4 Sustainability Trends That Will Shape 2012

The worldwide movement toward sustainability has made significant progress over the past half-dozen years as companies and cities have pursued strategies that balance future and current societal needs.

Now, sustainable development is entering a new phase, characterized by greater alignment within and between the public and private sectors.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle has been the lack of consistent and comparable standards for defining and measuring sustainability. Although these issues have yet to be fully resolved, many well-coordinated initiatives in recent years have pointed the way forward for companies and cities.

In 2012, major trends shaping the sustainable development movement include:

1. Transparency

Buildings, companies and cities are measuring and disclosing energy usage, carbon emissions and other information relating to sustainability. Commercial building owners don't always have a choice.

Five major U.S. cities and two states have enacted energy performance measurement and disclosure policies to date, and nine more cities and states have bills under considerations, to help tenants and investors make better informed decisions. Buildings in Europe are required to display energy performance certificates, and Australia is implementing similar requirements.

Corporations don't require legal mandates to encourage disclosure. In 2011, more than 3,000 companies, including 404 Global 500 firms, voluntarily reported their carbon emissions, water management and climate change policies to Carbon Disclosure Project in 2011, perhaps swayed by CDP's 551 investor members, who use the information in deciding where to place more than $71 trillion in investment capital.

Transparency is also on the rise at the city level. CDP invited 58 cities worldwide to report sustainability related data for the first time in 2011, and 42 responded, with 38 of them making their responses public.

This year, CDP Cities is expanding its request to 150 cities and continues to see a high response rate, as well as extraordinary awareness and commitment on climate change issues by city leaders. These leaders recognize that managing energy, water and waste not only helps attract residents and business growth but also enhances quality of life in a variety of ways.

2. Global Consistency

Deeper sustainability reporting by cities and multi-national corporations has intensified the need for consistent ways to measure the effectiveness of energy, water and other sustainability strategies on a worldwide basis. Given the wide regional variation in environmental priorities around the world, the end goal may not be a single global standard, but a way to translate local government and business practices into a common global vocabulary for measuring effectiveness and recognizing achievement.

LEED, the building sustainability rating system originated in the U.S., is now frequently pursued in many countries with their own systems, as owners seek to attract international tenants. Energy Star, the U.S. EPA energy benchmarking standard, will soon be able to provide accurate ratings across North America, thanks to a new cooperative agreement with Canada. And in 2011 the International Organization for Standardization released the ISO 50001 standard for energy management systems, which includes specifications for measurement, documentation and reporting on energy consumption.

Consistent measurement is important to corporations as they focus on sustainability not only in their own operations but, increasingly, throughout their supply chain as well. And while CDP Cities is not attempting to rank the sustainability of cities, it is developing a globally cohesive framework for understanding the effectiveness of sustainability strategies pursued by different cities.

Next Page: How collaboration and solar power are likely to shape 2012.