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The top 10 sustainability stories of 2012

<p>Hits, misses, and surprises from a veteran sustainability consultant.</p>

Last year I summarized the Top Sustainability Stories of 2011 and offered my predictions for the Top Sustainability Stories of 2012. Here are my reflections on some of those predictions—I think I was pretty close—and a few big stories I missed.

Climate heats up and hides out

. Climate denial is well-funded, anti-scientific, self-interested, crazy…and understandable, given the massive assets buried in fossil fuel reserves, and the lengths to which their owners will go to prevent those assets from being stranded.

Climate silence is, well…in a way more troubling, more dangerous and harder to understand. President Obama shied away the subject during the campaign—perhaps a political calculation that ultimately served him well—and broached the phrase once elected. But the bleeping NYT? Ultimately Superstorm Sandy proved more potent than any political logic…and it’s only a question of how many more $30-100 billion “events” it will take to move to get the elephant in the room onto the middle of the table.

U.S. falls behind in solar. 
As Der Spiegel wrote in December, “China has increased its share of the global solar market from 6 to an impressive 54 percent. Less than two decades ago, the United States was still making more than 40 percent of solar technology sold worldwide. Today it’s just over 5 percent.”

EPA battle royal. 
EPA won in court on emissions regulations, faced ongoing challenges from the House on everything from authority to regulate coal ash to its fundamental legitimacy as a shared public function. (There, I’ve said it: I’m one who believes that government is basically to collaborative expression of the shared will of the people; nothing could be more legitimate. But more on that another time.)

The battle will continue. What is beginning to change is the political alignment; as we saw in the defeat California’s 2010 Prop 23 ballot initiative (which threatened to block the state’s innovative climate policy), what used to be a battle between “business” and “environmentalists” will increasingly be a battle between “fossil” (in more ways than one!) business and everybody else (including most other business sectors, as well as environmentalists).

There was good news in 2012 too.

Green Chemistry & Biomimicry. 

These two gems continue to move forward, though they still seem a bit “out there” to some of our clients, despite the opportunities and the growing examples of business value. OneSun, Inc., an energy company focused on ultra low-cost solar based on green chemistry and biomimicry. One of the pressures driving these innovations: the rising challenge against legacy, take-for-granted toxic chemistry Just one example: effective January 1, 2013, chlorinated tris, which Arlene Blum‘s research helped remove from baby pajamas back in 1977, will no longer be produced for use in consumer products in the United States. The promise of green chemistry: we can design molecules to do what we need them to do, without undesired consequences. The promise of biomimicry: Nature may have already figured it out.

Radical Transparency and “Open Data.” 
The conversation is elevated. There’s lots of buzz—you couldn’t have missed it—about Big Data the Internet of Things. Radical Transparency still scares the dickens out of most business people and “Open Data” still has a long way to go. But as my friend Andrew Winston observed, Transparency May Lose Battles, But It Will Win the War. 

Widening green gap 

The steady and accelerating strategic shift continues to drive a widening competitive gap, as some companies (Method and Unilever, to name a few) race to embed “sustainability” as a driver of business value, while others—with a financial stake clearly stick in the past—dawdle. But if the cascade of value-eating disruptions of the past few decades is any indication, a strategy bent on preserving the past is doomed. Just ask Borders and Blockbuster.

A few top stories that my predictions missed (there were many):

Collaborative Consumption, peer-to-peer marketplaces and the sharing economy (which made by 2011 list) are taking off, with a flood of business innovations everywhere, as more customers decide they don’t need to own the thing if they can get the benefit of the thing. AirBnB grew in seven years to the same number of beds Hyatt or Hilton reached in 70. The business challenge—what happens to Detroit if the US needs one-tenth the number of cars—opens business opportunity, as Ford announced a strategic alliance with ZipCar. But it also raises macroeconomic challenges: dramatically better capital utilization will help lower environmental footprint, but the national economy faces tectonic shifts if the auto industry—currently responsible for one-sixth the jobs—is forced to radically reinvent itself.

Congressional obstruction of DoD innovation
. The US Defense Department (often a major driver of technology innovation) has been investing in renewable energy, biofuels and efficiency, including in 2020 goals to reduce energy intensity 37.5 percent, water consumption intensity 26 percent, greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent, and produce or Procure at least 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources. Why? DoD has a clear strategic vision of the national security implications of climate and energy policy, measured in metrics as stark as the number of troops killed defending convoys delivering diesel to forward positions in Afghanistan at an estimated cost of $400/gallon), and the vulnerability of the US economy to supply disruption of critical [+imported+declining+hazardous+conflict-zone] raw materials.

Congress—specifically the House of Representatives—on the other hand, has tried—and fortunately failed—to block these DoD initiatives. Why? Only two reasons I can think of: loyal service to their fossil fuel industry funders trumping their oath of office; or an anti-science theology so deep that it has trumped traditional alliances.

The end of oil?
A bit overstated, yes, but coal is already in decline, as nuclear has been for years. Speaking of stranded assets…this is a big one, and a pointed reminder of the depth of the conflict/. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, released in November 2012, declared that “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal.”

Another marker:‘s rapidly accelerating campaign to have universities divest from fossil energy investments.

“The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones,” as OPEC Foreign Minister Shiekh Zaki Yamani observed in 1973. And the fossil energy age won’t end because we run out of oil. But it will end.

Ecological corporate accounting. 
I flagged Puma’s initiative on the environmental profit and loss statement (EP&L) in my 2011 Top Stories. But I was surprised—and delighted—to see the news out of the Rio conference that a dozen or two more companies have risen to the challenge of doing the same. And I was delighted—though not at all surprised—to se a growing number of CFOs getting deeply engaged in unlocking the business value of sustainable business.

Massive value. 
Last and certainly not least is the matter of massive value. (Not a top story that I missed. More the story that I’m living in, as we unlock the potential. Many of you have heard me say—for some years now—that “sustainability may represent the biggest opportunity of the 21st century.” I still believe that, expect now—based on recent work with key clients—I think I may have understated the opportunity.

That’s it. It’s been quite a year. And there’s quite a year to come.

Image by Img Raj via Shutterstock

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