Oil companies quietly prepare for a future of carbon pricing

Mark Schapiro

This article originally was published by Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted here with permission.

In the winter of 2013, after mounting pressure from shareholder groups who wanted to understand the impacts of any future climate legislation, the biggest U.S.-based oil companies were nudged into a surprising revelation: "Carbon," the stand-in for carbon dioxide and all other greenhouse gases, had been given a price in the companies' internal accounting. The externalized and largely uncounted costs long associated with fossil fuels — 20 pounds of CO2 emitted with every gallon of gasoline, according to the EPA — were being given a number.

At the time, the biggest of the oil majors, ExxonMobil, reported a carbon price of $60 per metric ton to the Carbon Disclosure Project, which released the figures (PDF). Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell reported a price of up to $46 per ton, and for the first time, the oil majors appeared to be lifting the lid on the accounting sleights of hand that have kept the full costs of oil hidden from public view. 

The toll of fossil fuel emissions — from the ballooning costs of crop insurance tied to climate-related weather extremes, to the ravages of sea level rise in coastal areas, to stresses on health services as tropical diseases migrate northward — is part of the discussions at the U.N. climate summit in New York this week. And the new carbon mathematics is putting a spotlight on the oil industry: Earlier this year, all four major oil companies were listed in the journal Climatic Change (PDF) as being among the 90 global businesses responsible for two-thirds of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this suggests that the world's petroleum giants are contemplating a move away from oil. It does, however, signal the emergence of a new era in which oil companies' financial liability for climate change is coming to be more clearly understood.

Engineers at Carnegie Mellon University and Arizona State University concluded, in a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that conventional cars over their lifespan come with an average of $2,000 in costs related to greenhouse gas emissions. These costs, the researchers noted, are not borne by the drillers, refiners, distributors and consumers of oil, but by taxpayers in general, who bear the brunt of the financial consequences that manifest months, years and decades later. Yet no mechanism currently exists to pay for this massive economic liability for climate change. 

Of all developed countries, Americans pay the least, by about half, for their gasoline; a $4 per gallon price at the pump looks more like $8 in Germany and much of Europe. That extra amount partly consists of environmental taxes, which are used to mitigate the pollution and public health impacts of oil, to help pay for government-subsidized research into technologies to reduce the environmental footprint of fossil fuels, and to provide more generous social services. 

In the United States, the gasoline tax essentially has shrunk since 1993, when President Clinton, egged on by Vice President Al Gore, pressured Congress to increase the gas tax to 18.4 cents per gallon. But environmental taxes in general account for just 0.8 percent of GDP in the U.S., compared with 2.4 percent in Europe, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (PDF). That 1.6-percent difference would provide the U.S. government with about $240 billion annually in extra revenue, some economists have noted — a portion of which could be used to adapt to and mitigate the monumental costs of climate change. 

Of course, that would require setting a price on carbon. Yet with the exception of localized efforts at carbon pricing in California and, to a lesser extent, a small group of states in the Northeast, the United States so far has proved unwilling or unable to do this. 

For the oil companies, then, tallying up the costs of climate change amounts to a registry of risk — and the costs acknowledged by ExxonMobil and other oil companies are, in the words of one energy analyst, "a proxy for future climate policy." While the politics have stalemated in Washington, ExxonMobil, for example, is not assuming it always will be that way. Exxon's carbon price can be seen as a hedge against the recognition that, at some time in the future, it will be time for big oil to begin paying for the full range of costs associated with its product.

"What happens to fossil fuel companies," said Mark Trexler, CEO of the Climatographers, a consulting firm that works with companies to identify environmental risks, "when you have two Katrinas and 23 tornadoes and the world wakes up and finally imposes a meaningful price on carbon?" To not pay attention to such risks, he said, would amount to a dereliction of fiscal duty. 

"If they're not thinking about a future business model in which they're forced to internalize the costs of climate change, then they will be compromised in their ability to deliver energy services in the future," said Mikhail Chester, a researcher at Arizona State University and an author of the paper estimating the life cycle greenhouse gas costs of automobiles.

Those costs and risks are reflected in data compiled by Bloomberg, the biggest financial information provider in the world. One of the company's latest additions is a Carbon Risk Valuation Tool (PDF), a computerized set of environmental threats associated with fossil fuel and other extractive industries. For the first time, investors can toggle between two sides of the bet on fossil fuels: Choose one tab and you get a company's financial performance; choose another and you get its greenhouse gas emissions and the risks that new regulations, in the United States and other countries, could leave the company's assets untapped and underground. 

"We believe the day will come when you have full-cost accounting," said Curtis Ravenel, who helped conceptualize and design the system as the Global Head of Sustainability Initiatives at Bloomberg. "We're taking those externalities and integrating them into [traditional] cash flows and the price and earning ratios." 

The tool is set to a series of defaults that can be adjusted depending on the nature of the risk: What would happen if carbon is priced at $50 per ton in 2020, for example? Or at $20 a ton in 2030? What if a carbon price ensures that 80 percent of assets have to remain in the ground by 2030? This is the first time such metrics are integrated in ways that financial professionals can understand, allowing them to share information on risks that the oil companies themselves are integrating into their internal carbon price. 

Alan Jeffers, ExxonMobil's chief media officer, explained that the company's pricing of carbon is "a proxy price reflecting all the action the government could take to regulate the exploration, transport and processing of carbon fuels." In other words, it rises and falls based on a perception of political and public pressure for restrictions on carbon emissions.

Jeffers said that ExxonMobil has been calculating an internal carbon price since 2007, when it was far lower than it is today. The price, Jeffers said, was raised in 2009 when Congress looked likely to impose a cost on carbon through cap and trade, and it declined afterward. Now it's up again, he explained, reflecting the combination of forces impacting the risks and costs that oil faces in the marketplace: tightened mileage standards by the EPA; renewable fuel standards in California and other states; the talk from President Obama, the World Bank and others about a coming price for carbon; and rising public pressure for action on the climate. 

Exxon's internal carbon price varies widely around the world — a testament to the divisions that exist in how different countries are dealing with climate change, and which negotiators hope to resolve at climate talks in Paris in 2015. Jeffers said that the company's price of carbon is highest in the European Union, where a cap-and-trade scheme has been operating for nearly a decade and some nations are more strictly enforcing greenhouse gas limits. On the other end of the spectrum, the price is essentially zero in many parts of the developing world, where simply keeping the lights on is a priority and demands for political action on climate change have been more muted. 

Exxon's $60 per ton price — Jeffers said it recently has been revised upward to $80 — is far beyond any actual price in the U.S. market or anywhere else. In the three major carbon markets where those costs most clearly can be articulated — in Europe, California and, recently, in seven of China's most industrialized provinces — the price of carbon hovers around $10 a ton. One reason for the large difference, Jeffers said: "It's like buying a house. You need to overestimate your cable bill, your mortgage payments and all those other costs. We need to overestimate what could result from government policies."

Of course, the "house" in this case is the infrastructure of oil. And one of the most revealing aspects of the carbon pricing estimates being developed by Exxon and other oil companies is just how much they believe that even relatively high carbon prices will not fundamentally threaten their bottom lines. 

Even at $80 per ton, Jeffers said, none of Exxon's assets would be stranded. The company's own report to a group of shareholder activists in March asserted that the price would have to rise to between $150 and $200 a ton — more than 10 times its current estimate — to alter fundamental decisions about investing in oil. 

Whether it's $10 or $200 a ton, any discussion of carbon pricing still begs the question: Who pays? As noted by Severin Borenstein, an economist at the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, "If the price for carbon and the price [of oil] go up at the same rate, then the [oil companies'] profit margin does not change." 

Under most scenarios, the consumer will end up paying any carbon fees because the higher costs will be passed down to them at the pump. This is why what the government does with the revenue generated from carbon pricing is so important. If it is delivered back to consumers in the form of a rebate, or used to build better public transportation and fund research into cleaner energy sources, such revenues could offer significant public benefits. In addition, a price as low as $60 or $80 a ton could begin tilting people away from oil to other forms of energy. If drivers start switching to electric vehicles, for example, it will matter a great deal for Exxon's bottom line whether those electrons are coming from natural gas, in which Exxon also has invested heavily, or wind and solar, a sector where Exxon and other major oil companies so far have little footing. 

