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The Need for Scalability in Climate Change Solutions

by Sanjana Bajaj

Climate change is a problem that continues to persist and instead of finding solutions, we are discovering more ways through which human activity continues to worsen the situation. Most people blame the capitalist system for the creation of a culture of constant growth but many also look to solve these issues using certain aspects of the system. One such company is The Ocean Cleanup – which is looking at sustainable and scalable solutions to plastic pollution using business models that focus on an economic perspective.  

Climate change solutions have been developing for over a quarter of a century. Since the recognition of a depleting ozone layer over the antarctic regions, specific measures have been taken to rectify this. World leaders came together to look at more sustainable options that humankind could adopt to decrease carbon emissions. While solutions were looked for, it was discovered that no existing technology could provide solutions in a sustainable and scalable way. This greatly hampered the invention of new technologies as the capitalistic structures at play were not cooperating with the idealistic notions of saving the earth. 

We are no longer in a world where solutions to man-made problems do not exist or must be innovated. Technology exists to solve most of humanity’s problems, including the massive issue of ocean plastic pollution. The system of capitalism was a significant part of creating the problem at hand. Oil and gas-derived compounds are responsible for making 99% of all plastics. Its manufacturing was fueled by the capitalist system’s fundamental and unrelenting need for profit. 

At the same time, the capitalist system in the market today has also promoted a culture of a constant need for creative and technological innovations. This phenomenon is named “Creative destruction” by the eminent economist, Joseph Schumpeter. It exists because the market’s demand and competitive nature spur innovation for alternatives when resources are scarce. An excellent example of this is the case of solar panels, which, as the technology has progressed and the supply chain has become more competitive, have become much cheaper and more competitive with traditional energy sources.  This is because efficiency is also a cornerstone of the market and rewards people who find methods to accomplish more with less. While this is not always the case, the market does help spur innovation, and this can be used to come up with solutions that help the environment rather than destroy it. 

One of the significant problems today is plastic pollution and the added issue of climate change. While many look at these as two separate problems, plastic pollution, especially ocean plastic, can often lead to other issues that amplify climate change. Sarah-Jeanne Royer found one such case at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She discovered that “low-density polyethene – one of the most common plastics found in the ocean – releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down in the environment”. Microplastics also contribute to climate change by negatively affecting all ocean organisms and their ability to sequester carbon dioxide emissions from anthropogenic activities. The problem is that millions of tonnes of plastic waste enter bodies of water and stay there, affecting the environment. We cannot know the portion travelling to the ocean’s middle and getting stuck in vortexes. These pollutants will worsen and impact the environment, health, and economy if no action is taken. 

Since the capitalist system promotes creativity and innovation, today, solutions exist for these problems. One solution would be to continue looking at the economy to offer solutions through an economic perspective for issues such as pollution and climate change. At the same time, this may not necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind, primarily since the financial system of capitalism can be considered as the cause of most of these problems—taking aspects from this system and using them might be very helpful. As mentioned before, it forces technologies to be feasible due to the market’s competitive nature. For the most part, it allows for the existence of efficiency. The market also ensures that businesses, while scaling, do not lose out on the efficiency and feasibility aspects of the technology. 

Bridging the gap between society and larger capitalist structures, The Ocean Cleanup, is a non-profit organisation aiming to develop and scale technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. It is one of the companies that have innovated a technology that helps the issue of plastic pollution and climate change within this economic system. They have done this using a business model that focuses on the feasibility and scalability of the technology they develop. After the development phase, the main aim is to scale the technology so that it can be used on a mass scale and in different parts of the world. 

The two main areas that they focus on are the rivers and the oceans. The project stops plastic from reaching the oceans and cleans up plastic already in the ocean. For this, they have developed river interceptors that stop plastic from reaching the oceans by putting them in various places in the river, depending on the type of river. Firstly, the blueprint streamlines series production for their manufacturing partners, and it reduces production costs, allowing for efficiency. The system’s robustness also enables it to be scaled and used anywhere without affecting the efficiency of the technology.  

They have started with the great pacific garbage to clean the ocean of legacy plastic. They will scale up to all other patches in the coming decades. Scalability is again the primary goal, along with a model that works economically. This is because the more systems they deploy, the faster the cleanup will be, and their goal is to clean the oceans before 2030. Cleaning the oceans without the scale up while is still possible, it is not economical and would thus be very expensive. The project is thus looking at the cost per kilogram of plastic removed from the water and aim to minimize this cost by scaling the technology. The plastic extracted from the oceans is then recycled and used to fund the project. Following this self-sustainable model, the company proved that they have an economically feasible model that works.   

Innovative technology is at the forefront of solving the problems of the world. The Ocean Cleanup is doing an impressive job which, other than solving one of humanity’s problems, is also helping prove that existing economic systems can help the environment. The answers to our existential questions cannot be uni-dimensional but have to be well-rounded and well-thought solutions that can constantly evolve while doing the work. While the evolution of technology is essential, it is also vital to ensure that technology is not harming the environment as we move forward to solving issues created by humans.

Sanjana Bajaj is a third-year student at O.P Jindal Global University majoring in economics.

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