As usual, it was another year of ups and downs for sustainable business. That’s par for the course — an exciting advancement here, political or economic pushback there. Two steps forward, one step back: the sustainable business cha-cha, as I’ve long described it.
Overall, it was more positives than negatives. Even the negatives — the politicization of ESG investing and reporting, the economic downturn, the energy crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine — are temporal phenomena, part of the regular ebbs and flows of economics and policy. These things aren’t likely to go away during 2023 — indeed, they could become more problematic — but they aren’t destined to last.
These days, the tailwinds of progress appear to be overcoming the headwinds of resistance. With good reason: The climate and biodiversity crises, combined with the social and economic equity crises, are providing momentum and incentives for staying the course. So, too, the reversal of political fortunes in Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro out, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in) and Australia (Scott Morrison out, Anthony Albanese in), where climate deniers were replaced by more action-oriented leaders. And there were new climate laws in the United States and Europe, which breathed new life to climate action in those countries.
The tailwinds of progress appear to be overcoming the headwinds of resistance.
Combine that with the torrent of severe weather — and its impacts on food, water, living conditions and livelihoods — and the imperatives for change are becoming increasingly fierce.
As I’ve done for the past decade, I’m offering a recap of some of the stories and trends from the year just ending, culled from the nearly 1,300 stories published on GreenBiz.com during 2022. (All of the links go to some of those stories.) Here are five trends worth noting.
1. Green jobs and careers hit their stride
Companies have been steadily hiring sustainability professionals for years, but things this year jolted into a higher gear. Jobs in reporting and net zero are hot-hot-hot as companies plumb their supply chains for more, and more detailed, information about their suppliers’ social and environmental impacts, and companies assess how to reduce their carbon footprint.
With demand for talent outstripping supply, companies are increasingly tapping the large consultancies to find their next sustainability and ESG hires. For job seekers and current job holders, the opportunities for advancement are ripe. One big question is whether company human resources departments are equipped to handle the surge.
The job boom crosses sectors, from finance and private equity to clean energy and biodiversity. It is showing up in places you wouldn’t necessarily have expected — in the United States, for example, in Iowa and Indiana. And it includes a broader range of titles, including some cool ones.
One key question is whether companies can quickly and effectively bridge the sustainability skills gap — in finance, supply chain, engineering, materials science and other disciplines. Fortunately, there is no end of sustainability certifications and fellowships to help do exactly that. And companies are building internal training programs to help bring employees along the learning curve.
Some of the newest hires represent their company’s first sustainability professional, leading them to, in effect, plot their own roadmap. But the journey has become sufficiently well-traversed that it is becoming more familiar and straightforward, including the soft skills that can ensure success.
True, global economic uncertainty has led to a pause in some new hires, and even some cutbacks. But it’s a blip, not a reversal. Those jobs will still be needed and the talent pipeline, while slowing for now, won’t be stopping anytime soon.
2. The climate crisis became riskier
Climate has long been seen as a risk factor for companies, but those risks were calculable and could be subsumed into existing financial and risk metrics, leading some companies to forestall action. As climate-fueled perturbations grow alongside investor, regulatory and public concerns, the risk of inaction is growing.
Insurers, for one, which have long been on the front lines of the climate crisis, seem to be reaching their breaking point. The growing impacts of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires are taking their toll, and the concomitant payouts are becoming problematic. For some companies, that will mean steep rises in premiums; for others, it may mean insurance is simply unavailable. Swiss Re, the large reinsurance company, estimated a $1.2 trillion "protection gap" of uninsured catastrophe losses. And that's before the climate crisis kicks into high gear.
Some larger insurers are taking a stand, denying policies for new oil and gas facilities and other activities deemed to be harmful, as Munich-based Allianz has done. One report found that insurance will become increasingly unaffordable or unavailable in large parts of Australia due to worsening extreme weather events, with 1 in 25 homes and commercial buildings in the country becoming effectively uninsurable by 2030.
One unintended consequence is the damage that extreme weather is inflicting on large wind and solar installations, requiring unprecedented insurance payouts. That could make renewable energy harder to insure, potentially slowing or even stopping its growth.