For now, however, Exxon doesn't see that as a realistic outcome. From its point of view, the company's market share remains steady with a price for carbon at $60 or $80 per ton because, as Jeffers put it, "Our forecasts suggest there is no viable alternative to oil." 

The challenge from a climate perspective, of course, is proving him wrong. 

Top image by Mike Mozart via Flickr.

How the Northwest is working to mainstream green chemistry

Ken Zarker

Since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, there has been a lack of national consensus on how to tackle hazardous chemicals. That’s meant that the states—individually and together—have taken the lead on solving global chemical policy issues like flame retardants, copper, phthalates and others.

It's particularly true here in the Pacific Northwest, where endangered salmon runs and declining populations of orca whales have given us very visible examples of the societal and environmental costs from poor policies. Washington’s state legislature has often been a frontrunner in pursuing chemical regulation – as have our nearby neighbors in Oregon and California. For many of us working to advance safer chemicals in the Northwest, it made sense for industry, researchers and educators to also take a collaborative regional approach to solving these problems.

Northwest Green Chemistry was created to connect those dots. It has tried to get ahead of regulation by working with industry to identify problems and putting those opportunities in front of researchers. As an independent nonprofit, Northwest Green Chemistry can bring the many stakeholders involved in chemicals management together on equal footing.

Often, those of us who work in hazardous materials management and sustainability will talk about “mainstreaming green chemistry” by getting companies to think about reducing or eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals when they are designing new products or processes. The ultimate mission of Northwest Green Chemistry is to ensure that, as people turn to green chemistry for answers, they’ll find the solutions and resources they need.

So far, this project is in its infancy as we talk with industry and academic groups to ensure that the opportunity we see can become a viable niche for us. We recently conducted a market survey to gather feedback on what services would be most valuable. We’re also working with academic institutions to sponsor trainings and, separately, developing curriculum for continuing education programs for professionals. We’ll take another step forward on Oct. 28 with a roundtable to gather national leaders and people from around our region.

Certainly, the talent and the drive are there – or, rather, they are here.

Northwest retailers are making strides on getting hazardous materials out of their supply chains. Manufacturers, such as the Outdoor Industry Association’s chemicals management module (CMM), are working together to share a common approach. COSMO BioRefinery is seeking to extract and sell cellulosic sugars and other biochemicals into an established market. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in reinvigorating the forest products industry via the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) that is harnessing biomass for aviation biofuels and specialty chemicals. Rivertop Renewables of Missoula, Mont. just launched a new green chemistry division this month to specifically produce ingredients for consumer-based products.   

An amazing group of supporters has stepped up to serve on the board for Northwest Green Chemistry, including representatives from our region’s leading universities, manufacturers, and nonprofit organizations. Our group includes the kind of big thinkers and innovators that you need to stitch together an ambitious project like this.

What’s possible? Established centers such as the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production show the impact a concerted effort can have. By bringing world-class thinking to bear on local problems, TURI has been able to have a national and global impact.

The Northwest has the same potential to lead the way, particularly on issues like alternatives to copper boat paint and eliminating PCBs in products .

The PCB issue hits especially close to home, since the toxic chemical builds up in the iconic orca whales that live in or visit Puget Sound. Although the chemical was outlawed years ago, polychlorinated biphenyls are present as a trace contaminant in many common pigments, particularly bright yellows and greens. Ultimately, this presents us with a grand challenge here in the Pacific Northwest to tackle toxics with green chemistry solutions. Northwest Green Chemistry is planning a technology symposium on green chemistry solutions to the PCB problem in 2015.

Our academic community is also stepping up. The Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry (CSMC) at the University of Oregon is a focal point for producing the next generation of green chemists and sustainable chemistry. There’s also groundbreaking molecular toxicology research lead by Dr. Robert Tanguay at Oregon State University related to the health effects of chemical mixtures. His lab is using zebra fish to evaluate the toxicity of thousands of chemicals used in consumer products, which could lead to green chemistry innovation.

The University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education department will offer an online certificate program in green chemistry in 2015, giving professionals the opportunity to study the principles of green chemistry and then apply them in their workplaces.

As we lay the groundwork for our vision of green chemistry, we want it to reflect the needs and values of the Northwest. For example, the Washington Department of Ecology developed a new Alternatives Assessment Discussion Draft for use in Washington State based off the national guide created by the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse. The Washington guide will establish a recommended set of criteria for small- to medium-sized businesses seeking to advance the transition to safer chemicals.  

Earlier this year in the Idaho state legislature, the Health and Welfare Committee introduced a Senate Concurrent Resolution that encourages companies to avoid substances likely to be harmful and to substitute for safer alternatives wherever feasible.

None of this is to suggest that there are easy green chemistry solutions to the challenges we face in the Pacific Northwest. But it does show that there are solutions out there, economic opportunities and increasing numbers of people dedicated to solving those problems.

If you’re interested in these issues in our region, we encourage you to collaborate with Northwest Green Chemistry to see where we may find shared interests, concerns, or opportunities. Bring us your green chemistry challenges and let’s tackle toxics together.

Top image of cylinders by Olivier Le Queinec via Shutterstock

Why Americans need to ante up for water

Cynthia Barnett

This summer, a 90-year-old water pipe burst under Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, sending a geyser 30 feet into the air and a flood of troubles over the UCLA campus. Raging water and mud trapped five people, swamped 1,000 cars and flooded five university buildings — blasting the doors off elevators and ruining the new wooden floor atop the Bruins’ storied basketball court.

As the campus dried out, though, Angelenos seemed less upset about the replaceable floorboards at Pauley Pavilion than they were over another loss: 20 million gallons of freshwater wasted in the middle of the worst drought in California history. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti took heat for his earlier campaign promise not to raise water rates in a city with a long backlog of repairs for aging water pipes.

Five days after the L.A. pipeline rupture, officials in Toledo, Ohio, declared the tap water for half a million people unsafe to drink, tainted by toxic algae spreading in the warm waters of Lake Erie. As residents of one of the most water-blessed regions in the world waited in lines to buy bottled water, an issue that had held little political urgency rose near the top of Ohio’s gubernatorial and legislative races. Former Toledo mayor Mike Bell held back an “I told you so” for council veterans who’d resisted rate increases to pay for upgrades to the city’s 73-year-old water-treatment plant.

[Learn more about water at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

In Los Angeles and Toledo and across the U.S., historic drought, water-quality threats heightened by warming waters and poorly maintained infrastructure are converging to draw public attention to the value of fresh, clean water to a degree not seen since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The problems are also laying bare the flawed way we pay for water — one that practically guarantees pipes will burst, farmers will use as much as they can and automatic sprinklers will whir over desiccated aquifers.

Squeezed by drought, U.S. consumers and western farmers have begun to pay more for water. But the increases do not come close to addressing the fundamental price paradox in a nation that uses more water than any other in the world while generally paying less for it. And some of the largest water users in the East, including agricultural, energy and mining companies, often pay nothing for water at all.

As a result, we’re subsidizing our most wasteful water use — while neglecting essentials such as keeping our water plants and pipes in good repair. “You can get to sustainability,” said David Zetland, a water economist and author of the book "Living with Water Scarcity." “But you can’t get there without putting a price on water.”

Cheap, abundant illusion

Water is the most essential utility delivered to us each day, meeting our drinking and sanitation needs and many others, from fire protection to irrigation. Incongruously, it is also the resource we value least. This is true generally for both the way we use water and the price we put on it.

On the global scale, Americans pay considerably less for water than people in most other developed nations. In the U.S., we pay less for water than for all other utilities. That remains true in these times of increasing water stress, said Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University, whose data show the average four-person household spends about $50 a month for water, compared with closer to $150 for electricity and telephone services.

Water’s historically cheap price has turned the U.S. hydrologic cycle abjectly illogical. Pennies-per-gallon water makes it rational for homeowners to irrigate lawns to shades of Oz even during catastrophic droughts such as the one gripping California. On the industrial side, water laws that evolved to protect historic uses rather than the health of rivers and aquifers can give farmers financial incentive to use the most strained water sources for the least sustainable crops. In just one example, farmers near Yuma, Ariz. — the driest spot in the United States, with an average rainfall of 3 inches per year — use Colorado River water to grow thirsty alfalfa; under the law of the river, if they don’t use their allotment, they’ll lose their rights to it.

