“The law of unintended consequences is the only real law of history” – Niall Ferguson 
There are many reasons why climate change is a tricky problem to solve: scale of the problem, interrelatedness and complexity of our modern economy, competing interests, high level of collective behaviour change, etc etc.
And of course there are a host of technical and engineering challenges, which if overcome are seen by many as the ace up our sleeve. But we have to play the technology card in the right way to maximise the benefits and, crucially, with the right mindset.
This has knock-on effects for green finance and sustainable investments, as we need to appreciate some of the historical quirks of how human beings approach technology in order to put that investment to work as efficiently as possible.
Innovation To Correct A Previous Innovation
Humans have been incredibly proficient at inventing our way out of problems we have created, whilst at the same time creating a whole new industry to combat that problem on an ongoing basis.
This has allowed us in many cases to treat the symptoms of a problem whilst allowing the underlying cause to continue unabated.
Sugar and Dental Hygiene
Take, for example, the relationship between sugar consumption and the dental hygiene industry.
Before the discovery of the Americas, sugar was a very small part of the average human’s diet. In fact, our ancestors consumed very little sugar or refined carbohydrates at all . For most people sugar was limited to natural sources such as fruit and honey.
Refined sugar from sugar cane first appeared in India around 2500 BC and these methods slowly spread to China, Persia, Arabia, and finally Europe. But the need for intensive labour suppressed supply and confined it to being considered a spice [2, 3].
It took less than 10 years after the discovery of the Americas, however, for the first sugar to be harvested in 1501. Fuelled by fertile soils, baking hot sun, improved milling technology and the reprehenisble use of slavery, the mass availablility of sugar over the next 300 years changed food culture throughout the world . As a result sugar became a sizeable part of our diets. In the UK it grew from around 2kg/year in 1700 to 50kg/year by the mid-20th Century .
Due to the large amounts of sugar in our diets we are required to spend several minutes a day tending to our teeth in order to avoid tooth-decay. Furthermore every six months or so we are required to visit a dentist for a check up or further procedures to maintain or fix issues caused by sugar consumption.
On the back of sugar-related tooth decay a whole industry has been created. The dental hygiene business continually sells toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, dental appointments etc. to ensure that we have a similar level of oral health as a Roman . In 2018 the dental consumables market was worth $28bn alone .
[Note – This is not to say that the dentistry business would not exist without sugar (e.g. braces, orthodontics, tooth extraction would still exist) but the use of (and therefore sale of) daily consumables and many other products and services would significantly reduce.]
Innovation got us into this mess. Innovation will get us out
The link between sugar and the requirement to clean our teeth is something we are taught from an incredibly early age. Even though we are keenly aware of the link between sugar and tooth-decay there are no widespread calls for sugar to be removed from our diets (from the point of view of our dental health). And because the underlying cause is not questioned, the technological solution is also not questioned and accepted as a part of our daily routine.
Imagine a world in which an easy technological solution to sugar-related tooth decay was not available to us. Imagine that scientists had still established a concrete link between sugar consumption and tooth decay but toothpaste, toothbrushes, fillings, dentures etc. were not available. What would be the options available to us? Calls for removing (or drastically reducing sugar) from our diet would probably be presented quite forcefully as an option.
How This Approach Has Influenced Climate Change Mitigation
The sugar-dental hygiene model has been replicated throughout history. Technology has repeatedly come to the rescue to save ourselves from the consequences of previous inventions and innovations, and in the process create new industries at the same time.
Crucially these new industries are self-supporting and self-financing and therefore there is a commercial incentive for them to exist.
For climate change, however, simple one-stop technological solutions that can reverse the problem do not exist. But thinking there are ‘solutions just round the corner’ or it is just a case of ‘scaling up certain technologies’ risks misguided action and wasted resources.
Furthermore the huge level of green investment required to combat climate change means that the green and sustainable finance card has to be played carefully. Wasting large amounts of cash on ineffective schemes will not serve the planet or industry in the longer term.
The pattern of ‘self-inflicted problem-invention-growth’ has served humanity well in other domains, but it will not work for climate change and mitigation of carbon emissions at their current level. There is no silver bullet technology which will be able to allow us to continue to emit high levels of CO2 (eating sugar) whilst having a negative impact on the climate (preventing tooth decay).
Technological solutions will play their role in reducing CO2 emissions, but so will other solutions: habitat restoration, tree planting, reduction in consumption of goods, increase in cycling and walking.
In creating both the sugar and fossil fuel industries we disturbed a natural equilibrium. Both gave us access to easy energy that have permeated our daily lives and as a consequence they will both be hard habits to kick. Unfortunately, one presents a very different challenge to the other and we must be conscious of this as we plan, and finance, a climate-friendly future.
- John Yudkin, Evolutionary and Historical Changes in Dietary Carbohydrates, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 20, Issue 2, February 1967, Pages 108–115, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/20.2.108
- Surtee’s Society, Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham, 1898, Andrews and Co. Durham, p. 9
- Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, Duke University Press, 1996
- Johnson RJ, et al. Potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007.
- “Niall Ferguson on how Europe could cost Obama the election,” Newsweek, June 11, 2012, https://www.newsweek.com/niall-ferguson-how-europe-could-cost-obama-election-65153.