Ukraine’s recovery will also be an example of sustainability – but business and finance must make up for the limited power of politics

In Part 1/3, we considered that despite Ukraine being poised, in its post-war recovery, to contribute to the systems-level change sustainability needs, that the world’s boldness will determine just how fast and global that systemic effect could be. Razom We Stand, in an event that led up to the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London this summer, amplified how Ukraine is set to show that sustainability and, in particular, the energy transition should work across environmental, people and economic fronts. Josh Matthews reports.

Politics and consumer behaviour cannot move at the speed and systems level that the climate and sustainability emergency needs. Sustainability needs the right people, from the right organizations in the right rooms finding new levels of ambition and collaboration. My clinging optimism, however, is that business, and bolder politicians and activists, increasingly have the clarity that they hold the last levers and should unapologetically move forward. Collaboration to this end already happens, of course. This summer’s Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC), alongside Razom We Stand’s build-up event covered in Part 1, are examples of progress. But on a global scale, it hasn’t worked.

Collaboration centred on sustainability is often fragmented and lacks clear goals that align with the global context. Ukraine, most can agree, would love to see both more collaboration and ambition. There is now a begging question, in Ukraine and beyond: What is the critical mass needed to pull policy, the public and all industry into alignment with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Creating ‘positive tipping points’ is perhaps a succinct summary of the response. Answering that question can simultaneously amplify Ukraine’s recovery, and also trigger the broader systems-level change we need by showing that sustainability works across all environmental, social and economic factors.

Our current systems cannot address sustainability. But they must. And in the process, they will have to change. Frustratingly, too many politicians of all parties globally, as well as the most influential firms, still use systemic failure and its associated barriers to excuse themselves from moving first. Despite the economic and moral cases for sustainability becoming clearer, most governments and industries cannot be confident in moving first before deep alignment and regulation guides them. Rather, they sit back and wait. But the reality is that regulation and a tipping point of public pressure will come, although no one knows when. Heaven forbid that it takes something so much more disastrous than anything we’ve seen so far to trigger that change. Better that we make the case for staying ahead of what’s needed and shaping that regulation now, rather than frantically reacting to catch up. Ukraine has that ambition.

Without help, politics and consumer behaviour cannot influence the speed and systems-level change that sustainability goals demand

 Business, industry and finance have the opportunity and responsibility to be that source of help. With the right investments and decisions, a relatively small group of successful projects – that work on all ESG fronts – can not only return for those investors and leaders, but also have: (1) a reinforcing effect throughout the value chains of those projects, and (2) trigger larger systemic changes, pulling along politics, consumer behaviour and the rest of business, industry and finance. Everyone talks about collaboration and being a leader in sustainability. Ukraine’s present and its post-war recovery are a real chance to bring together the right people and organizations into the right discussion with one another. To help shape the decisions and systems that make a global sustainable transition happen. And to achieve the best for the people of Ukraine and the world.

We have the opportunity to simultaneously leverage and change our current systems

The global context of climate change and sustainability is already so bad for so many – even before considering the terrible realities and aftermath of war. It’s despairing that few acknowledge the emergency of sustainability, which includes addressing all global conflict, to its true extent. Too often, parts of the ESG spectrum or individual UN Goals are viewed in isolation. The same is true even for a concept like the energy transition – which should exemplify cross-ESG thinking. Isolating the individual elements of sustainability is harming the chance for change by pretending we can address these challenges through incrementalism and without systemic change. Similarly, in Ukraine, an incremental view for recovery to where the country once was will undoubtedly fall short, and also lose the chance of pioneering global sustainability.

An unusual source to quote, perhaps, but Tesla’s recent summary of the steps to an electrified society is an example that helps articulate how successful sustainable transition projects can impact value chains and systems.

‘A fully electrified and sustainable economy is within reach through the actions in this paper:

  1. Repower the Existing Grid with Renewables;
  2. Switch to Electric Vehicles;
  3. Switch to Heat Pumps in Residential, Business & Industry;
  4. Electrify High Temperature Heat Delivery and Hydrogen Production;
  5. Sustainably Fuel Planes & Boats;
  6. Manufacture the Sustainable Energy Economy.’

Investing in one or several of these actions could promote all others in a reinforcing fashion throughout the value chain. Success would also provide a positive example for systemic change: projects and value chain transitions that work economically and achieve outcomes across all ESG factors. Blueprints that the whole world could learn from.

We need to do better at contextualizing sustainability

To identify the case to be made regarding systems-changing potential for Ukraine starts from the global context. The energy transition from fossil fuels to decarbonized energy should be a core example that links across an SDG spectrum, including ensuring a just transition. Digital transformation and smart-city development can be another. The ambition can get bigger. Digital, societal, environmental and numerous other transitions can be addressed – within cities, throughout the country and beyond its borders. The case for supporting and investing in Ukraine’s sustainable recovery can be expanded through the spheres of influence discussed in Part 1, to further build the case for value chain and systems-level ambition.

Finally, in Part 3/3, we will consider the worrying whispers that Ukraine’s scientists, NGOs, businesses and even politicians are not being involved to the extent they should be in recovery planning. Rather, global politicians and businesses seem to have their own visions of how Ukraine should recover. Global collaboration is, of course, a must. But it is foolish for that collaboration not to be led by those who know Ukraine, whose lives depend on the now and the recovery, and who understand how Ukraine and sustainability intertwine.


About Josh Matthews: Recently the Chief Sustainability Officer and Practice Leader at HFS Research—having built its sustainability research and advisory practice from scratch, while leading the energy, utilities, and supply chain team, and embedding sustainability through HFS’ industry, technology, and business coverage. Speaker at COP26 and other sustainability and industry events. Project and standalone engagements with Fortune 100 CEOs and various global leadership teams. Former Cambridge City Councillor and shadow cabinet member for climate change, environment, and the city centre. Approved parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats. Former Chair and now partnerships lead for the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists. Graduate of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering (MPhil) and Loughborough Chemical Engineering (MEng). Former Process Engineer at TotalEnergies and Visiting Scholar at UC Santa Barbara, publishing work in the Chemical Engineering & Technology journal.


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