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Two Steps Forward

2018 was the year that…

All in all, progress. Just not nearly enough.

It feels like it’s been about 32 months since the calendar flipped over to 2018, way back in January. Which is to say, it’s been a very long year. And I’m talking only about climate, energy and other environmental and cleantech issues. There was all that other news, too.

On the environmental front, 2018 was another, well, interesting year. The problems seem to be getting worse and the solutions seem to be getting better, but "better" doesn’t seem to be outpacing "worse" in this particular horse race. If someone were taking odds (to belabor the racing metaphor), I’d put my money on Mother Nature, not Humanity.

Still, there was plenty to celebrate, even if the sum total of it didn’t quite keep pace with the magnitude of the situation. Clean-energy commitments and purchases ramped up as never before. Companies launched what seemed to be a full-scale attack on plastic waste. Companies increasingly were nudged — forced? — by investors to disclose the risks they face from climate change. Electric vehicles, especially larger ones such as buses and trucks, hit the streets, or soon will. And the notion of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and turning them into useful products no longer seems an idyllic pipedream.

All in all, progress. Just not nearly enough.

There was plenty to celebrate, even if the sum total of it didn’t quite keep pace with the magnitude of the situation.
In that spirit, I perused the 1,248 articles, analyses and columns we published in 2018 on GreenBiz. Here, in no particular order, are some storylines that showed the promise and progress of sustainable business.

Plastic waste experienced a sea change

The move to eliminate plastic waste, not long ago an environmentalist fantasy, has gone mainstream, the product of a rising tide of stories and videos showing how packaging and other plastics are overwhelming rivers and, increasingly, marine life. The world’s biggest brands — coffee chains, fast-food restaurants, beverage companies and purveyors of a wide range of other products — committed to ending plastic waste over the next decade or so. Or, at least, trying to. Their success will be guided in no small part by the infrastructure available to recycle, compost or reuse plastics, which has a long way to go, especially in emerging economies, the source of most plastic pollution.

In October, a group of 275 brands, retailers, recyclers, governments and NGOs pledged to eradicate plastic waste and pollution and to create a circular economy for plastics. It joined what seemed like a tsunami of corporate commitments and partnerships with similar goals. If the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment works as advertised, it may well be the year’s most significant development in corporate sustainability.

Clean energy powered forward

The growth of clean energy purchases by big companies is not a new story, but it is nonetheless remarkable in its lengthy trajectory and growing adherents. Over the course of 2018, a slew of new names appeared on the list of companies making significant purchases, some not necessarily previously associated with sustainable business leadership. The list included Akamai, Brown-Forman, Comcast, Ecolab, Etsy, J.M. Smucker, Kohler, Merck, Novartis, Sysco and T-Mobile, according to the quarterly GreenBiz Clean Energy Deal Tracker.

Some of this is happening through innovative partnerships. For example, in August, Apple, Akamai, Etsy and Swiss Re announced that they would team up to jointly source renewable energy through what promises to become an inspirational model for how like-minded businesses can collaborate to add more clean power to the electric grid.

More companies joined the 100 percent club — those that set their sights on procuring their electricity entirely from renewable sources, including McKinsey, Royal Bank of Scotland, Sony, Via, WeWork and Xcel Energy, the first major U.S. utility to pledge to go carbon-free. Cities, too: In early December, Cincinnati become the 100th U.S. city to set a goal to move to 100 percent renewable energy, joining Columbia, South Carolina; Denver; Minneapolis; Salt Lake City; and Washington, D.C., among the 100 percenters.

Climate risks became material to investors

Until recently, the conversation about business and climate focused almost exclusively on the impact companies are having on climate change. This year, a new conversation began — about the impacts of climate change on companies. The conversation is being driven by something called TCFD — for the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures — a gnarly acronym for a gnarly notion: to assess, as best as possible, how a company’s operations and markets might fare in a world of increasingly disruptive weather and other changing conditions, and then to disclose that assessment to investors and the world.

As 2019 dawns, companies are just waking up to the task, growing their expertise on the topic, consulting consultants and learning from the relatively small number of peer companies that already have completed a cycle of TCFD reporting. These companies are responding to growing pressures from large, institutional investors and pension fund managers, who want to know what risks their investments may face in a climate-changing world, and by governments and stock exchanges around the world that are, or soon will be, making TCFD reporting a requirement for certain companies.

It’s a brave new world for companies, for which making 'forward-looking statements' has long been a rocky road, legally speaking.
It’s a brave new world for companies, for which making "forward-looking statements" long has been a rocky road, legally speaking. Now, companies must lay out the future climate‐related risks and opportunities to their businesses, strategy and financial planning under different future climate scenarios, where such information is material. They must disclose how they identify, assess and manage these risks; describe the metrics and targets they use to assess and manage climate‐related risks and opportunities; and disclose the role of management and the board of directors in all of this.

