What’s the economic case for lowering carbon emissions and improving recycling efforts?

Environmental issues are often viewed as being idealistic rather than realistic, and it’s likely that apathy towards the planet has landed us in the current climate crisis. Many people don’t quite grasp the economic value of having clean water and air resources available. There’s the assumption they’ll always be freely available, but they’re not anymore. The world needs to clean up its act, change the way economies operate and place lowering carbon emissions and pollution as the highest priority. Environmental concerns are the new reality we are facing and they have a massive economic impact that should not be underestimated.

News reports from around the world are highlighting that clean air is becoming a rarity. In metropolises around the globe air quality tests reveal high levels of toxic fumes including lead and mercury. There is the assumption that this is limited to places such as China or India where they have had historically high emissions and poor pollution controls. If you want to, you can buy bottled air nowadays. However, it is estimated that poor air quality in the UK leads to 40 000 premature deaths annually, 9000 of which are in London and amounts to a large financial burden in terms of medical costs. Poor air quality is quite literally killing people.

Resource rarity

The general economy theory suggests that as resources increase in rarity, they also increase in value, and perhaps this focus has what clouded the vision of business decision makers. “It doesn’t matter if it runs out, what is left will be more valuable!” Yet this narrow minded view and wasteful type of thinking is exactly what has brought us to this current climate crisis. The planet is being choked by pollution that has escalated to dangerous levels in the past 100 years. Human ignorance and greedy consumption has essentially starved future generations of clean basic resources such as air.

The water situation isn’t much better. While some may blame over population, an estimate by the United Nations revealed that water consumption has increased at a rate more than double population growth. It is estimated that by 2025 1.8 billion people will be directly impacted by water scarcity. A big part of the problem is the wasteful linear economy and culture of consumerism. People do not realise how much water and other resources go into creating convenient and pre-packaged foods, for example. This is made exponentially worse when a third of the food produced ends up as waste. These examples highlight how environmental issues are directly related to economic issues.

The economic case for the environment

Globally, economic growth has slowed.  The UK economy has just suffered its worst three months for more than a decade after official figures revealed output failed to grow once again in October. Whilst sustainability is a buzzword that most companies like to use, it does need investment and companies cannot realistically spend money when growth has slowed. We need to be aiming to reverse some of the effects of the linear economy and helping companies develop strategies for the circular economy. Recycling is a good starting point, reducing single use products and packaging and looking at alternatives that are not only recyclable, but also re-useable. Additionally, we need to relook at the entire business process and find ways to reduce the use of virgin resources and improve systems and methods of processing so that the use of clean water and resultant carbon emissions can be drastically reduced.

Economic growth will remain a challenge unless decision makers start to look at business operations from a different perspective. Far too much wastage takes place in almost every industry sector, which is crazy considering how costly resources are becoming. When companies engage in streamlining strategies it almost always involves job losses. It’s a quick fix rather than a sustainable solution. Putting people out of jobs is not going to help the economy, but looking to conserve environmental resources by reducing emissions, waste and pollution can make an impact. It'll help lessen the impacts of climate change. The economic costs of which we are yet to even begin to calculate.

Additionally, instead of creating products and then pushing out marketing messages to get people to buy what the business wants to sell, why not look at the resources available in abundance – preferably materials already in the economy and then look for ways to create something useful with those materials that helps support the culture of reducing and reusing more rather than just buying more stuff.  Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking?

Currently some of the best economic opportunities exist in using recycled materials. It’s an opportunity to make use of what is otherwise considered waste materials and turn them into a more valuable commodity. It can create jobs while making a positive impact on the environment, and it’s not just an idealistic view, it could and should be our new reality.