The case for closed loop innovation
An eye for an eye
A senior diplomat representing India at the UN once gave me the same argument that the Indian environment minister, Bhupender Yadav, was making at COP26 last month: high income countries have spent years using unclean fuels to develop their economies, but now they are castigating upcoming economies for using the same fuels in their processes of economic growth? What hypocrisy.
As an impressionable 17-year-old, this argument made sense for fairness’ sake: why should the rules for one set of countries (always) be different than for others? Why did it go unquestioned when a tiny set of now-rich nations pillaged and polluted foreign lands for their own gain — setting in motion a never-ending chain of production that eventually served them — but then made it harder for the same countries to carry out that very production at lower costs? India, China and so many nations are the world’s cheap extraction and factory centres, but they are now being taxed for doing the (literally) dirty work the world has asked of them for centuries.
Sunk cost arguments and bad train metaphors
But something about this they-hit-me-first argument has niggled at me since. Shouldn’t these upcoming industrial powerhouses — as the innovators of so many of the world’s newest technologies — also search more concertedly for ways to achieve growth in ways that are not harmful to the environment? (If growth is even the goal in the first place.) Isn’t the waste of the past a sunk cost, one that cannot be recovered, but also one that is not worth using as an argument to go the same way in the future? If we follow the rails of past growth, aren’t we leading in the same tracks that have brought us to this climate standstill?
Loss and damage what?
The same people who use the colonialist trope argument to justify continuing high-volume emissions also argue that the current per person energy footprint of higher income countries is far higher than that of countries like India or China, and that these rich nations continue to fail the earth with their excessive, unstoppable energy consumption. This is true, but the rest of the world should deal with these excessive energy users through measures such as a loss and damage fund, not use the above as an argument to dredge our heels into the ground and refuse to move ahead like petulant children. Nations like my own, India, should be looking at the West for examples of what not to do, and focusing precious resources on shifting the focus of growth to being increasingly equitable, closed-loop and environment-centred instead of profit-led.
Leapfrogging into the future
This is the time not just for leapfrogging on industrial advances being made within sectors but on the industrial cycle as a whole. Instead of going the same route as we have before: primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary sector, we can instead jump from wherever we are to the senary (septary?) sector. I imagine this septary sector as focused on recreating the idea of ‘growth’ in a way that looks towards slowing down and producing for our needs, not our wants. By shifting our priorities in a real, consequential way, we can even move towards a world where production is closed-loop in terms of materials and environmentally conservative sources of fuel, transport and production. And closed-loop production is the only kind this planet can support.
The world’s largest offending nation with respect to CO2 emissions, China, has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and is home to mass production of electric and solar alternatives to carbon fuel. In India, the world’s third largest producer of CO2 emissions by country, there is a large repository of traditional methods and innovative production solutions centred on sustainable systems that disrupt resource-intensive methods of production and transport. Yet only 4% of agricultural spending is focused on sustainability. India, China and other economically emerging countries’ solutions can be used to reduce the focus on coal for growth, to close the loop for production cycles, and retrain and upskill coal and other primary, low paid workers to reduce the brunt borne by these individuals from the world’s excess consumerism.
We have an opportunity to set down the reins of diplomatic tug of war and start again. Nations where reverse engineering and innovation co-exist and emerge from highly educated and skilled citizens can spread the seed of progressively thinking about development to the rest of the world. In this way, we can collectively build a planet that will, at the very least, exist and better yet, improve, for generations to come.