Winning the Sustainability Battle, Losing the Carbon War? | GreenBiz

Winning the Sustainability Battle, Losing the Carbon War?

In establishing the Carbon War Room, Richard Branson, the British-born media and aviation billionaire, explicitly treats the threat of catastrophic climate change as one similar to the threat posed by a world war.

Taking this metaphor a step further, Branson appointed as his general Jigar Shah to head up the CWR. Nearly a year into the mission, however, Shah seems palpably frustrated.

Speaking with Joel Makower at’s State of Green Business Forum in Washington today, Shah emphasized that the foot soldiers in this mission — companies, policy makers and voters — are waging a losing fight in this multi-decade struggle.

State of Green Business

First some context on the scope of the fight. Shah reminded the audience that global greenhouse gas emissions are running at about 50 gigatonnes per year today, and are on track to grow to 60 gigatonnes by 2020 if economic growth and climate trends continue without change. To avoid catastrophic climate change of 2 degrees Celsius or more, scientists say we need to trim 17 gigatonnes from that trend by 2020.

Not surprisingly, technology is ready to help solve the problem, says Shah, who earned a reputation as a wunderkind of the solar business, and a fortune — perhaps several hundred gazillion dollars, Makower joked — as the founder of solar energy pioneer SunEdison in 2003. “You’ve got Bjorn Lomborg saying we can’t do anything without more R&D. And policy people saying unless we pass a price on carbon, we can’t do anything,” said Shah. “That’s just poppycock.”

The deeper problem is a tendency to grasp at feel-good solutions without reaching for, or even acknowledging, harder, far more impactful steps.

Shah offered the example of turning off the taps while brushing your teeth: it’s a painless, feel-good behavioral change promoted by countless green living advice columns. Yet compared to the 40 percent of water wasted through leaking pipes across our crumbling water networks, it’s meaningless.

While Makower suggested you could pursue both lifestyle changes and long-term infrastructure goals, Shah batted back the suggestion. “It is an either-or decision,” no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise.

Echoing psychological studies suggesting that consumers’ interest in these issues peters out after a single action, Shah said: “There’s very few people who react to [any environmental message]. So when an NGO mails out to 20 million people turn off your taps, they could just as easily say the more important thing is to actually fix this infrastructure.” But the harder sell is all to rarely made, said Shah.

The problem is compounded by failures of incomplete information, Shah added. With scant understanding of the scale of the climate change challenge, for example, good intentions get diluted.