As more companies engage in such disclosure, whether voluntarily or otherwise, it will open a window on how, and how much, climate change stands to upend company fortunes — and, by extension, the global economy.

Electrified transportation turned the corner

The quest for electric vehicles, a decade in the making, hit full throttle during 2018, as companies and countries accelerated their investments and commitments in everything from scooters to sedans to semi trucks that operate on battery power.

China led the parade. It boasts numerous EV manufacturers, notably BYD, the No. 1 electric vehicle maker in the world. The vast majority of its EV sales have been in China, which has some of the world’s most aggressive national and city government policies. In a single month — April — 73,000 electric vehicles were sold in China, compared to 19,500 in the United States, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The company also planned to build 1,000 electric buses during 2018 in its Lancaster, California, facility.

Meanwhile, individual companies showed their muscle. Tesla continued to surprise skeptics, showing a healthy quarterly profit during the year, thanks in large part to deliveries of its newest, and lower-cost, Model 3 electric vehicle. Meanwhile, Japanese auto giant Mazda became the latest carmaker to shift its business model towards a low-emission future, announcing plans to electrify its entire product range by 2030. Other companies, from Audi to Volvo, also announced plans to ramp up EVs, as did governments in Costa Rica, Poland, the U.K. and the European Union.

The growth of EVs has been aided by a parallel growth of the charging infrastructure in the United States. Both California and New York announced or approved plans to fund nearly $1 billion worth of residential and commercial EV charging stations. But that’s just a beginning. Research from the Edison Electric Institute and the Institute for Electric Innovation predicts that to support the U.S. growth projections of EVs over the next seven years, 4.5 million to 5.5 million chargers would need to be installed by 2025.

The year was topped off by California, whose first-of-its-kind rule, passed in December, mandated that new vehicle purchases by the state's transit agencies must be zero-emissions models. California currently has just 132 zero-emissions buses driving on its roads, and the new rule will boost that to 14,000 by 2040 — and likely will influence other states and provinces around the world to get onboard.

Carbon removal came down to earth

The dream of turning climate pollutants into valuable products has seemed too good to be true. And for a long time, it was. The promise of harnessing the gases that otherwise might contribute to climate change, transforming them into revenue-producing products, continually has been out of reach, lacking viable markets and economies of scale.

That’s changing. Entrepreneurs from both large and smaller companies across a range of industries are demonstrating the potential of carbon dioxide and other gases as a feedstock, turning an environmental liability into a corporate asset.

A company called C2CNT developed a process for converting CO2 into carbon fibers, or nanotubes, a strong, lighter-weight alternative to metal to make a wide variety of products, including wind turbine blades, race cars, airplanes and bicycles. In Bangalore, India, the startup Breathe is developing an artificial photosynthesis process to convert CO2 into methanol, a key feedstock for materials and fuel. Yet another startup, Kiverdi, uses a bioreactor, similar to the ones used to brew beer, to combine CO2 with special microbes called hydrogenotrophs to create protein, high-valued oils, nutrients and bio-based products that can be used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications.

A wave of change is coming from coastal communities around the world, which are shoring up ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and tidal marshes for their 'blue carbon.'
Agriculture is getting into the field, too. In Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms uses anaerobic digesters to turn cow manure into methane. Another wave of change is coming from coastal communities around the world, which are shoring up ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and tidal marshes for their "blue carbon" — stored by oceans and coastal ecosystems. The growth of both voluntary and mandatory carbon markets stand to make such ecosystems revenue centers by selling credits for protecting stored carbon.

And then there’s cement, one of the most carbon-intensive industries: If the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter. For years, a number of efforts have tried to reduce that intensity. But new research is showing concretely the potential for the industry to become carbon-neutral by combining carbonation — a process where cement bonds with carbon dioxide, sequestering it in mineral form for decades.

Beyond these is a range of other carbon capture and sequestration technologies, most still in the research or pilot phase, that could play a role and create new markets in the coming years, given the right policy signals. They range from direct air capture ­— the use of chemical processes to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — to schemes where the ocean is seeded with iron, encouraging the growth of phytoplankton, which extract carbon dioxide from seawater. All such technologies have challenges, notably their high costs, but the fact that they are continuing to be developed suggests that profits may be forthcoming.

Wait, there’s more

Here are 20 other hopeful headlines of 2018:

That’s just a taste of what happened during the past 12 months while so many folks were preoccupied with news and concerns that seemed to, well, trump environmental issues. Nonetheless, we continue to see a steady stream of progress.

True, the rate of change by companies continues to be far from that needed to address the latest United Nations climate report, not to mention concerns about sufficient food, water, shelter and human rights of 7.7 billion (and counting) of our fellow earthlings. For all that’s been done so far, there’s an order of magnitude more effort needed.

But let’s stop and celebrate these largely untold stories of corporate progress, and all of the unsung heroes who made them happen. Against considerable odds, with insufficient political cover and precious little fanfare, companies continue to move forward.

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