Banks, for their part, seem to be dithering when it comes to mitigating climate risk. Despite the bold commitments many have made to invest in climate technologies and green business growth, most banks continue to underwrite the fossil-fuel industry. One study found that fossil-fuel financing from the world’s 60 largest banks reached nearly $4.6 trillion in the six years since the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
And then there’s the legal side. With Republicans in the United States pushing back on everything from clean energy and electric vehicle mandates to state pension fund investments favoring companies with strong ESG scores, climate-related litigation is destined to grow. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate litigation "has influenced the outcome and ambition of climate governance."
Of course, it’s not just climate delayers and deniers who are suing. So are activists, who have long held polluters, especially fossil fuel companies, to account for their climate impacts. Some conservative politicians are aiming their sights at what are deemed to be "institutionalized antitrust violations." Green marketing, and especially net-zero, claims are another potential arena for increased litigation, particularly in Europe, leading some companies to rethink whether and how to communicate on these topics.
3. Electrification amped up
The goal to "electrify everything," powered by renewable energy, advanced this year from a mantra to a market. Along with its first cousin, "decarbonization," they became increasingly transformative across a range of sectors.
Vehicles, of course, were at the center, with sales of battery-electric and hybrid cars, buses and trucks accelerating, in no small part due to record-high gas and diesel prices but also to a broader range of available and affordable models. The transition is being led by corporate and institutional fleet owners, with large-scale vehicle purchasing commitments from such brands as AB InBev, Hertz, IKEA, Schneider and the fleet-management companies Merchant’s Fleet and LeasePlan. Delivery vehicles led the pack, in part thanks to zero-emission delivery zones, areas in which only zero-emission vehicles have unrestricted access. The new U.S. climate law will pour billions into growing these trends.
It’s not just on-road vehicles. Decarbonization of all transport categories, from ships to rail to aviation, ramped up in 2022, "an incredible year for the transport industry," according to my colleague Vartan Badalian.
Buildings were another cornerstone of electrification and decarbonization. In the United States, jurisdictions from Washington state to New York state provided incentives, if not mandates, for building owners to deploy a broad range of retrofits to decarbonize buildings or to amend building codes to restrict the installation of natural gas in new commercial buildings.
Even without subsidies and mandates, there’s a growing awareness of the multilayered benefits of such moves. A report from commercial real estate services firm JLL found that 63 percent of leading investors strongly agree that green strategies can drive higher occupancy, higher rents, higher tenant retention and overall higher value. Adobe’s all-electric office tower is testament to that.
One key question: If the paybacks and benefits of decarbonized buildings are so attractive, why aren’t more building owners undertaking such things?
Still another arena are factories and other industrial facilities, which are undergoing their own electrification and decarb (r)evolution, in large part because of a growing demand for low-carbon steel, aluminum, concrete and other goods. The Biden administration greased the skids by issuing guidelines to spur the development of low-carbon construction materials.
But there’s a long way to go. A World Economic Forum report noted that technical solutions are available for bringing production in six key industrial sectors in line with a net-zero pathway, but that none are "anywhere near" the decarbonization trajectory they need to be on to deliver net zero by 2050.
4. Nature and biodiversity awareness sprouted
The connection between nature and a flourishing economy — and, in particular, climate adaptation and mitigation — blossomed in 2022. One driver: the quest for a global agreement to protect nature and biodiversity, a "Paris Agreement for nature" — a.k.a. the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework — achieved at COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference, in December. A framework introduced during COP15 by the Biden administration acknowledged that harnessing nature-based solutions to fight the climate crisis has become table stakes.
Protecting biodiversity is a topic that’s been around since trees were first recognized as a carbon sink, although corporate action on protecting biodiversity has been languishing in the backwaters of environmental awareness and action. What’s driving progress now is the growing understanding of the global economic benefits that could come from supporting natural systems: feeding the world, providing clean air and providing a wide range of other benefits, while also helping minimize the ravages of a changing climate. And the risks to companies' supply chains and profits if such things are left unaddressed.
As always, money drives change. Consider a rising phenom dubbed "nature tech," technologies such as satellite rainforest monitoring, tree-planting drones and carbon-credit trading software seen as part of a $6 billion market opportunity for nature-based solutions by 2030, according to one report.
