SDG9: From Catch 22 to catch me if you can

To boost the sustainable transition we need to build new infrastructures and industries. But, building more infrastructures and industries creates additional pressure and further accelerates climate change. So, how do we go about this Catch 22?    

Sustainable Development Goal 9, which seeks to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation, is a Catch 22 situation. For those not familiar with the logic, a Catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which actor(s) cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. It results from rules, regulations, or procedures that one is subject to, but has no control over because to fight the rule is to accept it.

In other words, to fight business as usual would mean to accept it. And that would be a lost fight even before it began. However, if instead of fighting, our collective efforts would focus on transiting, ‘business as usual’ would follow the opportunities, as it always does. Only, this time, the ‘business as usual’ would be set upon the rules of socio-technical transitions to sustainability and set within the Safe Operating Space for Humanity.

So, this is where we are.

Last year alone, nearly two billion tons of steel and around 30 billion tons of cement were produced globally. The production of these two materials, indispensables in the construction of infrastructures and industrial facilities, accounts for approximately 15 percent of all global emissions of CO2. Take for example Sweden where a new high-speed train connection between Stockholm and Malmo is part of the environmental strategy to reduce emissions from flights and cars. It is estimated that for these (approx.) 700km of railways some 30 million tons of concrete will be required. This translates to nearly 4 million tons of carbon dioxide or 6.5 years of emissions from all national flight travel combined. (Lindsten)

It’s a Catch 22. The transition to the net-zero emissions society requires new infrastructures. But, if these are built by employing the same material and processes that we are applying today we will never reach the decarbonization goals. But;

There are things we can do to reduce emissions immediately. Concrete mixes are available that are just as strong but have less of the ingredients that emit the most carbon dioxide. Multiple studies have found that this could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent or more. These recipes are already in wide use in Europe and elsewhere. We could use electricity from renewable sources to make recycled steel, like a steel mill in Colorado, to reduce emissions from steel production by a similar amount.”

And this is where we are heading.

A sustainable transition can only be achieved through accelerating the process of innovation and scaling up industrial processes that are proven to leave a low carbon footprint.  

From food and water to transport and energy this socio-technical transition to sustainability entails rethinking of governance and transformation of technology, policy, markets, consumer practices, infrastructure, cultural meaning, and scientific knowledge (Geels). However, this transition is unlikely to succeed unless we are able to replace existing systems, particularly the economic aspects.

The truth is that most ‘sustainable’ solutions do not offer obvious user benefits (because sustainability is a collective good), and often score lower on price-performance dimensions than established technologies.” (Geels). The price-performance dimensions operate on the notion that price is an expression of scarcity and does not reflect intrinsic value. For the same reason, collective goods are often free, or very cheap and do not provide incentives to reduce their consumption. What is capitalized is the added value. As an example, although its content is mostly water, cognac is more expensive than water.

To keep the price-performance game running it is common practice to keep devaluating prices by fomenting artificial scarcity; as for example leaving fruit and vegetables to rot instead of giving them out for free if not being sold. Consumers don’t see them, hence they never existed, and hence they have no value. A similar line of thinking happens with the investment into new materials and technology. These are often political decisions based on the rules that imply cognitive routines and shared beliefs, capabilities and competencies, lifestyles and user practices, favorable institutional arrangements and regulations, and legally binding contracts (Geels).

This decision-making process is still very much embedded into the ‘business as usual’ mentality and many new ideas for making steel and concrete with zero emissions are being ignored due to the inherited hegemonic relations controlled by industries and policymakers. As a result, in many democratic countries, politicians often avoid making decisions that might molest employers, but at the same time ignore the potential that the emerging sustainable industries are carrying to create employment in the so-called Green Economy.

‘Business as usual’ is stuck in the loss aversion which shows that it is twice stronger the tragedy of losing than the happiness of winning. It is wounded and dangerous. Fighting it is more likely to damage everyone and for this reason, instead of fighting, our efforts should focus on assisting it in the transition. We should approach this as the practice of aikido where instead of defeating the ‘opponent’ one helps him/her to learn.

The world is one great tatami and the outcome of this learning process is to help ‘business as usual’ to understand that either it becomes sustainable or there will be no business at all. It is part of a new emerging paradigm where rules, regulations, and procedures are made to invite ‘business as usual’ into playing Catch me if you can, instead of fighting the Catch 22.

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