For both municipal waterworks and those that carry irrigation water to farms, the illusion of cheap, abundant water arose with the extensive federal subsidies of the mid-20th century. The Bureau of Reclamation built tens of billions of dollars worth of irrigation and supply projects that were supposed to have been reimbursed by beneficiaries; most were not repaid. After passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1970s, the feds doled out billions more dollars, this time to local communities to help upgrade water plants and pipes. Because ratepayers didn’t have to bear the costs, they didn’t balk at treating water destined for toilets and lawns to the highest drinking-water standards in the land.

Americans got used to paying little for a whole lot of pristine water. At the same time, many utilities delayed the long-term capital investments needed to maintain their pipes and plants. Water boards often are run by local elected officials, making decisions uneasily political. A board member with a three-year term might not vote for a water project that would pay off in year six. Officials who tried to raise rates risked being booted out of office. It was easier to hope federal subsidies would continue to flow. They did not. A Reagan Administration phase-out of water-infrastructure grants began 25 years ago. Over the past decade, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure funding has declined (with the exception of 2009, the year of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and policy has shifted from grants to loans.

Unfortunately for water utilities, the timing coincided with the arrival of requirements to scrub dozens of newly regulated contaminants out of drinking water and record numbers of water mains and pipes bursting due to age and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.

Playing catch-up

In recent years, municipalities have begun raising rates to play catch-up. Since 2007, city water prices have risen at rates faster than the overall cost of living. Even so, the water sector reports it is not enough to pay for an estimated $1 trillion in anticipated repair costs for buried water pipes and growth-related infrastructure costs over the next 25 years.

When it comes to meeting needs associated with growth, many of the most promising solutions are found on the demand side. Americans still use more water per person than anywhere else in the world. But the U.S. today taps less water overall than it did 40 years ago despite population and economic growth, thanks to increased efficiency and awareness. From irrigation to manufacturing to toilet flushing, everything we do takes a lot less water than it used to.

Because utilities’ funding relies on revenue generated by water sales, efficiency has many utilities up a creek and churning blame. Earlier this fall, The Washington Post published a story, reprinted in newspapers around the nation, that blamed “federally mandated low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucets” for water utilities’ financial woes. Conservation, the story said, was the cause of higher water rates and new fees.

The reality is just the opposite, said Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainable water use. Everyone is beginning to pay more for water — but communities that conserve have lower long-term costs than those that don’t. In many cases, simply saving water can eliminate the need for costly new sources, Dickinson said. Growing, water-stressed cities including San Antonio and Perth, Australia, have saved ratepayers more than $1 billion in long-term capital costs by helping them slash water use in half. An analysis by the city of Westminster, Colo., found that reduced water use by citizens since 1980 saved residents and businesses 80 percent in tap fees and 91 percent in water rates, compared to the costs of acquiring the new water — close to $220 million on Colorado’s Front Range.

Efficiency will be the answer in many communities, although it cannot save the day in financially strapped cities that are losing population. Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy depends in part on its ability to sell water, but it has lost a quarter of its population over the past decade. Under pressure to reduce more than $90 million in bad debt, the Water and Sewerage Department in the spring began ordering shutoffs for customers who had fallen behind on their bills, prompting a global outcry and a warning from the United Nations.

Pictures of American families bathing and brushing teeth from five-gallon buckets hold a mirror to the nation’s hydro-illogical cycle: We subsidize water for the largest users in the United States, including agriculture and energy plants, yet we do not ensure a basic amount of water for the poorest citizens.

Agriculture at the table

Likewise, efficiency doesn’t solve water-quality issues such as Toledo’s, where ratepayers could be looking at $1 billion for a new drinking-water plant advanced enough to filter out the pollutants brewing in Lake Erie, their water source. Donald Moline, commissioner of Toledo’s public utilities department, said the cost issues are opening up much-needed dialogue with the agricultural community on its contribution to nonpoint-source pollution in Lake Erie. Fueled by farming, septic systems, urban runoff and other causes, nonpoint-source pollution is the largest contributor to water-quality problems in the United States. “It used to be we just weren’t allowed to get into the agricultural causes, but given the science of this, we can’t ignore that piece,” Moline said.

Indeed, concerns over both quality and quantity make agriculture an increasingly important part of the conversation about how we value and price water, said University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the books "Water Follies" and "Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It."

Irrigation costs differ significantly for American farmers depending on whether they operate in the West or in the East. Reclamation Reform Acts in the 1980s and 90s began to shift the costs of major U.S. irrigation projects — which move river water around the West — from federal taxpayers to western farmers, whose bill depends on an arcane mix of water rights, allocations and contracts. But in the Colorado River basin, century-old water law can still create a tragedy of the commons in which farmers risk losing their allotment if they don’t use it. To solve this waste-encouraging dilemma, Glennon advocates a regulated system of markets and trading that would allow farmers to sell their water allotments to cities in times of drought or let a manufacturer pay to convert a large farm from flood to drip irrigation in exchange for the saved water.

Groundwater presents yet another paradox of price: Rising energy costs and declining water levels in troubled aquifers such as the Ogallala in the U.S. Great Plains have helped motivate many farmers to use less water. Agricultural and industrial water users pay for the wells, pumps and energy to draw water up from belowground, but in much of the country they still pay nothing for the water itself — which in some cases has provoked a race to the bottom that can dry up neighbors’ wells and even collapse the ground underfoot. In one hot spot in California’s San Joaquin Valley, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found that steady groundwater pumping in the nut-tree region south of Merced is sinking the ground nearly a foot a year, threatening infrastructure damage to local communities.

In August, the California legislature passed a package of laws to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time in state history. But the laws won’t slow damage to aquifers without meaningful limits on groundwater withdrawals or a charge for extraction, said Zetland, the water economist. Both are tough to pull off in politically regulated systems. Florida has required permits for large groundwater withdrawals since 1972. But governor-appointed water boards are reluctant to deny them, which has aggravated aquifer depletion, drying springs and coastal saltwater intrusion in some parts of the state. For decades, various Florida councils, committees and commissions have concluded that a small fee on groundwater withdrawals — between 1 and 20 cents for every 1,000 gallons — would reduce pumping and fund water-resource protection with “minimal adverse economic impacts” to industry and agriculture, according to one analysis by Chase Securities. But the agricultural lobby keeps the idea from getting very far in the state legislature.

New approaches

Going forward, water infrastructure, supply and quality challenges intensified by droughts, floods, temperature extremes and other influences of a changing climate will require new approaches not only to price, but also ethics: using less and polluting less, recycling more, and sharing costs among all users.

At the local utility level, higher prices and tiered price structures, in which households that use more pay more, are both working to encourage conservation. Utilities are also turning to new types of bonds to cover long-term projects, such as the 100-year “green bond” sold this summer by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to finance environmentally friendly stormwater solutions.

Water-science and engineering groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers make the case that the U.S. infrastructure crisis is severe enough that local communities cannot solve it alone; they suggest that federal investment is crucial to forestall significant costs in emergency repair and business losses.

Market fixes and agricultural partnerships are also part of the answer — especially if water law can evolve to do a better job of protecting the environment and local communities. Over the past two decades, drought-addled Australia has built the world’s largest water market, trading $2.5 billion per year and allowing the government to buy back overallocated rights and return water to nature. Price trends are up — both utility customers and agricultural users are paying more for water — while overall consumption is down. However, feared adverse social impacts may be coming to pass; researchers from Griffith University in Queensland (PDF) found governments trading “with little regard or knowledge of Indigenous interests, and many Indigenous people believe that contemporary water resource management is amplifying inequities.”

Human rights advocates often oppose water markets on the grounds that we should not commodify an essential human need. But U.S. water use and price have been so skewed for so long that market solutions may be the only politically feasible way to right them. If we are to subsidize anyone, perhaps it should be the poor: A sustenance level of water for those who need it — free or dirt cheap — and higher prices for those who want more and choose to pay. “I argue for a human right to water,” said Glennon. “If we can’t guarantee that in the richest country in the world, we are a sorry lot.”

