Making Sense of the Climate Crisis with Simon Mundy

A conversation with the author of ‘Race for Tomorrow’ on how the crisis and the experiments to avert it are reshaping our world

Founding Fuel

The drama in the climate change story is in the nuances and the play of conflicting ideas.

  • Traditional ways of life are crumbling, but people are already adapting to change.
  • Big corporations are leading solutions-driven projects—and the impacts could be positive and have a dark side to it.
  • And all of it is already changing the world and geopolitics.

For his book Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis Simon Mundy, who is the Moral Money Editor at the Financial Times, travelled to 26 countries to tell the intriguing stories of people, communities and innovators from around the world.

He was in conversation with Anirudha Dutta, who has been working in the financial services sector for over two decades and is the author of Half a Billion Rising: The Emergence of the Indian Woman.

The conversation as hosted by Founding Fuel on YouTube on April 22, 2022. And Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a specialist management consulting firm, and managing partner of PVC Partners, an early-stage investment and advisory firm, provided his takeaways from the chat as well as his own observations.

Key Takeaways

1. In India you see many of the key angles of the climate struggle in sharp relief. 

  • For example the scale of the need for energy.
  • India is also in the firing line of some of the worst effects of climate changes—cyclones, droughts, floods in the mountains.
  • In 2016, during the Marathwada drought—what I saw was shocking. I saw the skeletons of dead animals and abandoned crops. Farmers were unsure of the future. This experience brought the urgency of climate change to the forefront for me.  

2. Counterintuitive effects of climate change and global warming

  • Dzud—a Mongolian word for extreme winter conditions—is becoming more frequent and intense. The accelerated melting of Arctic ice changes the movement of heat energy and moisture in the northern hemisphere.
  • The thawing of permafrost: Because of rising temperature, it melts more in summer and solidifies less in winter. And the emissions from it are already equivalent to those from all international air travel. 
  • The permafrost is an enormous area of land that has been frozen solid since the Ice Age. The permafrost zone of Russia alone is equivalent to China + Afghanistan + Nigeria.
  • In Yakutia in Siberia, mammoth tusk hunters are making big money because China has cracked down on elephant tusks.   
  • The idea behind the Pleistocene Park in Siberia is to restore the ancient grassland/steppes—because it reflects the heat better than the trees that are there now—by reviving the mammoth using Asian elephant genes.

3. New paradigm for businesses

  • There are companies developing solutions, as well as companies that are driving the problem.
  • Businesses face risks from this rapidly accelerating shift in the wider landscape as we move to a low carbon economy. Now, this is core business strategy.

4. Controversial innovations

Engineered meat

  • An Israeli company, Aleph Farms, is working to use cattle cells to grow meat in the lab. It sounds unsettling, but can have a big impact on emissions, deforestation and potentially less animal cruelty, though the growth medium they use now comes from cow foetus. 
  • Plant-based meat: Personally I’ll be surprised to see a massive increase in vegetarianism. But Patrick Brown of Impossible Foods says meat is fundamentally inefficient. 

Electrical Vehicles

  • A single Tesla S battery has more cobalt than a thousand iphones. There’s a rush for cobalt and other rare earth metals.
  • Artisanal cobalt mines in Congo: Most of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo. The country is large and extremely poor. It was the focus of a big humanitarian campaign against the brutality the Belgians visited on the Congolese to produce rubber for the first generation of cars, for tyres. You now see a parallel with EVs.
  • Many children go down these mine shafts. And it happens with the complicity of big Western and Chinese companies.

Solar industry

  • Concerns have been raised about forced labour in Xinjiang , which is a source of materials for the global solar industry.

Future of agriculture

  • The factory-farm model will not die out in the next decade. 
  • GM crops—that’s an uncomfortable debate.
  • One argument is that developing resilient crops is actually a continuation of an age-old practice.
  • The other side of the argument is that GM crops is playing God.
  • Europe is reluctant to wave through GM crops. Which impacts GM crops in Africa, which doesn't want to jeopardise its access to Europe

5. Schism between developed and developing world

  • Climate justice became the buzz phrase at COP26, and it includes examining the supply chains between industries. And the fundamental injustice of the fact that those who face the biggest impact of climate change don't have a very significant carbon footprint.
  • More efficient use of resources: Heat energy in the UK is a big issue—there’s a need to refit the homes for better insulation and less need for energy to heat the home.
  • Enormous waste of food is an ethical travesty and it’s a climate problem if you think about the carbon footprint attributed to agriculture and to transportation of food.
  • I’m wary of excessive focus on what consumers can do—consumers absolutely have to act more responsibly. 
  • As citizens, we need to put pressure on the government to make appropriate policy decisions.

6. Hope vs complacency

  • We should have huge hope for human ingenuity—there is a lot of funding also now available. But there’s no room for complacency. 
  • It is inevitable that temperatures will go beyond 1.5 degrees—we are quite profoundly off track.
  • I am convinced this is an extraordinary and important story for journalists
  • I am both pessimistic and optimistic. We need to come to grips with both sides of the challenge.

7. The argument that financial cost of green transition should be borne by future generations that will be richer than us

  • We assume the future generation will be richer, but that may not be true.
  • There’s an issue of urgency. Every climate scientist talks about how fast things are changing. So the costs and consequences could arise in our own lifetimes.

8. Climate refugees

  • In India, an enormous part of the population is dependent on agriculture and the disruption they will face will be severe.
  • In Bangladesh, many talk about submerging due to rising sea levels. It is transforming the economy. People are moving from rice farming to shrimp farming. And there’s a huge migration to Dhaka.
  • What happens to politics in North America and Europe when you have this enormous wave of climate refugees? Take Syrian refugees, which followed one of the worst droughts in Syrian history—the far right capitalised on this wave of migration.

9. Carbon credits and market-based solutions

  • Most of the carbon credit market is driven by offsets linked to the avoidance of deforestation. Somebody who owns a section of forest, commits to protecting it in return for money from the credits. But how can you be sure that the forest is actually being protected? So it’s not having the effect that is claimed.
  • Some big companies, including EY, say they are carbon negative, but it’s based on buying carbon offsets. That’s net zero on paper, because they are relying on these credits, but in practice the planet continues to heat up. So you also need regulation to properly assess that they achieve what they claim.

10. Circular economy systems

  • Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of this circular economy is continuing to burn fossil fuels, but with carbon capture and storage. This is problematic.
  • Blue hydrogen: the problem is that hydrogen is made with natural gas where you capture carbon, and the methane leakage associated with that.
  • But there are more promising efforts to develop alternative aviation fuel—from carbon dioxide taken from the air, and from municipal waste.   
  • We need to pursue the concept of a circular economy. But we have to be careful it doesn't become a cover for business as usual.

Devangshu’s Takeaways

  • Climate crisis is now urgent and we need to focus on what we can do today—we are losing vast tracts of forest, we are losing usable water, there’s crop failure of all kinds, we are over farming even sea food sources. Yet there is some hope. 
  • The change does lie with us. Even 50-70 years ago, the world was different and we can derive solutions from that and change our lifestyles. That’s an important factor in making companies and governments change.   
  • We need to recruit the young. It’s their world that we are destroying.  And that’s where the change will come from—children can change the family’s behaviour.

(Read Devanghu’s detailed comment here.)

Still curious? Read an extract from Mundy’s book, Race for Tomorrow, on how climate change is undoing the gains India made from the green revolution. And how, in the struggle to respond, companies like Mahyco are experimenting with genetic engineering to create new super-crops

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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