How not to turn a blind eye to holistic sustainability

Recently, an issue that had been simmering for a while without an appropriate phraseology has generated mainstream attention. Now dubbed the “carbon tunnel vision”, it can be defined as a situation wherein a system — constituting governing bodies, private companies, and intergovernmental organisations — becomes so engrossed in addressing carbon emissions that it ignores the links between broad-based issues such as ecotoxicity, biodiversity loss, poverty, eutrophication, water crisis, health, education, resource scarcity, inequality, over consumption, affordable goods and services, and air pollutants, etc.

The narrow focus — or the “carbon tunnel vision” as coined by Jan Konietzko of Cognizant — leaves a dangerous blindspot: holistic sustainability. This is a proverbial case of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’, in that the systems and stakeholders with a carbon tunnel vision pursue net-zero carbon so aggressively that their efforts run counterproductive to holistic sustainability. As a result, within the stipulated time frame for net-zero emissions, we could be left with new problems. So, this begs the question: How can we avoid the carbon tunnel vision and reconcile net-zero pursuits with a holistic sustainability transition?

Interconnected response
Be it net-zero emissions or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they are all global obligations. So, countries, companies, and organisations working towards these objectives mustn’t operate in silos. When efforts are disconnected, they tend to contradict each other. Besides transnational coordination, it’s also important to achieve concerted efforts in the private sector as well, with intergovernmental organisations setting the joint framework and standard. Most importantly, all stakeholders must realise that sustainability transition and net-zero emissions are two sides of the same coin, that we cannot de-couple one from the other without a detrimental impact.

Data strategy is key
For stakeholders to take cognisance of involuntary carbon tunnel vision, the need for an interconnected response must be underpinned by scientific evidence and actionable data. By building a good data strategy through relevant KPIs and measuring mechanisms, an organisation can determine the side effects of their climate actions on aspects such as human rights, employment, etc., which are a priority within the SDGs. Through data-driven insights into the interlinks, one can effectively reconcile both objectives.

The timely increase in digitalisation, which has led to an increase in IoT, AI, and satellite imaging applications, adds to the feasibility of a data strategy. Digitalisation also enables timely and accurate sustainability reporting, which helps stay on track and comply with the standard set by apex bodies. However, stakeholders must prioritise data integrity and security, fostering ethical sourcing and management.

Mechanisms to achieve holistic sustainability
While deconstructing carbon tunnel vision, Jan Konietzko also explains how ‘Doughnut Economics’ — a framework with two concentric rings, one each for a social foundation and an ecological ceiling, for human prosperity — can be applied to achieve multiple, interconnected objectives. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, which finds application in the assessment of a product’s life-cycle impact on the environment, too, can be used to achieve holistic sustainability. In fact, the need for LCA assessment is rather pronounced in nations that rely heavily on food imports.

MENA’s holistic sustainability: An assessment
The regional economies have significantly ramped up their sustainability efforts in recent years. COP27 and COP28, to be hosted by Egypt and the UAE, respectively, together represent the MENA region’s increased involvement in global sustainability and climate action efforts. Preceded by the COP26, which witnessed an overwhelming consensus for concerted actions among stakeholders, the upcoming conferences will be more geared towards demonstrable impact. This presents a timely opportunity to touch upon the carbon tunnel vision.

For the MENA region’s part, holistic sustainability runs into deeper, systemic challenges. In the food systems alone, the challenges are multi-faceted due to acute water scarcity, agricultural distress and unsustainable dependence on imports.

Localised production, which requires excessive water, adds to the load on carbon-intensive desalination plants. A carbon tunnel vision of addressing emissions by overhauling desalination plants will only add to the woes as they are the primary source of water in nations like the UAE. Overhauling will hamper SDGs’ progress on multiple fronts.

Instead, the focus must lie on addressing systemic challenges and root causes. Accordingly, solutions that enable high yield through water-efficient desert farming merit more attention and adoption. The high yield can address food scarcity, while low irrigation helps reduce the load on carbon-intensive desalination plants. Likewise, the “Sponge City” concept, which involves the hybrid implementation of decentralised rainwater harvesting and stormwater drainage systems across an expansive area, can help avert flooding and save repair costs while potentially creating a new source of potable water, thus aiding water security.

Such interdisciplinary solutions have great implications for the MENA region, where challenges such as water and food scarcity, high carbon footprint, import-heavy food systems, and agricultural distress are all deeply intertwined.

A carbon-tunnel vision will only exacerbate these challenges, whereas a broad-based holistic sustainability drive could work wonders. Taking into account the current window of consensus among policymakers, the time is right to ramp up climate actions within the holistic sustainability framework.

Chandra Dake is the CEO of Dake Rechsand