Key tenets as U.S. water law and policy evolves, Glennon said, are making sure the environment and communities where water originates are not harmed. “It’s glacial, but we are finally seeing people do things differently,” he said. “Across California, you see block rates and municipalities paying people to rip out lawns. Price is going to give us the opportunity to do some things before crisis becomes a catastrophe.”

This story first appeared at ENSIA. Top image by simonalvinge via Shutterstock.

How Ford aims to drive down its energy costs by $7 million a year

Stephen Kennett

Ford will invest more than $25 million in LED lighting at its global manufacturing facilities — cutting annual energy use equivalent to running over 6,000 average-sized homes a year.

The LED fittings will replace traditional high-intensity discharge and fluorescent lights, and are expected to reduce Ford’s energy use at manufacturing facilities by 56 million kilowatt-hours a year. This equates to 70 percent reduction in lighting energy consumption compared to traditional technologies and is expected to cut annual energy costs by around $7 million.

According to Ford the need for maintenance also will diminish, as LED lighting has a 15-year life expectancy and studies show LED light output remains steady at less than 1 percent degradation per year over the life of the equipment, while fluorescent and HID fixtures require re-lamping in as little as two years.

John Fleming, executive vice president, global manufacturing and labor affairs at Ford, said: “We are extremely pleased to install this leading-edge technology in our manufacturing facilities worldwide. This is a long term investment in our future that highlights our aggressive approach to lead in environmental improvements and achieve operating efficiencies.

"Ford worked closely with its scientists and suppliers to investigate and closely follow the rapid development of LED lighting."

In 2011, Ford embarked on a program to lower its energy use by 25 percent per vehicle produced at its facilities by 2016. The company is on its way toward meeting that goal, having achieved a 20 percent energy efficiency already, said George Andraos, director of energy and sustainability at Ford Land.

“Moving to LED gives us impressive efficiency improvement,” said Andraos. “Ford worked closely with its scientists and suppliers to investigate and closely follow the rapid development of LED lighting. In 2013, we selected Dialight, a leading LED industrial fixture manufacturer with a global footprint, to develop light fixtures that meet Ford’s global needs.”

The roll-out began at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant last month and will continue through the year at 17 other Ford manufacturing facilities across the globe, including Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Ky.; Livonia Transmission Plant in Livonia, Mich.; Dearborn Stamping Plant; Essex Engine in Windsor, Ont.; Dagenham Engine Plant in Dagenham, England; and Oakville Assembly in Oakville, Ont.

Recently, Ford also announced that it will work with DTE Energy to install Michigan’s largest solar carport at its Dearborn world headquarters. When completed in early 2015, the project is expected to generate 1.3 million kilowatt-hours a year.

This story originally appeared on 2degrees and is reprinted with permission. Top image of Ford auto plant in Russia by vladimir salman via Shutterstock

3 steps to bring sustainability to your supply chain

Alan Amling

According to PwC's Global Supply Chain Survey 2013 (PDF), more than two-thirds of supply chain executives said sustainability will play an increasing role in the supply chains of the future. It's clear that growing consumer demand and increasing legislation have begun to shift the perception of sustainable supply chains from "nice to have" to "need to have."

There is little doubt that production, transportation and even warehousing of goods are major impacts on an organization's total carbon footprint. As a result, it is more important than ever for companies to evaluate their current supply chain practices, not only to identify ways to reduce environmental impact, but also to reduce costs through increased efficiencies.

One of the easiest ways a company can do this is by partnering with a third-party logistics provider (usually abbreviated as 3PL, but sometimes as TPL) that can offer expertise on making the entire supply chain more sustainable. The following are three steps companies can take with a 3PL to reduce the environmental impact of their supply chain, ultimately saving them time and money.

1. Measure footprint

One of the main ways logistics partners can help companies to improve the environmental sustainability of their supply chains is by first measuring and assessing current operations. By gaining an understanding of the impact of the current supply chain through the use of tools, such as a carbon footprint analysis, companies will be in a better place to later manage a more efficient supply chain.

[Learn more about smarter supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

An experienced 3PL can work with customers to develop a credible carbon impact analysis, such as one that follows the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. The result of a decade-long partnership between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the GHG Protocol is the most widely recognized international tool that helps to identify, measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions. The process sheds some light on a company's carbon impact, which can help companies to properly report and thus meet regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, verification and certification of the analysis by credible third parties provides confidence that numbers provided by carriers are credible.

A 3PL experienced with this tool can help companies through the process more easily and develop insightful recommendations on how to best redesign, reengineer and optimize current processes to create a more sustainable supply chain.

2. Manage operations

Another way 3PLs can help companies to create a more sustainable supply chain is by helping to manage their current supply chain through the implementation of optimization measures. From transportation design to organization and execution, a 3PL can help companies optimize their existing transportation and packaging operations.

Strategies for removing unnecessary legs of transportation could include shifting transportation modes, relocating inventory to optimal locations based on the customer's requirements or business needs, or co-locating value-adding logistics services (such as kitting and packaging or repair services) in a single location.

 Rob Igo via Flickr

When it comes to managing packaging operations, 3PLs can help customers to reduce wasteful shipping materials by providing guidance on package function and design. This can include identifying the most efficient packaging design and materials, or incorporating the use of packaging materials made from recyclable or sustainably sourced materials.

Managing efficiently also means managing warehouses and distribution centers in a more sustainable manner. Energy-efficient warehouse and office lighting, LED technology, warehouse and office occupancy sensors, recycling programs and green space are all elements of sustainable warehousing.

3. Mitigate impact

Finally, 3PLs can help their customers to mitigate their environmental impact in a number of ways beyond measurement and supply chain organization and management. With access to a broad range of technologies as well as transportation and warehousing solutions, some 3PLs can assist customers in implementing sustainable supply chain strategies. This includes access to transportation methods that are less carbon-intensive (such as rail or ocean modes) or partnering with transportation providers or carriers investing in hybrid or natural gas vehicles within their ground fleets.

From a technology standpoint, 3PLs can work with their customer to incorporate paperless solutions for commercial invoices and billing, as well as customs documents, to reduce overall paper consumption.

One area where a 3PL can make a particularly large impact on supply chain sustainability is by helping customers to set up efficient reverse logistics operations. By implementing processes for recycling, refurbishment or end-of-product life disposal, companies can make a significant reduction in their total carbon footprint. 3PLs that can offer these services at a centralized warehousing or distribution point can make an even bigger impact by reducing the miles traveled at the end of the product lifecycle.

After implementing these efficiencies, companies still will be responsible for some level of carbon impact. Organizations looking to reduce their impact further can work with carriers that offer customers the ability to offset the impact of their shipments by investing in environmental projects.

The value of the right partner

While the idea of creating a more sustainable supply chain may seem overwhelming for some companies, having a knowledgeable and experienced logistics partner to help with the process can make it manageable for nearly any company. To identify a 3PL best-positioned to assist in this area, companies should consider partners whose sustainability practices they look to emulate. They should ask the following questions:

Does the company value sustainability and in turn practice what it preaches? Does it issue an annual company sustainability report? Is it transparent in its sustainability efforts? Will its network and assets provide opportunities for my company to create a more efficient and sustainable supply chain? Does it have access to cutting-edge technologies and tools? Does it have a proven track record when it comes to assisting customers?

Asking these questions and taking the preceding steps with a logistics partner not only will help to ensure your supply chain is meeting the growing demand for increased environmental sustainability, but help to reduce costs and most important — reduce the impact of business on our planet, preserving it for future generations.

Top image of chain on cardboard by Christos Siatos via Shutterstock.

Dear Shannon: How can I interview for top sustainability talent?

Shannon Houde

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to shannon@walkoflifeconsulting.com.

Dear Shannon,

I'm a hiring manager at a small mission-based organization based in Portland, Oregon. Our company is committed to incorporating sustainability into our bottom line and long-term strategy. We are starting to look for new talent that can lead change in all of our new hires. That said, we are feeling a bit lost about how to assess sustainability skills during the interview process. Any ideas?

