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The most over- and under-hyped climate trends of 2023

Some climate solutions don’t deserve the spotlight, while others deserve more attention.

What about regenerative agriculture?

What about regenerative agriculture?

Businesses addressing the climate crisis have no shortage of solutions to choose from. But which strategies, tactics and tools deliver meaningful results? Sometimes the actions getting the most attention, resources and funding are less effective than others lurking under the radar.

GreenBiz analysts looked at the food, buildings, transport and energy sectors to take stock of the most over-hyped and under-hyped sustainability trends of the year. Here are their determinations.

Food

Overhyped: Regenerating soils

Regenerative agriculture has gone mainstream over the past half-decade, embraced by Cargill, Danone and Walmart. These practices boost soil health and food nutrition while reducing emissions and pollution. However, scientists warn that the carbon drawdown potential is overestimated. Plus, it’s not enough to improve the well-being of people and the environment. Addressing nitrous oxide, deforestation and livestock emissions need more attention. 

Underhyped: Regenerating farmworker wellbeing

The food system mines the health and wellness of farmworkers, not just the earth. In the U.S., farmworkers toil in extreme heat for about 15 percent of the farming season and are 20 times more likely to die of heat-related illnesses. Yet industry groups lobby against better working conditions and wages. "We will only achieve environmental goals if we take care of the folks we rely on to achieve them," says Seth Olson, GreenBiz senior manager of food systems.

Climate tech startups

Overhyped: Using AI to revolutionize climate solutions

AI-driven climate modeling appears game-changing but is only effective if based on quality data. AI is a tool that must be used responsibly, with tempered expectations. Flawed or biased data can lead to inaccurate outcomes and undermine the climate goals AI models are meant to achieve, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

Underhyped: Collaborating with communities

Startups working with local organizations and municipalities can make a difference on the ground. The Distributed AI Research Institute, for example, seeks to ensure that AI reflects diverse experiences. Together, these stakeholders ensure real-world solutions aligned with community needs and expertise. In addition, community partnerships enhance credibility and lead to innovative, adaptable, resilient results. "We should invest more attention in these people-driven initiatives that offer holistic outcomes deeply rooted in real-world contexts," says Sherrie Totoki, GreenBiz senior director of startup programs.

Transport

Overhyped: Electrifying vehicles

Electric vehicles are five times more efficient than internal combustion vehicles and have no tailpipe emissions. EV sales are set to catapult from 10.5 million in 2022 to 27 million in 2026, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. But transportation can’t reach net zero without tackling lifecycle emissions and decarbonizing supply chains. Thirty-nine percent of vehicle emissions come from maintenance, manufacturing and energy production. Battery packs and materials including steel and aluminum in EVs make their supply chain emissions as much as 50 percent higher than for fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

Underhyped: Decarbonizing vehicle manufacturing

Polestar — Volvo’s luxury EV brand — is pursuing a climate-neutral vehicle by 2030 without offsets. Volvo is designing its EX30 to be its lowest carbon-footprint car, in part thanks to recycled materials. Mercedes’ goal is to reduce emissions from production by 80 percent by 2030. "Now is the time for all manufacturers to do the same and for everyone to move faster," says Vartan Badalian, GreenBiz director of transportation.

Carbon

Overhyped: Planting new forests

Ninety-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies supported tree-planting projects, according to a 2022 study in the journal Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management. Yet these lack the massive trees and rich, ancient soil that takes centuries to develop in a natural forest. New forests also use up land and water that could support other habitats or local economies. Natural forests, on the other hand, store more carbon in biomass, coarse woody debris and soils.

Underhyped: Protecting oceans

Oceans absorb one-third of human carbon emissions, yet the least-funded of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is its "Life Below Water" goal, SDG No. 14, where investments have reached only 5 percent of what is needed. UN member states finally agreed in 2023 to the High Seas Treaty which covers the 64 percent of the ocean that lies outside jurisdictional boundaries. Investors should look to the blue economy, blue foods and marine biodiversity credits as their next big climate investment, according to Alex Novarro, GreenBiz senior manager for nature.

Energy

Overhyped: Clean energy goals set by individual companies

Hundreds of trailblazing companies offset all their annual electricity use with clean energy, and dozens are pursuing 24/7 carbon-free energy. Yet too often a focus on individual energy emissions is an exercise in accounting, not decarbonization. For example, an organization may add renewables in parts of the grid that are already fairly green. "At its worst, it looks like a company selling polluting assets to get the emissions off their own books — and onto someone else's," says Sarah Golden, GreenBiz VP of energy and director of the VERGE program.

Underhyped: Pursuing system-level clean energy goals

Transformational change to the entire energy system is urgently needed. Organizations should position themselves to understand how their actions are impacting emissions broadly. Companies should maximize the marginal emissions from each energy decision. "The mindset shift from the myopic to the holistic is transformational, and emblematic of where climate action must head," says Golden.

Buildings

Overhyped: Nothing

Heat pumps, building electrification and low-carbon concrete need all the exposure they can get. Yet innovative building products are often business-to-business products, unseen by consumers. Sustainability features such as insulation, heating and cooling are often literally out of sight.

Underhyped: Everything

Buildings account for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Sustainable buildings improve our quality of life — we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Natural light in offices reduces headaches, and circulating fresh air indoors increases productivity, according to a 2018 study by Cornell University with View Dynamic Glass. "Creating sustainable buildings isn’t just about eliminating 40 percent of global carbon emissions, it is an opportunity to reimagine our society's relationship with nature," says James Ball, GreenBiz director of buildings.

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