Pile of garbage on the beach on beautiful purple sunset background, earth pollution, ecological disaster and environmental damage, ugliness and beauty in one picture
Thousands of ocean creatures die each year due to marine litter. But Circular Ocean is working to find innovative and sustainable solutions to collect and re-use marine plastic waste. The aim is to make waste a resource and a starting point for new industries. Entrepreneurs and established businesses will be inspired to back profitable and sustainable recycling projects. We are talking about recycling in ways that have not happened before - in close collaboration with researchers, an op-ed author writes. Photo: Thinkstock

Setting Spaceship Earth on the right course

Opinion published 04.01.17


  • Professor of Environmental Management at the Institute of Industrial Economics and Technology Management - and director of NTNU Sustainability

If the world is going to be able to meet the UN’s sustainability goals by 2030, research must give individuals and businesses alike the tools they need to make the right choices.

The UN’s 17 goals for a more sustainable society describe a world we want. But how likely are we to achieve these goals by 2030?
DNV GL,a consulting group that provides classification, technical assurance, software and independent expert advisory services to the maritime, oil & gas and energy industries, has published a report that looks at global development up to 2050. According to this projection, the UN goals are just wishful thinking.

A report on how things are today shows just how far we have left to go. How can research help us reach our target? Illustration: Thinkstock

A report on how things are today shows just how far we have left to go. How can research help us reach our target? Illustration: Thinkstock

The report divided the world into five regions: China, the USA, other OECD countries, BRISE (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten other nations with emerging economies)—and the rest of the world. The report uses a colour-coded system indicating the likelihood that a region will achieve each of the sustainability goals by 2030:
– red means very unlikely
– orange means unlikely, but with work in the right direction
– green means likely.

There is little green to be seen in the report. The more prosperous countries are marked green for goals such as fighting hunger and ensuring good health, education, clean water and good sanitation. The same goes for goals on infrastructure, industrialization and innovation.
Meanwhile, the poorest countries are green for only one goal: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, which is only because lack of welfare means low resource consumption. More prosperous regions are all marked in red when it comes to consumption, and everyone is red regarding equality and measures against climate change.

The report shows that we have a lot of work to do to reach our goals. How can research help us out?

Green technology needs to become a profitable investment

The challenges that the sustainability goals pose require widespread interdisciplinary expertise. We need new technology, but also more knowledge. Sustainability must be considered as part of research in all disciplines, and it is essential that new research is directed towards social challenges that need to be solved.

To successfully make the transition to green energy sources, green technology needs to become a profitable investment. That means we need tax regulations and incentive programs that can contribute to a green shift in business. Emissions need to be priced, and things that we want less of should be taxed more. Public acquisitions need to be green, and we have to develop new technologies, made available to everyone, that can help us to an electric revolution. Research must be commercialized, and circular thinking needs to enter the value chain.

The environment can be a sustainable investment

Most people think that investors have to choose between profit and environmental responsibility. However, two recent studies from NTNU and SINTEF show that this isn’t necessarily the case (Aspelund and Srai, 2016 Aspelund and Fredriksen, 2016). These studies find that companies that take a larger environmental and social responsibility than the government imposes them experience increased sales growth and higher returns over the long term.

Harvard Professor Michael Porter has said that the green shift is the greatest business opportunity of our time, and should be grasped with both hands.

The researchers also showed that this long-term profitability is the result of cleaner and more resource-efficient production, increased productivity, and sales growth from innovations and products that appeal to customers’ environmental awareness.

 Studies show that companies that take a broader environmental and social responsibility than the government imposes them, are experiencing increased sales growth and higher returns in the long term. Photo: Thinkstock


Studies show that companies that take a broader environmental and social responsibility than the government imposes them, are experiencing increased sales growth and higher returns in the long term. Photo: Thinkstock

Harvard Professor Michael Porter has said that the green shift is the greatest business opportunity of our time, and should be grasped with both hands. Research institutions must show the business community how social challenges can be turned into business opportunities. Our sustainability goals are tangible and durable, and can be used as a checklist for action in business.

Two examples demonstrate research that is focused specifically on social challenges described in several of the UN sustainability goals, and are also examples of how social challenges can provide business opportunities.

Circular Ocean is project initiated by the EU and headed by a research institute in Northern Scotland, with participants from a number of other countries, including Norway. The project will contribute to finding solutions to a global problem: marine litter.

If the current trend continues, calculations suggest that by 2025, one tonne of plastic will remain in the ocean for every three tonnes of fish we harvest.

According to the project, approximately eight million tonnes of plastic trash is discarded annually in our oceans and lakes. It is estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds are killed each year as a result of this trash. If the current trend continues, our calculations suggest that by 2025, one tonne of plastic will be found in the ocean for every three tonnes of fish we harvest.

Turning marine waste into a new resource

 Approximately eight million tonnes of plastic trash is discarded annually in our oceans and lakes. It is estimated that more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds are killed each year as a result of this trash. Photo: Thinkstock

Approximately eight million tonnes of plastic trash is discarded annually in our oceans and lakes. It is estimated that more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year either from ingesting the plastic directly, or from entanglement and drowning. Photo: Thinkstock

Circular Ocean is aiming to find innovative and sustainable solutions for collecting and re-using marine plastic waste. The ultimate goal is to make waste a unique resource and a starting point for new industries. Entrepreneurs and established businesses will be inspired to back profitable and sustainable recycling projects. We are talking about recycling in ways that have not happened before—in close collaboration with researchers.
NTNU’s task in the project is to contribute to the economic, environmental and social analyses. We’re getting the basic information in place, which we will later use to examine various sustainable business opportunities.

And then there is SolSource, a solar grill which is based on the invention of two entrepreneurs from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The idea was picked up by NTNU students on exchange in Boston. After extensive research, they further developed the invention with battery technology from NTNU. The solar grill reached the first step in the commercialization phase through a start-up company at NTNU’s entrepreneur school.

The grill uses the thermal energy from the sun, which make it possible to cook directly through solar heating. It is 100 per cent recyclable, and the entire production run is environmentally friendly. It runs purely on solar energy, and does not produce any soot.

The actual heat storage is a salt -based heat battery consisting of an aluminium container full of nitrate salts with a high melting point. The battery takes about an hour to fully ‘charge’, or for solar energy to melt the salt in the container, and it emits heat for about the same amount of time, as the salt re-solidifies.

Centre for sustainable business models

At NTNU, we are working to establish a centre for sustainable business models, and we hope to have it in place by 2017. It will be a competence centre based around the green shift, focusing on selected challenges that the business world faces in the development of a low-emission society.

The centre will help to strengthen the commercialization of research and innovation, so that green products and solutions can be adopted more quickly. In addition, the centre will ensure that teaching and research are firmly rooted in real-world challenges and the needs of industry.

It may be unlikely for us to achieve the UN’s sustainability goals by 2030, but one thing is certain: Both researchers and industry must together contribute with knowledge and solutions needed for us to do it.