That’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg. Nature-based markets, including agriculture, voluntary carbon credits, conservation projects and carbon sequestration, could be worth more than $7 trillion a year, equivalent to 8.6 percent of global GDP, according to the Taskforce on Nature Markets. One head-snapping result: Forestry is being discussed at tech conferences.
The benefits of biodiversity are just one side of the equation. The other is risk: The credit-rating firm Moody's estimated that there is $1.9 trillion in rated debt in nine sectors that have "high" or "very high" exposures to natural capital risks, including agriculture, mining, fishing, tourism and construction. Biodiversity risks could impact sovereign fund credit ratings, or even lead to bankruptcy in some developing economies. Companies, for their part, are just beginning to assess their own individual nature-related risks. New reporting frameworks from the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures and the Science-Based Targets initiative are expected to change that. They’re voluntary for now, although some believe they should be mandatory.
5. Carbon offsets and removal dug in
Another long-discussed topic — carbon crediting and removal — attracted money and attention this year, along with more than a little controversy.
Carbon removal, years in the making, became an actual business, albeit a nascent one, as both supply and demand ramped up. A handful of companies, including Stripe, Shopify, Alphabet, Meta and McKinsey, committed nearly $1 billion to help scale solutions that cost less than $100 per metric ton, a fraction of the current price, which hovers around $600 a ton. That effort was facilitated by a funding initiative called Frontier, which "aims to accelerate the development of carbon removal technologies by guaranteeing future demand for them."
To meet that future demand, startups are racing to bring down the cost and improve the viability of carbon removal. For example, there’s Carbfix, which dissolves carbon dioxide in sparkling water and injects the mixture beneath the earth’s surface. New funding in the United States from the Inflation Reduction Act and oil and gas companies has spurred a slew of other startups and partnerships in the U.S. Additional public- and private-sector funding has spurred new projects globally.
Meanwhile, carbon crediting, the means by which organizations account for carbon they’ve sequestered or avoided, is due for an overhaul. So many projects and partnerships selling inexpensive offsets to companies are sufficiently lacking in rigor and accountability that they’ve become a laughingstock — literally. The wry comic John Oliver, on his weekly HBO show, featured the topic, inconveniently (and inappropriately) dismissing all offsets as — well, let’s just say he used a barnyard epithet and leave it at that.
The sector’s lack of credibility will be a growing challenge for companies aiming to use offsets to help meet their net-zero commitments. And while offsets should be a last resort for achieving net zero — falling in line after efficiencies and renewable energy purchases — that’s not been the case. Companies seem to be relying on planting trees and other lower-cost offsets to avoid having to reduce their emissions — another source of criticism, if not ridicule. For example, despite the feel-good appeal of planting a tree as a planet-positive act, and the various trillion-tree initiatives taking root around the world, the benefits of tree-planting programs are being questioned.
There’s hope, and a few signs, that carbon markets are improving, including a carbon credit marketplace launched recently by Salesforce. And 2022 saw a flurry of new consultative initiatives launched, focused on addressing the two challenges of carbon credit quality and disclosure.
And (some of) the rest
If you’re somehow still hungry for more, here, in alphabetical order, is a baker’s dozen of other headlines we published in 2022 about corporate initiatives:
- Bridgestone invests $42M more to turn desert shrub into rubber alternative
- Coca-Cola and Rabobank partner on sustainability finance plan for suppliers
- Diageo launches climate solutions fund for African smallholder farms
- General Mills, Schwan’s and Target want to fix the flexible packaging problem
- Google launches startup accelerator for the circular economy
- How Microsoft is integrating environmental justice into business development
- In Brazil, Suzano harvests trees with deep roots in communities
- Marks & Spencer to ditch "best before" dates on most fresh fruit and vegetables
- Nescafé unveils $1 billion regenerative coffee farming plan
- Nestle, Danone, Unilever and PepsiCo agree on plastic chemical recycling principles
- Ørsted will try growing coral reefs at the base of offshore wind turbines
- Unilever invests in biotech alternatives to palm oil for greener cleaning
- Volvo preps for launch of first electric trucks made with fossil-fuel-free steel
All in all, another year of progress, although never enough. You already know the story: Two steps forward, one step back.