The Challenges of the Sustainability Paradox and Carbon Tunnel View: Opportunities for Impact Tech Startups

7 min readMay 1, 2024


In today’s world, we are facing an increasing awareness of environmental issues, but at the same time, we encounter a paradoxical dilemma: the environmental or sustainability paradox. This describes the tendency to focus on certain aspects of the environmental crisis while neglecting others. A prominent example is the “Carbon Tunnel View,” where there is an excessive focus on climate change while other pressing environmental issues fade into the background.

View into a tunnel with a green, black, grey mosaic at the walls
Credits: S. via Unsplash

This one-sided perspective has profound implications for our sustainability efforts and complicates comprehensive problem-solving. However, there is hope in the form of Impact Tech Startups that utilize innovative technologies and business models to develop sustainable solutions. Their role signifies a paradigm shift in how we address environmental problems.

This article examines the challenge of the “Carbon Tunnel View” and the environmental or sustainability paradox and highlights the opportunities available to Impact Tech Startups to contribute to a more sustainable future.

The Environmental or Sustainability Paradox in the Context of Planetary Boundaries

Planetary boundaries conceptualize nine ecological systems and processes that influence the stability and integrity of planet Earth. They serve as guidelines to ensure that human civilization operates within safe operating spaces that can support and sustain the environment. These boundaries include climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, freshwater availability, land use, aerosol concentrations, and chemical pollution.

Despite the holistic approach of planetary boundaries, policymakers, media, and the public tend to focus on specific aspects of the environmental crisis, particularly climate change. This one-sided perspective leads to an imbalance in attention and resource allocation for environmental issues. Other planetary boundaries are neglected or perceived as less urgent, resulting in a loss of holistic perspective and potentially dangerous blind spots.

The neglect of other planetary boundaries poses significant risks and consequences for humanity and the environment. For example, loss of biodiversity can threaten the stability of ecosystems essential for providing food, clean water, and other vital resources. Overexploitation of freshwater resources can lead to water scarcity and ecological collapse, while chemical pollution threatens the health of both humans and nature.

Neglecting other planetary boundaries can also increase the potential for surpassing ecological tipping points, triggering abrupt and often irreversible changes in global ecosystems. This, in turn, could have serious impacts on human health, food security, economic stability, and social justice.

Overall, the environmental or sustainability paradox in the context of planetary boundaries underscores the need for a holistic and integrative approach to environmental issues. It emphasizes the importance of considering and addressing all aspects of planetary boundaries to ensure a sustainable and resilient future for humanity.

The “Carbon Tunnel View” and Its Impact on Environmental Strategy

The “Carbon Tunnel View” describes the tendency to exclusively focus on climate change as the primary theme of environmental discourse while neglecting other urgent environmental issues. This fixation on climate change results from several causes, including its visible and acute impacts such as extreme weather events and global warming, which pose an immediate threat. Additionally, political and economic interests, as well as media coverage, have contributed to placing climate change at the forefront of environmental policy.

The fixation on climate change leads to the neglect of other important environmental issues and planetary boundaries. This results in an imbalance in environmental strategy, as resources and attention are focused on climate change while other ecological challenges are inadequately addressed. For example, the impacts of chemicals on the environment, loss of biodiversity, and ocean acidification may fade into the background while climate change takes center stage.

Given the challenges of the “Carbon Tunnel View,” it is essential to develop an integrated environmental strategy that considers various aspects of planetary boundaries. Such a strategy should not only address climate change but also other environmental issues such as loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, and chemical pollution. This requires a holistic approach based on scientific evidence and close collaboration among governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society.

An integrated environmental strategy should also recognize and harness synergies between different environmental issues. For example, measures to combat climate change can simultaneously improve air and water quality and protect biodiversity. By considering various aspects of planetary boundaries, comprehensive solutions can be developed to promote a sustainable and resilient future.

Opportunities for Impact Tech Startups in the Context of the Environmental or Sustainability Paradox

Impact Tech Startups play a crucial role in addressing global environmental issues by employing innovative technologies and business models to develop and implement sustainable solutions. Their potential lies in their agility, creativity, and focus on sustainability. These startups are often willing to take risks and challenge traditional mindsets to find effective solutions. They have the flexibility to quickly respond to changing environmental conditions and develop new technologies that can contribute to environmental improvement.

