North America Lags in Sustainability Innovation; Climate Conference Falls Short

In an economic race that many see as the key to future global growth, North American businesses are decidedly not in the lead. Sustainable or green innovation, and the integration of these technologies into business practices, is an area where North American companies are currently behind the curve set by the rest of the world, according to a survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group.

Firms in North American countries self-reported the lowest rates of sustainability focused business model innovation. They also had the fewest respondents making the claim that “sustainability activities added to their profit.” New Zealand and Australia came out on top in the sustainability equals profit equation. Africa, as a whole, reported the most sustainable business model innovation.

The study showed that developing countries as a group have been the quickest to adopt a commitment to sustainability. The leading impetus behind this transition is energy scarcity and related price volatility. Secondary reasons for focusing on sustainability involve waste, as well as access to raw materials.

Climate change, as a concept driving innovation, wound up last in the survey. The exceptions were countries like Australia and New Zealand that may feel they are already experiencing the effects of climate change, from droughts to intense weather events.

This lack of focus on climate change, combined with the North American sustainability innovation gap, sets up as unsurprising the summary of events and reactions from the recent Doha, Qatar climate summit, the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At these meetings attended by international negotiators, no fundamental agreement on major climate change reduction goals for the entire world has ever been reached. Instead, as was the case this year, last-minute agreements are often forged to postpone such a climate pact to future conferences.

The 2015 edition of the conference is now being targeted as the one at which global powers will finally agree on a climate pact that will be both enforceable and significant. As it stands, the current conferences have in part been devoted to discussions of how to enforce and tweak the Kyoto Protocol, which many countries including the United States never signed. The rest of the deliberations are focused on small victories, including some that many are hailing this year. There has been action taken, for instance, to ensure that large countries provide financial support for developing nations as they transition to sustainable economies, and that support will also be provided as “loss and damage” occurs in smaller nations due to the effects of climate change.

But the United States, along with other major economies, has remained hesitant and inconsistent in dealing with the U.N. climate change process. Reports say U.S. delegates did not protest “loss and damage” restitutions for smaller nations as a concept. But Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that developed countries like the United States “dithered and delayed in Doha” on issues ranging from overall emissions reduction to ramping up climate financing for developing countries. The slow and mixed results from these conferences has led some experts to call for an end to the U.N. process, not necessarily as an act of collective resignation and defeat, but in an effort to seek other options to stem climate change.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2013