Pat in Portland

Dear Pat,

As a sustainability career coach and former HR exec, I hear about the challenges of hiring the right person for corporate responsibility or impact roles from both sides of the fence. Job seekers see mountains of competition and no defined career track for the roles they want, while hiring managers see vague personal profiles and CVs and a complex, heterogeneous, career changing talent pool.

According to leading CSR and sustainability recruitment agency, Acre, whichever phase of the sustainability journey an organization is in, the individuals leading the strategy need to understand that it's not a static function. Rather, sustainability is a continually evolving business strategy that underpins the organization. For hiring managers this means that they must respond in real time to ever-changing skillsets and competencies when recruiting new talent.

How to assess core sustainability competencies

In a recent article, I outlined my top five crucial skillsets or competencies that a CSR or sustainability practitioner will need in their arsenal. Now, I’m sharing the challenging questions that really get to the heart of these competencies in a job interview context to help hiring managers sift out the gems.

If you're looking for the best talent but finding it hard to spot, or if you are the talent but struggling to land your dream job, then  read through these 5 questions and consider how they could help you to find or be that chosen gem. If you’re a job seeker, take these questions one at a time and write out your answers. They will reveal a lot.

1. Bravery and resilience: This is all about your ability to lead change in an organization, and bounce back when times get tough.

· Tell me about a time when you were challenged to stay committed to a project.

· How did you overcome your fear to take it to fruition?

· When you feel uncomfortable in a situation what do you do? Give an example.

2. Ability to balance global and local perspectives: This relates to the need to view sustainability at different scales within the organization and its markets.

· How have you been able to deliver and measure tangible impact in a global or local context?

· What are the challenges you see in being able to balance global and local perspectives?

· How could we as an organization scale up to bring our local programs global?

3. Innovative and systems thinking: This is the big picture stuff, the fitting together of the jigsaw puzzle that brings individual sustainability initiatives together into a holistic vision for the organization, the sector and the world.

· How do you see the different elements of the sustainability agenda fitting together?

· How will innovation help to develop a more sustainable economy?

4. Influencing and negotiating: This is how you work with others to achieve your objectives, your interpersonal skills.

· Give me an example of a time you had to convince someone to do something they didn't want to do?

· What is your approach to negotiating with someone strong headed?

· How would you go about getting diverse stakeholders on board for a new idea?

5. Engaging others in the on the journey on their terms: This is all about empathy and understanding for other people’s positions, and of course communication.

· Tell me about a time you had to gain buy-in from senior management and how you did it?

· How would you go about getting other departments on board for an idea for sustainability?

· What are the three key steps you would take to get others to follow you on your journey?

A sustainability lens on standard interview questions

Of course, the more standard interview questions can also reveal much about how an applicant might perform in a sustainability role. One of my favorite sources of old school interview questions and answers is this 1984 book excerpt. Not much has changed in the intervening 30 years.

Questions such as "Tell me about yourself" and "Walk me through your resume," remain a set-up to see if the candidate has done their homework and can make their recent career experience relevant to the role, company culture and organizational needs. "What do you know about the company?" is another question that helps hiring managers see how well the candidate understands the organization and why they want to work there, and if their values are aligned.

Other questions, such as, "What is one question you wish I'd asked you?" can expose the scale of a job seeker’s ambitions and give insight into their blue-sky thinking. "What you do in the first 30, 60 and 90 days of this job?" can shed light onto a candidate’s strategic approach to delivering results with diplomacy. How they'll approach the role and the internal politics is an important indicator of how they’ll fit into the existing team and be able to make progress against key performance indicators.

Front-load the tough questions

Some techniques for finding top sustainability talentsuch as the one used by leading sustainability consultancy, BSRput the tough questions right at the beginning of the hiring process. For a senior role as director of the women’s empowerment organization HERProject, the online application required candidates to give written answers to more than 10 additional questions of up to 300 words each. 

Some of the questions ranged from working with a global workforce to project management to health interventions. Here are some examples:

1. “Please describe your philosophy on working with a global workforce. Please include, how would you provide support and mentor staff, as well as understand different cultural aspects to support success.”

2. “Please describe an example of a project that you have worked on and are proud of, including: the objective, outcomes, the relationships/partners which contributed to success, and the challenges, and how you overcame them.”

3. “Describe an intervention that you have seen implemented badly. Or which had poor or limited impact. What did you learn from that experience?”

This may seem more like a graduate school application than a standard job application, but it’s a great way to screen out the talent that is not willing to put the time into a considerate application. For those that do engage, their commitment and passion shine through. 

Preparation is the key to success. Let me know whether these questions helped you recruit the right people for your sustainability team, or if they helped you prepare for an interview for your dream sustainability job.

Top image of job interview candidates by baranq via Shutterstock

Will synthetic biology change the way we farm and eat?

Josie Garthwaite

Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world's largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don't agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It's an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test and build living parts and systems — even entire genomes.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA, with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.

In Boston, scientists and students will showcase synbio projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, such as the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, such as an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible "wonder protein" containing essential amino acids.

Now in its 11th year, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition has grown up alongside synthetic biology itself. Organized by a nonprofit foundation spun out of MIT, the event has acquired a mix of public and private partners, including the FBI, the National Science Foundation, Monsanto and Autodesk. And no wonder. Synbio could produce both transformative science and big business. By some estimates, the global market for synthetic biology is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2018. Much of the anticipated activity centers on pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, chemicals and energy products such as biofuels. But in the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat.

Whereas many genetically modified crops today contain a single engineered gene, synthetic biology makes it easier to generate larger clusters of genes and gene parts. These synthetic clusters can then be engineered by more conventional methods into plants or microbes. As a result, today's iGEM competitors may be tomorrow's developers of a new generation of genetically modified organisms. By assembling biological systems from genetic code catalogued in online databases and fine-tuned through computer modeling, they could deliver more nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land and energy and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming.

Synthesized DNA can be harnessed for food production in a few ways. Foods and flavorings created through fermentation with engineered yeast are one option. A startup called Muufri, for example, is working on an animal-free milk product; a crowd-funded group of “biohackers” collaborating in community labs in the Bay Area aims to create a vegan cheese; and the Swiss company Evolva is using synthetic biology to develop saffron, vanillin and stevia. Other companies, such as Solazyme, are engineering microalgae to produce algal "butter," protein-rich flour and a vegan protein. And in academia, research is under way for clusters of synthesized genes to eventually be inserted directly into plants or into microbes in soil and roots that affect plant growth.

To some, it is a frightening future that has synthesized DNA coming to the farm, market and dinner table. Environmental news site Grist has called synthetic biology “the next front in the GMO war.” Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that views genetically modified crops as "a direct extension of chemical agriculture," calls synbio an "extreme form" of genetic engineering.

According to Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, the group is not opposed to the technology, but rather for its responsible use. "We're at this crossroad," she says. "We have the opportunity to look back at history and learn from our mistakes." Transparency is key. "Before synthetic biology gets rubber-stamped as sustainable or natural or a technology which could help mitigate climate change, we need international and national regulations specific to these technologies," she says. "We need to make sure it's not going to do more harm than good."

Indeed, we're only beginning to unravel the ecological implications of the technology. Experts consulted for a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project say potential risks demanding more research range from the creation of "new or more vigorous pests and pathogens" to "causing irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within species."

Assessing these risks in the real world is complex. While some engineered traits "will clearly have great benefit to the environment with little risk," plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, who directs the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis, "each gene or trait must be assessed on a case-by-case basis." Experimental organisms would typically be tested in a lab or confined field trials, which may be inadequate to foretell the co-evolution and interplay of a full ecosystem. According to the Wilson Center report, some of the most advanced models in use today for eco-evolutionary dynamics falter beyond a 10-year time frame.

"We don't know how these organisms [developed through synthetic biology] will interact with pollinators, soil systems, other organisms," Perls says. And a self-replicating organism with synthetic DNA, released into an ecosystem, could swap genes with wild counterparts. "We need to expect escape; and when that happens, we need to be prepared to deal with it," she says.