Impact Tech Startups have the opportunity to focus on various planetary boundaries and develop innovative solutions to these problems. For example, startups in the renewable energy sector could help address climate change by harnessing clean energy sources such as solar, wind, and water. Startups focusing on the circular economy could help reduce biodiversity loss and chemical pollution by reducing, reusing, and recycling waste. Additionally, startups in sustainable agriculture and water resource management could help improve land use and freshwater availability.

An example of a successful Impact Tech Startup is Ioniqa, which originated from Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) and specializes in creating value from PET waste through its proprietary circular technology. With a cost-effective process, Ioniqa manages to close the loop for plastics, starting with PET plastics. This award-winning innovation transforms all types and colors of PET waste into valuable “virgin-quality” resources for new PET, thereby reducing chemical pollution among other benefits. Upcycling processes for other types of plastics are also being explored and expected in the near future.

Another example is Beyond Meat, a startup developing plant-based meat alternatives to reduce biodiversity loss and environmental impact from conventional animal farming. This often leads to deforestation, land degradation, and habitat loss, particularly in the context of meat production, negatively affecting biodiversity. Through their products, they contribute to reducing resource consumption and environmental impact while promoting sustainable nutrition.

These examples illustrate the tremendous potential of Impact Tech Startups to develop and implement effective solutions for global environmental problems. With their innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, they can be a driving force for positive change and contribute to creating a sustainable and resilient future.

Challenges and Barriers for Impact Tech Startups

Despite the enormous potential for effective solutions, Impact Tech Startups face a range of challenges, including:

  • Market entry barriers: Entry into the market for sustainable technologies can be associated with high entry barriers, especially if established companies already dominate or regulatory requirements are high.
  • Lack of access to capital: Impact Tech Startups often require significant initial investments for research, development, and market entry. The lack of venture capital or difficulties in accessing financing options can hinder growth.
  • Skills shortage: The lack of professionals with expertise in technology, environment, and business development can impair Impact Tech Startups’ ability to attract and retain talented employees.
  • Regulatory complexity: Impact Tech Startups often face a variety of regulatory requirements and standards, particularly in the environmental technology and renewable energy sectors. This complexity can hinder market entry and incur additional costs.
  • Lack of incentives: In some cases, existing regulatory frameworks and incentive structures may be inadequate to promote the adoption of sustainable technologies and solutions. This can hinder the acceptance of new innovations and restrict the market for Impact Tech Startups.
  • Financial constraints: The introduction and scaling of environmentally friendly technologies often require significant investments that startups may not be able to afford. Moreover, high regulatory requirements and the lack of financial incentives can affect the profitability of Impact Tech Startups.

Regardless of the challenges startups face, there are strategies to overcome them and promote their growth. These include:

  • Partnerships and collaborations: By forming partnerships with established companies, research institutions, and government agencies, Impact Tech Startups can gain access to resources, expertise, and financing opportunities.
  • Public funding programs: Governments and international organizations can introduce programs and incentives to promote the development and adoption of sustainable technologies. This can be done through grants, tax incentives, or public procurement.
  • Technology openness and flexibility: Impact Tech Startups should be open to different technologies and business models to adapt to changing market conditions and seize new opportunities.
  • Education and awareness: Raising awareness of environmental issues and the benefits of sustainable technologies can help raise awareness and promote the acceptance of new solutions.
  • Networking and community engagement: Building networks within the startup community and actively participating in industry events and ecosystems can facilitate access to potential investors, mentors, and customers. By sharing experiences and best practices, startups can also learn from others and avoid potential pitfalls.
  • Technology transfer and collaboration with research institutions: Collaborating with universities, research institutions, and laboratories can provide access to new technologies, research findings, and expertise. Technology transfer programs can enable startups to benefit from the latest developments and bring innovative solutions to market faster.

The analysis of the challenges and opportunities for Impact Tech Startups in the context of the environmental or sustainability paradox highlights the crucial role these startups play in addressing global environmental problems and the growth potential therein.


The challenges associated with global environmental problems will continue to exist. Given the increasing complexity and urgency of these issues, the role of Impact Tech Startups will become increasingly important. Their agility, creativity, and focus on sustainability will be crucial in developing innovative solutions that enable a sustainable and resilient future.

However, it is important to emphasize that a holistic and integrative approach is essential to effectively address global environmental problems. This requires considering various aspects of planetary boundaries and collaborating among governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society. Only through joint efforts and a comprehensive approach can we secure a livable environment for future generations.

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