The COVID pandemic, horrific as it’s been, has been reasonably kind to the worlds of sustainable business and climate tech. Both enter 2022 on an upward, even hockey-stick growth trajectory, in large part the result of events and commitments that have taken place since the pandemic began in early 2020.
And yet, such progress can be elusive, lost amid the daily drumbeat of disheartening and discouraging news.
Indeed, the ingredients for negativity are all too abundant: a persistent, shapeshifting virus; political stalemates that thwart climate action; growing social and economic inequality; terrifying ecological indicators; pushback by the anti-science crowd and their media enablers. Toss in a dollop of corporate greenwashing, at least according to critics, and you have a recipe for despair.
But despair not, dear reader. Our time has finally arrived. The world is coming to us — all of us — seeking guidance and solutions on how, and how quickly, we can transform products, processes, strategies and business models to succeed in an increasingly warming and wobbly world. Climate, biodiversity, plastic waste, toxic pollution and all the other environmental challenges have conjoined with social issues — institutional racism; economic inequity; the lack of clean water, sanitation, affordable food, energy, housing and mobility for far too many of our fellow humans — to put the work of sustainability professionals smack in the center ring, no longer a mere sideshow.
The COVID pandemic, horrific as it’s been, has been reasonably kind to the worlds of sustainable business and climate tech.
There’s enough progress to turn even the most hardbitten sustainability skeptic optimistic. Things that not long ago seemed an environmentalist's pipe dream — net-zero supply chains! cheap energy storage! decarbonized aviation and shipping! circular value chains! enlightened investors! — now seem not only possible, but inevitable. Climate tech is doing what technology often does: becoming cheaper and more efficient, leveraging economies of scale, network effects, global trends and competitive pressures.
But, as I said, it can be hard to see all this progress amid the fog of dismal daily headlines.
To help, as I have done each December for more than a decade, I’ve plumbed the 1,400 or so stories, columns and analyses we’ve published on GreenBiz.com since the clock struck 2021 some 12 months ago, seeking signs of progress and hope. These are among the developments that will propel us into 2022 and beyond.
Here, in no particular order, are five storylines — and then some — that I found encouraging during the year just ending. (All links are to stories published on GreenBiz.com during 2021.) What would you add to the list? Feel free to weigh in.
1. Demand for sustainability professionals outstripped supply
Suddenly, corporate sustainability folks are spending less time in the shadows and more in the limelight — or, at least, being invited onto the main stage. And the demand for their services has become nearly insatiable. That’s a sea change from the past and has led to an unfamiliar problem: a surfeit of jobs for sustainability professionals but not enough qualified individuals to fill them.
The inevitable result: A war for talent, especially for those with experience in ESG data and reporting, although "ESG" seems to have become synonymous with "sustainability" inside many companies, so it isn’t always easy to grok what a particular job entails. Nonetheless, ESG is rewriting CSO job descriptions at some companies.
It’s not just ESG. Circular economy professionals are also in growing demand as that field matures inside companies. And, of course, those experienced in clean energy systems, from implementing efficiency measures to building EV charging networks to rethinking and retooling electricity grids. There are growing opportunities for emerging professionals, those in entry-level positions, consultants, even the formerly incarcerated.
Will the demand sustain in 2022? Likely yes. In fact, the opportunities should grow across sectors as more companies take on increasingly bold measures in response to the demands of customers, investors, employees and others. Time to polish your resumé.
2. ‘Hard to abate’ got easier
For years, it was assumed that certain industries — aviation, trans-ocean shipping, manufacturing steel and concrete, and other so-called "hard-to-abate" sectors — would be nearly impossible to decarbonize. For example, the idea that a passenger jet could travel without using petroleum seemed — well, a flight of fancy.
The past year saw some remarkable advances that may well bring that and other fanciful notions in for a smooth landing.
At fall’s G20 and COP26 meetings, nations came together to announce plans to jointly support the development of "green steel," made using hydrogen or renewable energy. Volvo and Mercedes, for example, both embraced low-carbon steel in building vehicles. A clean-steel manufacturing plant opened in Sweden while steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal announced plans to cut its carbon intensity by a quarter, backed by $10 billion investment to support its transition away from fossil fuels.
Similar efforts are taking place in concrete, another carbon-intensive material. Carbon-sequestering concrete is gaining attention and investment from startups and investors. California, New Jersey and New York have enacted bills to give procurement preference to low-carbon concrete, a potentially significant demand driver.
Meanwhile, development of cleaner aviation and shipping fuels is moving along nicely. A Sustainable Aviation Fuel Certificate system was launched to drive corporate demand for jet fuel via the sale and purchase of credits. Amazon funded Infinium, which makes low-carbon biofuel for use in airplanes, ships and large trucks, of which the online retailer has plenty. Boeing launched plans to produce commercial aircraft capable of flying entirely on sustainable aviation fuel. Delta, JetBlue and United all announced billion-dollar investments or commitments to ramp up their use of sustainable fuels. And shipping giant Maersk said it would purchase eight container vessels that can run on clean methanol instead of dirty bunker fuel.