While many people involved with synthetic biology say existing regulation of engineered plants — generally split in the United States among the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture — will extend adequately to synbio, others see a need to shore up oversight. Policy analysts with the J. Craig Venter Institute, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the University of Virginia, for example, concluded earlier this year that the shift to synthetic biology could leave "many engineered plants without any premarket regulatory review" because the USDA's authority depends on a technique that's outdated for many applications. And the increasing number and diversity of microbes expected to be engineered for commercial use, the authors warned, will challenge the "EPA's resources, expertise and perhaps authority to regulate them."

That report came on the heels of a Kickstarter project called Glowing Plants aimed at producing "sustainable natural lighting" through synthetic biology, which exposed some possible loopholes. The company laid out a plan to derive DNA from fireflies, modify it to work in a flowering plant related to mustard, order the reprogrammed sequence from a company that laser-prints DNA, coat it onto metal particles, and inject it into seeds using a device called a gene gun. And they promised to distribute some 600,000 of these seeds to supporters.

"Is it legal? Yes it is!" the Glowing Plants team wrote. FDA regulation is out because the plant is not meant to be eaten, and EPA says the project would be a matter for the USDA. But because the genes are transferred via gene gun (a technique developed after guidelines were established in the late 1980s), the plant falls outside the USDA’s purview. As a spokesperson for the agency later told the journal Nature, "Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] does not regulate it." The landscape is different overseas. "Regrettably," the Glowing Plants team wrote, "the European Union has tighter restrictions in place so we can't send seeds there as a reward."

Hungry, hungry planet

To be sure, the global food system is ripe for redesign. "Agriculture is the biggest driver of environmental impacts on the planet," says Paul West, co-director and lead scientist for the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Agriculture occupies about 40 percent of Earth's ice-free land and accounts for some 70 percent of water use. "And because of all the fertilizer that's used, it's the main source of water quality problems," West says. By 2050, we can expect at least 2 billion additional eaters, as well as heightened demand for feed crops to support growing appetites for meat and dairy.

At the same time, climate models point to a future of tightening constraints on food systems around the globe. Although warmer temperatures could increase yields in some regions, West says, temperature and rainfall changes alone could slash overall crop yields by an estimated 10 to 40 percent. Expected changes in the frequency of drought, flooding and extreme weather events could drive those losses even higher, he says.

A variety of reforms can help to address these challenges. Reducing waste, tweaking the location and timing of fertilizer applications, stopping irrigation leaks, and diversifying crop production would offer a good start. Synthetic biology could become part of a solution at some point, West says. But because "what we eat is so heavily influenced by culture, taste, preference and cost," he says, "even if something works really well on paper, it doesn't mean that it's accepted."

'A special lightning rod'

Genetically engineered foods, "ignite a special lightning rod," University of California, Berkeley, bioethicist David Winickoff observes. Unlike drugs produced through biotechnology, such as insulin, we "still have a substitute product that's quote, 'pure,'" when it comes to food, says Winickoff, who directs the Berkeley Science, Technology and Society Center.

Yet, with few exceptions, "almost everything we eat is produced on farms, which is an artificial environment," says Ronald. What's more, in an era of climate change and ecosystem-scale restoration, Winickoff says, "it's harder to maintain an idea of 'pure' nature." If our species has already shaped the state of our planet, might that compel further intervention, he asks, to right past wrongs — or at least adapt to their consequences?

"There have been all kinds of examples of technocratic interventions that have gone wrong, or at least have [had] large social consequences — some good and some bad," Winickoff says.

"With large interventions, there are winners and losers," he adds. "It doesn't just have to do with aggregate risk and benefit, but thinking about how risk and benefits are allocated."

The new 'natural'

"What synthetic biology should be able to do is improve the efficiency with which we're converting, ultimately, sunlight into proteins and carbohydrates," says Neil Goldsmith, CEO of Evolva. The company has generated and screened billions of variations on a genetic theme to arrive at the design for a system that runs on sugar, electricity, water (a reminder that even microbial factories require inputs) and yeast cells containing synthesized DNA. The yeast cells are removed during production, and at a molecular level, the result is identical to the chemical that gives vanilla orchid seeds their distinctive flavor.

According to Evolva, its living vanillin factory mirrors the fermentation process used to make beer. And compared to existing vanilla flavorings derived from petroleum, the company claims to offer “greater naturalness.” In Goldsmith's view, there's no such thing as an artificial gene. "DNA is DNA," he says. In terms of function, "what matters to a gene is sequence, not how you made it."

"Friends of the Earth has launched a campaign to stop "synbio vanilla" from making its way into ice cream, warning that the product "could set a dangerous precedent for synthetic genetically engineered ingredients to sneak into our food supply and be labeled as 'natural.'" In response, Häagen-Dazs and a handful of other ice cream makers that use vanilla extract from actual vanilla beans have said they will not use vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology.

For groups like Friends of the Earth, part of the concern is that synthesized DNA is developed "outside of nature, outside of the process of natural selection." It is a startlingly far cry, Perls says, from crossbreeding crops over decades and centuries, and "ultimately letting nature figure out how those crops are going to survive."

Out of the freezer, into the field

While synthesized DNA in food is running its first public-opinion gantlet en route to the frozen desserts aisle, synbio approaches in time could reprogram the most basic interactions between plants and their environment.

The ability to synthesize DNA has "completely transformed" much of the Ronald Lab's work at UC Davis because researchers no longer need to isolate a DNA sequence to study it. About 25 years ago, Ronald began searching for genes in rice that allow the plant to resist disease or tolerate stress. In 1995, her team isolated a gene that confers disease resistance. In 2006, the researchers were finally able to isolate a group of genes that could bestow flood tolerance on rice varieties that would otherwise die after a few days underwater. And by 2013, more than 4 million farmers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and India had planted rice engineered (through a process known as precision breeding) to have that genetic marker.

"Synthesis would not have sped things up much," Ronald says, because the slow-going work in this case had to do with identifying genes of interest and introducing them into plants. What has changed is that researchers can now scan for candidates among the growing number of DNA sequences documented in government databases, and once candidates are identified, it's easier to start studying and prioritizing them. "You can synthesize a lot of constructs and test them very rapidly," she says.

"We need to reduce carbon emissions and toxic inputs, use less land and water, combat pests, and increase soil fertility," Ronald says. While it's too early to predict which tool will be most efficient in achieving the goals of safety and sustainability over the long-term, she says, "for a farmer or a geneticist, we use whatever tool will work."

The accelerating pace of this work opens a door for new risks. According to Pamela Silver, professor of biochemistry and systems biology at Harvard Medical School, however, synthetic biology is like many other technologies in the realm of dual-use research. "There's the good side and the potential dark side."

Synthetic biology builds on decades of advances in molecular biology, systems biology and biotechnology. In the 1980s, polymerase chain reaction technology made it possible to zoom in on a segment of DNA and make billions of copies, Silver explains. In time, scientists could take genes and make specific mutations, but it was still nature's foundation. Today, "you are no longer stuck with what nature has on offer. You can start to create things," Silver says. "You could do it in the PCR days, but now, as the cost of making DNA gets ever cheaper, then it's really only your imagination that's the limit."

Automatic shutdown

Some synthetic biologists are imagining an "off" switch for engineered traits. Crops today that have been engineered to tolerate pests, herbicides, disease or drought express that tolerance all the time. With the tools of synbio, biophysicist and synthetic biologist Christopher Voigt explains, an organism could be programmed to have a genetic trait "deal with the problem and then go away."

As the tools to design entire genomes catch up to the ability to construct them, Voigt expects to see cereal crops programmed to sense and respond to environmental information, like dryness. In the coming years, Voigt says, "You'll think about the organism you want and then be systematic about building that organism up from scratch."

As a demonstration, Voigt’s team at MIT has inserted a cluster of 16 delicately tuned genes into a bacterium to give it nitrogen-fixing abilities. If successfully applied to plants, this approach could potentially reduce applications of nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute to emissions of nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas. There are implications for energy, too. According to a recent paper on emerging synbio policy issues from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the impact of creating self-fertilizing plants through synthetic biology "could revolutionize agriculture and would significantly decouple agriculture from the oil industry."

