State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Quiet Moves Toward a Renewable Resource Based Economy

Every day we see examples of corporations, nonprofits and government agencies taking steps toward sustainably managing their operations. Food companies are recycling their waste, auto companies are preparing for the move to electric vehicles and real estate developers are building structures designed to use less water and energy. Governments are adopting green procurement principles, purchasing electric vehicles, and making their buildings energy efficient. While the political dialogue stubbornly clings to its insistence that we cannot protect the environment while growing the economy, the economic reality on the ground proves that the opposite is true.

Many businesses are seeing the opportunities in the green economy. New technologies, new services, new knowledge and new jobs are emerging. The old, clunky pollution-belching smokestack once represented economic might in the 20th century. The 21st century version is a passive solar designed building with a park view, housing companies that develop smart phone applications, health care facilities and ride-sharing services. The high value added parts of our economy are services, ideas and software; manufacturing is more automated and produces less wealth. Reducing the costs of energy, water and other materials is occupying more creative effort than ever before. This drive toward a green economy is not entirely based on idealism, but has its roots in a desire to be profitable while protecting the planet.

Why doesn’t the reality of this movement receive much attention? In part, because it is good news and people would rather watch reports of a natural disaster than of a human made wonder. The media is a business and its job is not to accurately portray the world we live in, but to make money. The world we see through the news media is not the world we experience first hand. The most important changes in how we live largely go unreported while conflict, murder and mayhem crowd what we used to call the airwaves. The day-to-day life of families and friends only makes the news when we are forced to respond to tragedy.

The smart phone and global communications are probably the technologies that have had the most impact on human behavior of any invention in the last fifty years. People spend much more time than they ever did communicating with each other and sharing facts, events, photos and perceptions. This is not newsworthy but like the move toward renewable energy, it is a central part of our contemporary reality. Unfortunately, the media is an unreliable source for understanding the world we live in. News reports must be mined for their bias, and for the reason they manage to achieve agenda status on a crowded media menu. The progress we are making toward sustainability is not always easy to see, and is often contradicted by movement away from sustainability. The picture is complicated and sometimes contradictory.

While the transition to a renewable resource based economy is well underway, there remain plenty of unsustainable practices and businesses in the world. And the people who benefit from those practices and businesses are not shy about defending them. This ranges from the aggressive pro-fossil fuel advocacy of the Koch Brothers, to the recent lobbying by the plastic bag industry that successfully convinced the New York State Legislature to overturn the New York City Council’s recent effort to reduce the use of these bags.

The movement away from fossil fuels is not without victims. Writing about the decline in Wyoming’s coal industry and the simultaneous rise of that state’s wind business, Coral Davenport observed that: “The new positions and financial opportunities offered by wind and other new-energy industries are not replacing all the jobs going up in coal smoke.” Not only are the numbers of jobs smaller, but the skill base is different. While these transitions are inevitable in a capitalist society, government programs and policies are needed to ensure that the victims of this transition receive the help they need to find meaningful employment.

Even among those whose jobs are not under threat, we see evidence of resistance to sustainability everywhere. Opposition to complying with air pollution rules appears to have been imbedded within Volkswagen’s organizational culture, permitting thousands of vehicles to be sold with software designed to fool inspection tests. This resistance to good practice is far from rare. But it is rapidly becoming the exception and not the rule.

In a blog post last summer, CERES President Mindy Luber noted that American business supported the greenhouse gas reduction goals of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in part because they saw the opportunities that the plan’s compliance would generate. Moreover, she observed that the move to reduce greenhouse gases predated government regulation. As Luber observed nearly a year ago:

“At least 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies have already set targets to reduce carbon pollution, improve energy efficiency and procure more renewable energy. Over half of the Fortune 100 are publicly disclosing their climate and energy-saving targets – and they’ve collectively reduced carbon emissions by 58 million tons, while saving $1.1 billion annually by doing so. These CO2 reductions by corporations are the equivalent of retiring 15 coal-fired power plants.”

While these moves indicate progress, remember that in 2015 approximately 57% of the Fortune 500 companies did not set carbon reduction targets. That may require government regulation before it happens. The transition to a renewable economy will not be instantaneous. It will be a matter of two steps forward and one step back, and for some folks it is simply coming too slowly to save the world. Unfortunately, while the pace now underway may not be fast enough, it will have to do. It takes our organizations a long time to change. Humans are ingenious and creative, but we are also creatures of habit.

But as new technologies are developed that are less destructive to ecosystems, their adoption may begin slowly, but may also pick up momentum quickly once they’ve passed the tipping point of popular acceptance. Cellphones, GPS and blue tooth technologies are examples of technologies that were adopted gradually, but with increased speed as they became more common. We are seeing a similar phenomenon with rooftop solar cells, solar water heaters and the Tesla electric car.

While the need to maintain the planet’s resources may have begun the move toward sustainability, the new set of constraints posed by ecosystem needs is also generating business opportunity. Recently a group of businesses in Minnesota started to work together to push for the development of a circular economy. According to Jessica Lyons Hardcastle, writing in Environmental Leader:

“Dow, 3M and Target are among the 25 major companies and organizations that have launched an initiative to promote the circular economy. The Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition says adopting circular economy principles — where raw materials are extracted and made into products that are designed and manufactured for reuse and remanufacturing or recycling — will uncover business growth opportunities and drive innovation. Circular economy principles also promote better waste management by sending less material to landfills.”

It is easy to dismiss the moves of these Fortune 500 Companies to reduce greenhouse gases, or the Minnesota companies pursuing the circular economy as a fad or a public relations effort. Clearly none of these activities are considered major developments by the news media. But they are important signs of progress now underway.

The transition to a sustainable, renewable resource based economy will take decades to complete. It will require a more sophisticated partnership between government and the private sector than the U.S. federal government seems capable of undertaking. Fortunately, many of our city and local governments seem more adept at forging these relationships. Ideology is less important at this operational level of government where most decision-making focuses on tangible projects and programs rather than symbolic policies and positions.

The change we need will be given operational meaning by the organizations we work for. Just as our organizations learned to incorporate occupational safety, financial reporting, performance measurement, customer relations, employment law, social media marketing and many other elements into their standard operating procedures, so too will they need to incorporate a concern for the physical dimensions of sustainability. They will pay more attention to their use of energy, water and other materials. They will think about recycling and designed reuse of finite materials, and staff will devote significant effort to reduce the environmental impact of organizational outputs. These changes will be slow and steady and like the tortoise, may not attract much attention until the hare is finally passed.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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