The environment movement may be heartened to see more businesses offering more environmentally preferable products. Because we all want a sustainable economy, right?
But green watchdogs know deep down that the real struggle has just begun. The problem is that being a bit greener off a low base of bad-old business-as-usual performance is not going to get the planet and people out of environmental crisis, rather just postponing the inevitable.
A well-established case in point is the catalytic converters that made vehicles less air-polluting and helped to ease the shocking smog problems of two and three decades ago in major developed world cities.
Yet in many cases pollution is rising to dangerous levels again in places like my home city of Sydney as many more vehicles travel many more kilometres, with the compounding factor of higher temperatures due to global warming.
Business, as we know, works best with nice simple concepts.
So if using energy wastefully is bad and brown, then surely using it more efficiently is good and green?
Well, only to a point! If gains in energy efficiency in a key sector - let's take data centres as an example - are accompanied by massive expansion in the number of data centres powered by electricity generated with fossil fuels, we can still end up with a more negative environmental footprint.
The bar for making the jump to sustainability has to be set much higher, and that's a warning environmental champions will make more and more loudly as fears of corporate greenwashing become a core watchdog focus.
To follow the data centres example, to have pretensions to be be delivering real progress towards sustainability their industry will need to deliver on at least three main fronts:
- Energy efficiency
- Renewable energy
- Replacing the work of more environmentally damaging processes
Of course serious businesses with real sustainability aspirations already appreciate this. Unfortunately, however, there are always many who remain ignorant, or get carried away with their own PR and delusions of corporate social responsibility, or even mislead deliberately.
There also are many in business and government who are simply not being honest and realistic about the scale of the challenge to move to a low-carbon, sustainable economy, nor about the speed with which we have to make that journey.
The new big thing of electric vehicles comes to mind. Their potential is alluring, especially for a nation like Australia which is running out of domestic oil for traditional liquid transport fuels. But if rapid uptake means Australia has to burn more coal to accommodate EVs, do we really gain?
Again, in this example, we'll need efficiency, renewable energy options and replacement of less preferable alternatives to round out the 'sustainability case'. We'll also need a lot more and faster investment in a genuinely 'smart grid'.
Don't get me wrong. We want energy efficiency whatever. To my way of seeing it, no business or country for that matter can claim to be serious about pursuing sustainability if it isn't maximising its energy efficiency.
Yet the reverse is not necessarily true at all. Being very energy efficient of itself is no guarantee of being sustainable. How, I'm wondering, do we make this challenge resonate beyond the ranks of the sustainability literate?