"Nitrogen fixation is very sensitive," Voigt says. "If you change any of the levels, it stops working altogether." Part of the challenge is that oxygen produced by plants during photosynthesis is "supertoxic" for a key enzyme called nitrogenase, explains Himadri Pakrasi, director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis and leader of the school's iGEM team. "This is probably why most plants have not figured out how to fix nitrogen for themselves," he says.

A special class of cyanobacteria, however, manages to accomplish both photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation. The key is having a genetic switch to run photosynthesis during the day and nitrogen fixation at night. Pakrasi's team is working to "import" the switch and parts for nitrogen fixation — about three dozen genes — from this cyanobacterium into a different cyanobacterium that also performs photosynthesis but lacks the genetic parts to fix nitrogen.

In the original organism, the genes involved in nitrogen fixation are scattered "all over the genome," which is inconvenient for transplanting. Synthesizing these genes into a neat package, or plasmid, is now relatively simple, and it's getting cheaper, Pakrasi says. His lab can purchase a gene from one of a growing number of DNA makers for as little as $300, less than half of the price they paid for the same product even a few months ago.

"The next phase of the challenge is much bigger: how to connect the operation of this made-up plasmid to the genetic program that's existing in the cyanobacteria," he says. Synthetic biology approaches offer a way to tinker with those connections so the custom-built gene cluster can function in the new cell. "If we solve this, which we haven't yet, then the same principles can be applied to chloroplasts in crop plants," Pakrasi says. He envisions the scheme helping to boost yields of corn, rice, wheat and other crops in places where fertilizers today are expensive for many farmers. "And if that can be done, it can solve the world's food problem in a very big way."

Farming techniques have changed for 10,000 years, and they're on the cusp of major changes now. But it's still early days for synthetic biology. "Hopefully," Ronald says, "those changes will allow us to preserve our Earth in good shape for another 10,000 years."

This article was produced by Climate Confidential. Wheat field image by Igor Strukov via Shutterstock.

The dark side of solar: Why waste concerns abound

Mike Hower

Clean technology investments in emerging markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and China are estimated to exceed $6 trillion over the next decade, according to a recent report (PDF) by infoDev/World Bank Group. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that, for the nearly 1.3 billion people around the world lacking access to an electricity grid, clean technologies such as off-grid solar devices quickly are becoming a popular alternative to more expensive and polluting fuels such as kerosene, wood and coal.

In Malawi, 80 percent of the population lives off the grid in rural areas and people must walk more than a mile from their villages to local townships to access electricity. Reliance on conventional fuels such as kerosene also contributes to health problems and poverty in developing regions. Typical households use 20 percent of their incomes burning kerosene for lighting, which also emits noxious black smoke, according to SolarAid.

Solar lights cost as little as $10, pay for themselves after 12 weeks and last for five years — while producing zero adverse health effects. Off-grid solar devices make it easier for people to do everything from cooking to charging their cell phones. Use of solar technology will become more common as it becomes cheaper and organizations such as the International Renewable Energy Agency work to develop the Africa Clean Energy Corridor to help the continent to rapidly adopt renewable energy.

But there is a catch. Because developing regions tend to lack solid waste disposal infrastructures, devices that no longer function typically are burned or discarded into the environment. With little political will or economic capacity to build conventional solid waste infrastructures in these areas, this conundrum will need to be solved at the “front end” through safer, more sustainable and more recyclable designs and materials, as well as by developing alternative waste management strategies.

San Francisco Bay Area-based non-profit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is attempting to do just that, drawing on its experience in electronics and solar sustainability to promote the market expansion of off-grid solar products, while also developing practical solutions to the recycling and reuse of these devices. The Sustainable Off-Grid Solar Recycling Incubator will partner with African communities, university researchers and students, as well as off-grid solar lighting companies to promote product innovation and sustainability. This pilot project also will develop innovative waste management systems that attempt to leapfrog over the need to build expensive conventional waste collection infrastructure and can be replicated in communities around the world.

The Global North has much to learn from these efforts as it deals with its own solar waste problems. Spurred by government subsidies, the millions of solar panels created each year is resulting in millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water, according to a 2013 Associated Press investigation. Although larger, more established solar companies usually have the resources to invest in on-site waste treatment equipment that allows them to recycle some waste, newer companies often send hazardous waste hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles to be processed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the solar fiefdom of California — from 2007 through the first part of 2011, some 17 companies with 44 manufacturing facilities in California produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water, the AP investigation found. Around 97 percent of the sludge was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

But the transport of waste is not being factored into solar companies’ carbon footprint scores, which can lead to inaccurate life cycle analyses of the global warming pollution that goes into solar production. According to a researcher AP interviewed, transporting 6.2 million pounds of waste by heavy-duty tractor-trailer from Fremont, Calif., in the Bay Area, to a site 1,800 miles away could add 5 percent to a particular product's carbon footprint. After installing a solar panel, it takes one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving hazardous waste emissions out of state.

It’s important to note that although much of the waste produced is considered toxic (in the form of carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water), there is no evidence it has harmed human health. Conversely, energy derived from natural gas and coal-fired power plants creates more than 10 times more hazardous waste than the same energy created by a solar panel. Although the U.S. solar industry has been dutiful about reporting its waste and sending it to approved storage facilities, coal-fired power plants send mercury, cadmium and other toxins directly into the air, which pollutes water and land around the facility.

All said, solar production is still significantly cleaner than burning fossil fuels. But this doesn’t mean we can overlook the negative environmental impacts. Waste is a complex conversation, but it is one we need to be having. Transparency is key — but this will get more complicated as solar panel manufacturing moves from the U.S. and Europe to less regulated places such as China and Malaysia. Just as we look to preempt the adverse environmental side effects of solar in the developing world by rethinking design and materials, so should we be doing this at home. We also would do well to look at the lessons of Silicon Valley’s environmental problems caused by the electronics industry in the early 1980s and put in place the processes that will make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Top image of solar panel in Africa by Daleen Loest via Shutterstock

Why you'll never retire: 7 sustainability veterans explain

Ellen Weinreb

As a recruiter, I am very interested in the arc of one’s career. The piece of this arc I find far too often neglected is what happens after people transition from their corporate roles to other phases of their lives. Are they contemplating a “retirement” in the classical sense of a formal separation, a chosen alternative career pathway or a combination of both? What can a sustainability professional do upon her departure from a corporation? 

Chuck Bennett and I share an interest in the professional development of the sustainability professional. Chuck formally retired from Aveda in 2013 as VP of Earth & Community Care, and currently is letting the next phase evolve.

In the interest of learning more, we decided to pull together six of Chuck’s friends for a conversation. They represent a continuum, from full professional engagement yet thinking about a future path to various stages of transition.

A lively discussion it was. So much so that this article is just the first in a two-part series. It introduces Chuck and his six friends, and shares a range of paths available to a sustainability professional that he and five others have pursued.

But first, a key theme of the conversation. Most of Chuck’s friends cringe at the word “retirement.” As participant Gene Kahn said, “It’s not surprising that the word ‘retirement’ gets such a strong negative response from so many ‘mature’ people today. The word ‘retire’ is derived from the French word ‘retirer,’ which literally means ‘to withdraw, to retreat, to go to bed, or to fall back.’ Certainly this would not be an attractive self-concept to hold, let alone to aspire toward.” Clearly, this is a topic fraught with a complex range of opinions and perceptions.

Meet the seven participants

Scott Nadler, ERM, was involved with politics, government, Conrail and the environment, and taught at Northwestern University. He is a partner at ERM, but is contemplating the next phase which increasingly focuses on other professional interests beyond ERM.




Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm, spent 22 years in corporate sustainability, in addition to agriculture, education and forestry. She transitioned from her full-time corporate role at Stonyfield Farm to consulting so as to focus on her core interest in climate change and to achieve a better work-life balance.




Gene Kahn, General Mills, worked in agriculture and branded foods, sold a company to General Mills and became its global sustainability officer. He initiated a program on hunger and poverty alleviation for the General Mills Foundation. He formally retired at age 65 as a result of General Mills policy, and joined the NGO HarvestPlus. On top of his role leading global market development, he also is helping HarvestPlus improve business practices.



Bill Blackburn, Baxter, “retired” as the result of a corporate reorganization. He is writing, consulting and developing a nature conservancy on an old family farm in southwest Iowa.




