The biggest green business career moves of 2016

Names in the News

The biggest green business career moves of 2016

green business career hires jobs sustainability
ShutterstockFrank Fiedler
From power utilities to tech companies, career shifts with big implications for sustainability shaped 2016.

The last year has been an odd one for environmentalists, to say the least.

On one hand, the global Paris Climate Agreement moved ahead alongside domestic developments such as steadfast resistance to oil drilling at Standing Rock and another banner year for clean energy. On the other hand: Donald Trump.

With the future of U.S. policy on climate, energy and a slew of other crucial issues hanging in the balance heading into 2017, it's well worth recapping who exactly will be advocating for those causes in the business world and beyond.

With that in mind, we're recapping five of the most intriguing sustainability career moves of 2016 in this year-end edition of our monthly Names in the News column:

1. Bloomberg's new gig lobbying business on climate risk

Former New York Governor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg is no stranger to climate and environmental causes. This year, however, Bloomberg turned his attention to the financial stakes of climate change when he took a gig as chair of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure.

The new role is focused on (finally) elucidating what information related to climate change companies should be disclosing to investors, marking a new chapter in the evolving conversation around materiality and the financial case for corporate sustainability.

Bloomberg, himself a billionaire, is also one of several examples of wealthy individuals (Tom Steyer, Bill Gates) launching new investment funds or otherwise organizing for environmental causes — a group sure to be watched closely in the face of any actions by the Trump administration to undercut those causes.

2. From GM to Nissan, automakers shift gears

While no industry is immune to the techno-upheaval stemming from smartphone-enabled apps and increased internet connectivity, the automotive business is feeling the pressure to adapt in a particularly big way.

During 2016, Ford and General Motors both launched new business arms focused on so-called "smart mobility," which have started to wade further into fields such as carsharing and embark on partnerships with industry newcomers such as Uber. The move follows a model forged by Daimler offshoot Moovl, which has spurred brands like Mercedes-Benz to look to get ahead of the sharing economy curve.

In-house sustainability efforts also are getting a revamp. Nissan hired its first chief sustainability officer this year, tapping former Senior Vice President Hitoshi Kawaguchi for the job. Ford and GM also have continued investing in programs such as bio-based materials and the budding circular economy trend toward turning manufacturing waste into new revenue.

3. PG&E's clean power chief takes the reins

In the ongoing saga of how power providers are striving to adjust to life after fossil fuels, California mega-utility late this year promoted its executive responsible for growing renewable power capacity, Geisha Williams, to the CEO role.

Williams' new post comes after several other notable shakeups in the world of utilities and other power providers, such as the ouster of clean energy evangelist (and GreenBiz columnist) David Crane from NRG Energy last year.

With the Clean Power Plan still in limbo heading into the Trump administration, watch the executive lineups of power providers across the country for an indication of how much momentum renewables truly have gained in the marketplace.

4. Microsoft, Amazon chase tech industry's white whale 

Apple and Google are in the news often for their big clean energy buys and edgy green building design, but beneath the glossy exterior tech companies have long been chasing another elusive goal: sustainable data centers.

This year, two industry giants — Microsoft and Amazon — poached seasoned sustainability executives from other major corporate players to reinvigorate their efforts. Chris Page, Yahoo's global director of energy and sustainability strategy, became the latest industry veteran to join Amazon's growing sustainability team as director of energy and environment. Former Starbucks Director of Environmental Affairs Jim Hanna also was hired for the new role of director of data center sustainability at Microsoft.

With renewable energy deal structures still varying widely from state to state and some looking to explore more unconventional options — a la underwater data centers — tech industry sustainability teams look likely to be headed for another busy year in 2017.

5. Environmental foes head to the White House

For all the activity within corporate sustainability departments, NGOs and city halls across the country, it's still impossible to ignore the dark cloud forming at the federal level when it comes to environmental imperatives such as cutting emissions and growing renewable energy capacity. 

The fossil fuel executives and climate action opponents headed for prominent roles in the Trump White House includes: Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State); Texas Governor Rick Perry (Department of Energy); Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (EPA); and Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke (Department of the Interior).

Trump himself has promised to not just reverse course on forward-looking policies, such as the Paris Agreement, but to (improbably) revive coal, expand oil drilling and consider changes that could undercut longstanding policies such as the Clean Air Act.