understand what happens to industrial and post-consumer packaging waste. These insights allow them to design interventions that drive greater recovery of these materials, enable resource efficiencies , and identify cost savings on waste prevention. This contributes to reductions in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and engages directly into core development strategy within SAP’s program for circular economy.”
Mike Barry of Mikebarryeco Ltd, an advisor to the project, summarised the current need for such an integrated solution:
“We need deep insight into where and how resources can be recovered across literally millions of touch-points in homes, high streets, cafes, factories and warehouses. This exciting SAP initiated project will help policy makers, innovators, corporations, designers, the resource sector and investors make a circular future a scale reality.”
The goal for business, government and the public is converging and it is nothing less than the survival of the human species and the maintenance of the biodiversity of earth. The first stage of resolving the problem of human activity within the ecosystem has already been passed by the acceptance in the collective consciousness of the existence of the problem.
It is through the continued efforts of innovators to bring about the required centralisation and analysis of all relevant data-points that we will begin to build a technological solution that will make it possible for the global cooperation of individuals to truly make a difference.
IgniteSAP believes that we are witnessing the start of a new chapter in business and industry where the traditional roles of business, government and NGO’s dissolve, and if it reaches its fullest potential human activity will eventually achieve an equilibrium of benefit to both people and the environment.