In 2022, has the penny finally dropped?

For a year that started out with a great deal of hope for post-pandemic recovery, it’s certainly been filled with unexpected twists and turns. Political and economic turmoil, extreme weather events and an energy crisis has both businesses and individuals re-evaluating their priorities. The effects of the climate crisis and escalating emissions are suddenly becoming very real and the questions are changing from “What are they doing about it?” to “What are we going to do about it?”

If we’ve gained nothing else this year, at least there appears to be greater acceptance of responsibility on an individual level. Consumers are embracing and generating growth in second hand markets. Construction companies are turning their attention to retrofits and renovations rather than demolitions and new builds. Manufacturers too are rethinking their supply chains and making a larger effort to source packaging from recycled materials. And policy makers are pushing for greater commitments towards net-zero and reversing biodiversity loss.

There’s a lot of promise and significantly more awareness on environmental issues. The question remains though, now that everyone is on the back foot, what will they do to move forward in a way that benefits the planet and humanity?

Global environmental milestones achieve in 2022

There were some significant moments in 2022 in terms of making progress towards sustainability goals. Globally recognised as one of the planet’s biggest problems, plastic pollution is a topic where finally some consensus was reached on the need for a legally binding global plastics treaty. There’s still pushback from the fossil fuel industry as a major part of this is not only how to deal with plastic waste, but also the need to reduce the production of plastic. The aim is to have the agreement formalised by 2024 and there’s a lot to be worked through in that time, but it’s a significant milestone to finally have consensus that the status quo on plastic cannot continue.

More recently another milestone was agreed upon at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Canada, which indicates a shift in thinking towards protecting the planets resources. For too long there’s been little accountability for biodiversity loss, despite environmentalists raising the alarm. At the summit the ‘30 by 30’ agreement was reached. Coined this phrase because the aim is to protect a minimum of 30% of land and water resources by 2030, with the goal of increasing this percentage over time. As with the global plastic’s treaty it’s not a done deal as not all nations have indicated their commitment to achieving this. But the fact that governments are recognising the need to protect biodiversity and formalising ways to do this, is significant.

What are the roadblocks standing in the way of progress?

As always there are industries that are more interested in protecting their own economic interests and thwarting sustainability progress. The fossil fuel and plastics production industries are notorious for lobbying against change, citing economic ruin if they’re forced to cut back on production. It’s frustrating because of the tunnel view that excludes the cost to the environment, human health and well-being, and conveniently circumnavigates the reality that the economic cost of continuing with fossil fuels is simply too high. It’s a battle that’s been fought for decades, with the fossil fuel industry usually winning at drowning out the other voices. But their shouting is becoming less effective, other voices are getting louder and there’s a strategic push from multiple angles to transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy resources.

Equally, when it comes to dealing with major challenges such as plastic pollution, there are strong opinions. While these may be rooted in good intentions, they sometimes work at cross purposes. An example of this is plastics trading. It is a growing industry that works to support many recycling projects around the world. Indeed, it’s not a perfect industry, but for the legitimate traders and recyclers, they’re helping industries progress towards a circular economy. Unfortunately, many are of the view that plastics trading should be banned, citing a better solution would be to recycle locally. That would reduce the need for international shipping and the associated carbon emissions. All of these are very valid points. The problem comes in where there isn’t sufficient local recycling capacity. Until that can be achieved, plastics trading needs to be part of the equation.

Why collaboration remains key

Two elements that are helping make significant progress towards a circular economy are innovation and investment. Across all industries, from construction to agriculture, technology, manufacturing and finance, companies are recognising they need sustainability expertise inhouse to help drive initiatives. Equally, innovators are finding opportunities to create cross sector supply chains leveraging recycled materials from one industry to create products and materials for another. An example is recycling and compressing fabric into panels used for insulation in construction.

As these channels for collaboration continue to develop, it will help increase the demand and distribution of circular economy products as well as stimulate further innovation. Investors are already recognising the opportunities in these initiatives and are showing increasing interest in making funding available to drive innovation.

Humans may be responsible for the current state of the planet, due to our insatiable appetite for more, but what’s encouraging is that humans are equally capable of finding solutions. The demand for knowledge that’s rooted in environmental and circular economy expertise continues to grow. We’re a long way off from solving global economic and environmental issues, but at least there’s recognition that things need to change. Sustainability isn’t a checkbox for compliance. A circular economy isn’t an idealistic theory. Both are possible, especially as decision makers recognise it’s the best solution for the future of both humanity and the planet.