Lynnette McIntire, UPS, “retired” at age 55, the minimal retirement age at the company. She wanted to achieve a more balanced quality of life; she also was ready to try something else and share her experience, having been a change agent at UPS for many years. Currently she is teaching, consulting, and speech writing.




Chuck Bennett, Aveda, formally “retired” at age 70 after a career in several corporations and The Conference Board. Now he is sorting out what’s next with an emphasis on helping young people with their careers, including students and young professionals.




Paul Comey, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, seized the opportunity of a leadership change to formally retire when he found the job no longer was fun. He had started out in education before becoming general manager of manufacturing in cast iron materials. Then he worked for the CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters as VP of facilities & engineering, before moving on to environmental affairs. He is now pursuing personal interests and consulting with green businesses in start-up stage.



The first lesson we learned is there is a continuum of departures. As with the variety of paths that sustainability professionals follow over their corporate careers, our participants revealed a range of options for post-retirement/transition life. These include working part-time for their prior employer, teaching, writing, consulting, working for an NGO, helping students and young professionals and working on sustainability-related personal interests.

People have transitioned at different stages of their careers for different reasons. Some did so simply because it was time, either by corporate decision or personal choice. For example, Gene’s retirement fully was expected and planned because General Mills requires officers to retire at age 65. Paul, on the other hand, made the decision on his own, having told himself, ”I’m going to retire when it stops being fun.”

Others made the change to improve their lifestyle or work-life balance. Lynnette had felt her life was “really out of balance.” And some left because they wanted to be able to focus their time and energy on the issues they felt were of greatest significance. Gene said, “I’m doing what I love and what I think is most important in my ability to contribute.”

All continue their interest in and commitment to sustainability, although with different degrees of intensity depending on where they are in their lives. Several continue to work full- or near-full time. Scott described his career as a “hybrid” which has had many phases already. He is a full-time ERM partner now, but may shift to part-time to free up time to transition to the next phase.

Others are mixing activities related to their professional interests with more traditional “retirement” activities such as increased personal travel or family time.

No one is entirely “retired” in the traditional sense of being completely disassociated from his career work. Although Bill received a retirement package that provides financial security, he felt he needed to challenge himself intellectually via writing and consulting. “My father-in-law used to say the quickest way to the grave is to stop working,” he emphasized.

Readers, what are your observations on the arc of a sustainability career? Have you considered continuing to stay involved in CSR even after retirement or transitioning from a corporate to a different role?

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next: Advice for anyone contemplating a transition — including insights from one who is still very professionally active but thinking deeply about the next phase of his life and career. Top image by Robert Kneschke via Shutterstock.

Why renewable methane fuel smells like a rose

Joanna Underwood

From the People's Climate March to the U.N. Climate Summit to U.S. government initiatives, climate concern is surging. One of the most encouraging things about the trend is the intensifying focus on practical solutions, including drilling down on methane, the largest component of natural gas.

Most methane comes from drilling and refining natural gas, and from waste streams including landfills (of which organic wastes are the second biggest component), wastewater and agriculture (especially livestock). Methane now accounts for 9 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions — small compared to carbon dioxide, which is 80 percent — but up to 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas. As curbing methane emissions can have a vital, immediate impact on slowing climate change, it deserves high priority.

Action on methane

It's starting to get that priority bump. In March, the White House released its Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions through voluntary actions across the agriculture, waste, energy and transportation sectors. In August, it announced a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap to cut methane emissions by building an industry that could capture and use them productively. This summer the EPA proposed new rules on methane emissions from landfills, and in the run-up to the U.N. Climate Summit, environmental groups lobbied EPA to require natural gas drilling operations to cut methane leakage. Administrator Gina McCarthy has said EPA will release its methane plan this fall, although we don't know yet whether it will be voluntary or mandatory.

Methane was also a hot topic at the U.N. Climate Summit, which launched more voluntary initiatives, including the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership (PDF) to reduce methane and other so-called "short-lived" but powerful GHG emissions. (Methane breaks down in years or decades while other greenhouse gases can persist for tens of thousands of years.)

Twenty-six cities, ranging from San Francisco to Stockholm and from Rio de Janeiro to Pune, India, have signed on so far, with a goal of 150 cities by 2020. Signers are committed to develop and carry out quantifiable action plans to reduce methane and carbon air pollutants by 2020, focusing on the solid waste sector.

The potential to cut methane emissions, especially from landfills and other waste facilities, never has been greater. Many European cities and a dozen projects in the U.S. already are demonstrating just how huge the potential is.

The lowest-carbon fuel on the market

For example, Waste Management in California is producing enough renewable natural gas from the Altamont landfill to power 400 refuse trucks a day. According to the California Air Resources Board, RNG produced from landfills such as Altamont reduce overall greenhouse gases from production, transport and use of vehicle fuel by about 90 percent, or even more. That makes RNG the lowest-carbon fuel available today, and it could revolutionize heavy-duty transport. Ten million heavy-duty vehicles consume 23 percent of all U.S. road fuel (predominantly diesel) and emit a quarter of all transportation greenhouse gases.

 EPAFossil-derived natural gas used as vehicle fuel is just 20 to 25 percent better on emissions than gasoline or diesel, so how is it possible that RNG could cut GHG emissions 90 percent? The feedstock from which RNG is made is the massive stream of organic waste from our yards, farms, landfills and wastewater. It involves no drilling or fracking, obviating the methane leakage associated with those operations, and capturing methane that otherwise would seep into the atmosphere.

Because RNG and fossil natural gas are so chemically similar, moving from one to the other is seamless. RNG can use existing tanks, pipelines and infrastructure, and can power the same engines that run on fossil natural gas. Burning it actually can prevent more GHGs from entering the atmosphere than it emits itself. That's because the organic wastes already decomposing in our yards, farms, landfills and sewage treatment plants release their hydrocarbons already. If we capture this methane and convert it to energy, in effect we get it for "free" — with no net increase in emissions. That energy offsets fossil fuel use and allows us to leave more fossil fuels in the ground, preventing their hydrocarbons from entering the atmosphere.

The City of Sacramento is demonstrating how to ride this strategy all the way to net negative GHG emissions by skipping the landfill part of the equation. Instead, a private waste hauler, Atlas Disposal, separately collects the city's food wastes and deposits them in special anaerobic digester tanks, where the company CleanWorld captures the biogases (primarily methane) and refines them into vehicle fuel. The bio-solids left in the tanks are a valuable soil amendment. The fuel goes back into the several dozen trucks hauling the waste, creating "a closed-loop system." CleanWorld soon will produce enough fuel to displace 700,000 gallons of petroleum-based diesel fuel on an annual basis -— enough to power dozens of refuse trucks, transit or school buses and to eliminate 18,250 tons of GHGs.

Compared to letting organic wastes rot in a landfill and emit fugitive methane, over its life cycle, including refining and burning the fuel, this system is net carbon-negative. It also creates unexportable jobs, reduces particulate pollution, uses local resources to produce reliable, secure energy and is eminently scalable.

The world now generates 1.3 billion tons of food waste a year, and the World Bank predicts landfills will double by 2025. It's vital to find ways to reduce food waste, especially as population and food demand increase. But between food processing plants, fats and greases, sewage treatment, agricultural waste and other sources, there's no doubt that the organic waste stream will continue to grow and furnish a vast resource for renewable energy and emissions reduction.

Policy required to kickstart RNG

Tapping it is a no-brainer, and a low- to negative-carbon imperative. The Oil & Gas Partnership ultimately aims for 1,000 cities to sign onto its commitment to reduce methane emissions from solid waste. Partner cities around the world could do what Sacramento and Altamont are doing now. Every new waste-to-RNG initiative they launch or inspire would exceed GHG emissions reduction goals set by the U.S. and Europe, as well as the long-term goals set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

RNG projects have proven attractive environmentally as well as economically, but require substantial up-front investment. If ever there was a good argument for using government incentives to help a viable industry evolve rapidly towards a desirable goal, this is it. The RNG sector will be rewarding for investors, but it will be a game-changer for cutting GHG emissions and reducing the environmental, economic and human costs of climate change.

Top image of cow in flowers by Eder via Shutterstock.