Seize these 10 business opportunities to get the U.N. Global Goals back on track

Illustration of a green city
Smart companies are betting on solutions for long-term sustainability.

"Behind every global risk there’s an opportunity." That has been the mantra of the Global Opportunity Report since we at Sustainia launched the project in 2014, in partnership with DNV GL and the United Nations Global Compact. As a counterpart to World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, which outlines the world’s most pressing risks, the Global Opportunity Reports turn global risks into business opportunities, inviting companies to tap into these and make both a profit and a positive impact in the world.

This year, however, we decided not to focus on five of the biggest global risks, but rather on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that are most off-track to meet their 2030 targets unless we step up our efforts: Goal 10 (reduced inequality); Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production); Goal 13 (climate action); and Goal 14 (life below water).

Global Opportunity Report 2018 market opportunities


That's according to DNV GL’s report The Future of Spaceship Earth in 2016, and since echoed by numerous others. Inequality and climate change, in particular, have received attention recently. Environmental and climate-related risks top the new Global Risks Report. Oxfam’s new Reward Work, Not Wealth report documents an ever-expanding gap between rich and poor, emphasized by the richest 1 percent of Earth’s population earning 82 percent of the wealth generated last year. Combine these findings with the chilling facts that almost 90 percent of our seas are overfished and that we dump the equivalent of one truck load of plastic into our oceans every minute, and you will sense the urgency to pay more attention to these four Global Goals.

Four Global Goals, 10 new opportunities

The 2018 Global Opportunity Report, released Thursday, presents scores of business opportunities directly related to the Global Goals at risk, as well as 40 companies and entrepreneurs who already have tapped into these markets. Here are 10 of those opportunities, representing markets likely to expand quickly.

Global Goal 10, Reduced Inequalities

1. Unchaining Land Rights: Proof of land ownership can be difficult in countries where paper-based contracts are still widely used and corruption common. With blockchain technology, land registration can become transparent and tamper-proof empowering underprivileged citizens to improve their financial standing. Ghanaian company BenBen is a first mover with its blockchain-powered digital land transaction platform.

2. Illuminating Supply Chain: Figuring out the origin and chain of production of products is increasingly challenging in a globalized world. Blockchain can help that by providing transparency from factory to customer, which then allows buyers to make more informed choices and prevents unfair treatment of workers. The blockchain-based system from U.K. startup Provenance, for example, digitally tags products such as coffee all the way from farmer to French press.

Global Goal 12, Responsible Consumption and Production

3. Alternative Food Sources: Insects might not appeal to the Western palate yet, but they have been a food staple in some cultures for centuries. Now, they are gaining traction as a highly efficient, protein-packed, climate-friendly alternative to traditional meat. We need to find alternative protein sources to feed a growing world population, and bugs fit right in on the menu. Companies such as Chirps Chips, which has brought cricket-flour snacks to the supermarket shelves, are tapping into this squirming and booming market. 

4. Construction in Progress: With an expected world population of 10 billion in 2050, we need cities, lots of them. However, behind the risk of exhausting natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an opportunity for the construction industry to focus on longevity, refurbishment and upcycling. Chinese company WinSun, for example, is converting industrial solid waste into a low-carbon building material using 3D printing — expected to become a 56.4 million market in 2021.

5. Reuse to Repower: If all goes well, 37 million electrical vehicles will be on our roads by 2025, which inevitably will create a lot of used, obsolete batteries. Yet these batteries can be repurposed in stationary settings such as in local power applications, which doubles their life cycles to more than 20 years. In Nissan and Eaton’s project xStorage, for example, second-life batteries are used as home battery systems to store renewable energy.

Global Goal 13, Climate Action

6. Upcycling Carbon: CO2 is one of the biggest culprits of climate change, and we have to limit its release to stay below a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius. But carbon dioxide also can be used as a resource, and capturing and upcycling it represents a whole new market area. According to the Global CO2 Initiative, the market value of carbon-based products could exceed $1 trillion. U.S. company Blue Planet is among the first to explore this opportunity with its CO2-based carbonate rocks.  

7. Keeping it Cool: On a warming and urbanizing planet, demand for cooling will increase, and old air-conditioning technology will hurt our climate. This opens an opportunity to make cooling more efficient and redundant, using, for example, solar-thermal technology and natural cooling environments. Vienna and Copenhagen have installed efficient district cooling systems.The 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

8. Sustainable Shipping: Shipping keeps the international trade system well oiled, and according to DNV GL, there could be a 60 percent increase in overall demand for seaborne transport in 2050. But shipping is also responsible for 2.6 percent of global carbon emissions (PDF). Luckily, a number of companies have opened their eyes to new possibilities. One is YARA Birkeland, which has created the world’s first zero-emission, autonomous container feeder.

Global Goal 14, Life Below Water 

9. Reimaging Plastics: Our reckless handling of oil-based plastics means that there could be more of it in our seas than fish by 2050. Luckily, some companies have realized the market potential of creating new biodegradable products that match the versatility and durability of conventional plastic, and creating circular systems for reusing plastics. Thread International, for example, converts plastic collected off the beaches on Haiti into fabrics. Reusing plastics unlocks an estimated value of $9 billion.

10. Alternative Aquaculture: The world has an ever-growing appetite for fish, and we are fishing more than marine eco-systems can handle. Keeping this valuable protein-source a part of our menu, therefore, requires new solutions. Aquaculture using land-based and closed-looped systems that don’t exhaust fish stocks represent a great market opportunity  one that South African company FarmInABox is seizing with its ready-to-farm, transportable system. 

Opportunities in all 17 Global Goals

When we asked 5,500 business leaders about their views on the Global Goals in connection with our second Global Opportunity Report in 2016, we were surprised that most saw business potential in all of the U.N.'s 17 goals. Two years later, with 55 business opportunities identified in four reports, we finally have demonstrated an ocean of business opportunities behind every single Global Goal.

To make it easier to navigate these opportunities, the partners behind the Global Opportunity reports have created a free innovation hub, Global Opportunity Explorer, which includes all opportunities along with hundreds of sustainable solutions relating to all the Global Goals. We envision this as the go-to platform for businesses, investors and entrepreneurs who wish to create lasting impact, long-term value and a sustainable world by 2030. 

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