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Practical Magic

Climate action infiltrates CES clamor, but electronics industry must do more

Lots of big tech companies talk about emissions reductions programs, but the truth is the industry as a whole still isn't doing that much.

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

Consumer products companies face a particular dilemma when crafting strategies related to combating climate change. It comes down to this: Is it possible for a company that bases its entire business model on driving ever-higher levels of consumption to become truly sustainable?

It's the first week of January, and that means more than 4,500 exhibitors will strut their stuff at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas — an event projected to gather more than 170,000 attendees eager to gawk at or test out the latest stuff for kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and any other place in the home that seems appropriate to automate.

Driving better efficiency has long been a "thing" on the show floor, but this year, more than any other year in the history of the 50-something conference, there will be a much louder focus on what the industry is doing to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The drumbeat began last month when the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which hosts CES, released its first report (PDF) tracking the carbon reduction efforts of its members that actually publish those figures — obviously, not everyone does; the data in its analysis draws from a relatively discrete universe of 45 companies. (That list includes the usual suspects, such as Apple, HP Inc., Panasonic and Samsung, along with some others you might not expect such as CVS Health and L’Oreal.)

How’d they do? According to the report, CTA members reduced GHG emissions by almost 9 percent in the United States (Scope 1 and Scope 2) to about 19 million metric tons between 2016 and 2017. Alas, their global carbon footprint rose by 2.7 percent to 792.5 million metric tons in that same timeframe — the industry itself grew 11.7 percent during the year in question, so I suppose things could have been a lot worse.

I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of cleantech companies that use CES as a venue to demonstrate their products.
I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of cleantech companies that use CES as a venue to demonstrate their products. An example is Zero Mass Water, a startup I’ve written about in the past that uses solar panels to generate clean drinking water.

The company is creating arrays using its technology: one in Phoenix, for example, is creating 152,000 liters of water annually that can be consumed by local restaurants and grocery stores. Zero Mass installations also are up and running in Queensland, Australia, and two locations in Dubai. 

CTA began paying lip service to "climate change innovators" three years ago as part of an awards program associated with the ongoing CES startup showcase. Here are the six companies being recognized this year:

  • ST Engineering Innosparks — The Singapore-based organization is exhibiting the Airbitat Smart Cooler, a portable evaporative cooling system that delivers air at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The technology uses less energy than an air-conditioner of similar capacity and it also dispenses with refrigerants.
  • Sunleavs — An internet-of-things solution emerging from Aix-en-Provence, France, that uses a sensor and social network to enable consumers to share solar energy resources across shared facilities.
  • RideSVP — A ride-sharing service developed in Los Angeles that caters to individuals seeking to create carpools from city to city. It serves Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. 
  • Green Systems Automotives — The French company is behind Flexfuel, a device for converting motorcycles, scooters and other two-wheeled modes of transportation so that they can run on ethanol.
  • Omniply Technologies — The Montreal-based startup has created a more efficient approach to manufacturing flexible electronics, including displays, that can be molded into more form factors. 
  • Edgehog — Another startup that hails from Montreal, this company makes solar panels that include ultra-transmissive glass for generating power for everything from sensors to rooftop arrays — the output is 15 percent higher, on average, than comparable systems.

While I appreciate the heightened attention to celebrating climate action, and I see a business application for each innovation described above, I’d love to see more scrutiny of the mainstream companies that crowd CES’ main floor — the ones collectively selling millions of devices annually.

After all, CTA represents more than 2,200 companies globally. The fact that only 45 of those organizations report their own footprint, let alone the impact of all the gadgets and gizmos they are selling, is a sad testament to the state of sustainability in consumer electronics.

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