In December 2018 the world’s leading scientists warned that there were only 12 years to get climate change under control with warming kept to a maximum of 1.5C or there would be significantly greater risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
Such warnings often seem to fall on deaf ears, when it comes to economists and businesses, and even some politicians, notably US President Donald Trump, who has denied that climate change is a serious issue.
However, at December’s UN Climate Change summit in Katowice, Poland, the message seems to have struck home with some of the world’s largest investors, including pension funds, insurers and asset managers, who issued a Global Investment Statement warning that without urgent action there could be a financial crisis several times worse than the one in 2008. They demanded urgent cuts in carbon emissions and the phasing out of all coal burning.
All this may seem a long way from the day to day concerns of SMEs and larger businesses, especially amid the current worries of Brexit, the latest ONS (Office for National Statistics) figures for UK economic growth was near-stagnant in the last six months of the year and amid warnings from the World Bank that the Global Economy, too, was facing significant problems in 2019.
This theme was picked up in an article by the economist Ken Rogoff in the Guardian where he outlined the main risks which included a significant slowdown in China, “a rise in global long-term real interest rates and a crescendo of populist economic policies that undermine the credibility of central bank independence, resulting in higher interest rates on “safe” advanced-country government bonds.
The elephant in the room in both World Bank warnings and in Rogoff’s analysis is the assumption that there can be perpetual growth and that it is essential to both global and national economic health.
This ignores the fact that the earth has finite resources and that sooner or later they will run out.
Small is beautiful, sustainable growth and the benefits for SMEs
Clearly, there needs to be a change in thinking on many levels and we may be seeing the first signs, for example in consumer behaviour, which resulted in significantly lower spending in the run-up to Christmas.
This has been variously attributed in the UK to worries over jobs and Brexit, and to rising costs of such basics as energy supplies and local taxes.
A related influence on spending, however, has been the growing awareness among consumers of the environmental impact of goods they buy. Customers increasingly demand that goods be made from recycled, sustainable or natural materials and that their repackaging and transport-related impacts are minimal.
This underlying change is perhaps also exemplified by the woes of the motor manufacturing industry where sales of new cars and in particular diesel engines have been plummeting for more than a year.
While this tends to be attributed to uncertainty about the future of diesel-powered vehicles or rising raw materials costs given the low value of £Sterling, is it also possible that people are beginning to think harder about their need for and use of cars in the context of climate change? Equally, are people beginning to question the wisdom of constantly updating their wardrobes and their pursuit of the latest new “thing”?
In recent weeks there have been several interesting and thought-provoking articles in Wired, an online publication focusing on all things technological. They include one in November on Carbon Capture technology, which was greeted enthusiastically ten years ago, but whose development has struggled for funding since because although feasible, developing the technology for it to be useful at scale is difficult and it is hard for governments to justify the upfront costs.
In another article in January, there was a discussion of the potential for using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to help in the more efficient use of energy by predicting the demand peaks and troughs and adjusting supply accordingly in order to meet sustainable development goals.
Perhaps the most interesting article of all was by Bernice Lee on the theme of “small is beautiful”, an idea first proposed in 1973, by EF Schumacher. It was largely ignored by big businesses wedded to economies of scale as defined by Adam Smith, in a model that argued that scale and the division of labour lowers costs and increases efficiency.
However, Lee argues that the downsides of Smith’s model are more obvious today in that many traditional business giants have kept real wages low despite soaring profits and have benefited from offshoring, opaque supply chains and the short-termism of investors.
Big businesses also suffer from an inability to change their business models quickly or to be agile in meeting changing circumstances, not least those relating to climate change.
She argues that SMEs, on the other hand, have the advantage of agility, especially given the growth of such things as AI, cloud computing, of outsourcing back-office functions.
As a result, SMEs can be more creative, more innovative and are increasingly attracting the notice of larger businesses. Therefore, there is more potential for SMEs to grow but also to lead the way to a more sustainable form of economic growth that does less damage to planet Earth.