For these sectors, the journey to decarbonization will no doubt be long. But suddenly, those activities no longer seem quite so "hard to abate."
3. Nature and biodiversity met the bottom line
With just over half of the $80 trillion global economy reliant on nature’s services, the role of biodiversity became a bottom-line issue. One big reason: As the climate crisis wreaks havoc on some ecosystems, accelerating species extinction, it is threatening food, fiber, fisheries, forests and other critical components of our global economic engine. Moreover, the biodiversity and climate crises are inextricably linked, meaning that solving one can help solve the other. (Consider the transcendent role of the lowly fungus, for example.)
Signs of engagement abound. Investors, eyeing the inherent risks, are weighing in, with some institutional investors dropping companies linked to such things as deforestation and overfishing. A UN-sponsored biodiversity summit garnered corporate interest, perhaps for the first time. Governments are seeking to stem biodiversity loss by developing strong environmental legal frameworks and eliminating harmful incentives and subsidies. A new Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures aims to help companies report and act on nature-related risks, although putting a monetary value on such risks will be challenging. Still, companies in sectors as varied as food, textiles and cosmetics are taking action. Could becoming "nature positive" become the next big thing?
4. ESG issues hit the mainstream
Companies have been grappling for years with how to adequately report on environmental, social and governance issues to investors and other interested parties. In 2021, those simmering issues reached a boil. One highlight was the launch of the International Sustainability Standards Board, with the goal of creating comparable, consistent and reliable disclosure standards on climate and other issues.
It’s sorely needed. Although the quality is improving, ESG reporting and metrics continue to be a Wild West, with uneven, inconsistent and incomplete data inhibiting consistency across companies, sectors and borders. The rise of greenwash charges among critics is approaching worrisome levels. Indeed, despite its promise, there’s a sense that the whole ESG ecosystem is huge and terribly flawed. Regulators — notably, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — are eyeing new ESG governance rules, expected early in 2022, incontrovertible evidence that ESG issues are material to mainstream investors.
Government intervention notwithstanding, the rise of ESG is changing management strategies, as the C-suite recognizes that reporting these metrics is only the beginning of a continuous-improvement process. ESG scores are beginning to affect companies’ cost of credit, which is garnering the attention of corporate boards, although most still lack ESG expertise.
Nonetheless, the die is cast: ESG issues have become part of the new normal, a recognition that corporate sustainability has moved well beyond mere virtue-signaling.
5. Decarbonization became a meme
You can see it clearly on Google Trends: "Decarbonization," which sputtered along feebly as a search term the past dozen or so years, suddenly surged in 2021. One reason: It’s become a catchall term for myriad initiatives and strategies to wring out the carbon intensity of products, processes and places, from cities to the circular economy (and circular cities).
It’s not that decarbonization is a new thing; as Google Trends shows, it had a previous, milder surge of interest in the mid-2000s. But this time decarbonization is more than a trend: It has become the Holy Grail for companies and countries alike.
One reason for the term’s popularity is that it encompasses a wide range of front-burner issues, such as the growth of renewable energy, the rise of net-zero commitments, nations’ pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the maturing of carbon removal technologies and markets, and the market uptake of a host of technologies collectively described as climate tech.
Whatever the motivation, decarbonization is now part of mainstream discourse. And as it continues to inform everything from industrial processes to construction projects to transportation networks, it has embedded itself in the pantheon of corporate sustainability goals and strategies, and all of the value creation therein.
And (some of) the rest
Lots more inspiration where those came from: the growth of technologies to turn down the environmental impacts of cold chains … the ongoing transformation of transportation and mobility systems … investors’ recognition of the links between infrastructure and climate resilience … the tantalizing smorgasbord of sustainable food startups.
And if you’re somehow still hungry for more, here, in alphabetical order, are a baker’s dozen of other encouraging corporate sustainability headlines we ran in 2021:
- Amazon aims to help SMBs keep returns out of landfills
- Apple creates $200 million fund for nature-based climate solutions
- BlackRock steps up investor pressure on its portfolio polluters
- BMW plans to source "solar aluminum"
- Citigroup CEO commits bank to net-zero financed emissions target
- DHL Express places order for 12 all-electric aircraft
- Intuit creates marketplace to help SMBs take climate action
- Lululemon, LanzaTech are reshaping carbon waste into fabric
- McDonald's cuts ribbon on its first net-zero restaurant
- Netflix’s behind-the-scenes script for achieving net-zero
- Panera bakes a plan to go climate positive
- United lifts off with more corporate buyers for sustainable aviation fuel
- Walmart digs into regenerative agriculture
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