Downturn prompts accelerated commitments to green economy

Downturn prompts accelerated commitments to green economy

construction site

Davor Kapelina, CEO and president of AtSite, an innovative of building performance solutions, attended the 2012 World Energy Forum Oct. 22-24 in Dubai, an event aimed at defining a roadmap for sustainable energy delivery globally and the pursuit of a green economy. NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect the date of Microsoft's commitment on carbon neutrality.

Last week’s World Energy Forum 2012 came during a crucial time, as many world leaders seek to create a more sustainable energy future while dealing with economic challenges. But nearing the end of 2012 -- a year the United Nations dubbed the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All” -- it was evident many countries and industry professionals see sustainable energy as a key to economic growth and meeting the growing global demand for energy. 

Fortunately, a common theme throughout the forum was that a great deal of demand-side improvements are taking place in the built environment, which is where we are likely make the most progress and see the most innovative change. In fact, a research team at our company has found countries that aggressively monitor, analyze and communicate their conservation efforts tend to be more successful in their sustainability initiatives, and it’s the same with organizations.

As I listened to opening addresses given at the United Arab Emirates event by leaders from countries ranging from Grenada to Turkmenistan, I was struck by the commonality of their objectives regarding energy -- each seemed more in tune with the impact of climate change and the need for renewable energy solutions than leaders in the U.S.

Part of the U.N.’s initiative is to receive commitments from governments and businesses to change the way energy is consumed and “transform the world’s energy systems by 2030.” In fact, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has set three objectives for the initiative by 2030: Ensure universal access to modern energy services; double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

This heightened emphasis on slashing energy consumption comes at a time when countries are feeling increasing pressure to adapt to new energy standards, but measuring key data points for environmental performance can help communicate progress. Many companies are already on board. For instance, Microsoft committed to going carbon neutral by 2013, meaning the global software giant must accurately assess its environmental standards in order to meet this ambitious goal.

Researchers at Yale and Columbia universities created the Environmental Performance Index to assess environmental standards and quantifiably measure improved environmental performance. Most recent data show the three most effective countries were Switzerland, Latvia and Norway. The U.S. ranks No. 49 out of 132 countries measured. And the United Arab Emirates, home of Dubai, ranks No. 77. (Some countries were excluded for lack of sufficient data.)

The EPI’s website details the progress and decline of countries monitored over a multi-year period and  shows that while some countries have made progress, there is still room for others to improve.

Key indicators in the universities’ joint study include environmental health (including sub-categories like the effects of air and water on human health) and ecosystem vitality (including sub-categories like agriculture, climate change and the effects of the ecosystem on water resources).

The upshot? There is indeed a correlation between a country’s sustainability commitments and its carbon emission redctions.

Attending the conference has left me with one outstanding impression. While the U.S. led many early advances in energy efficiency and sustainable development processes, it seems other countries have become more aggressive and committed to a path of resource use reductions, conservation and lower-carbon environments. The global economic slowdown seems to have emboldened many to accelerate commitments to a green economy, while in the U.S., it seems to have slowed us down.

The world still needs to make big strides in demand-side reductions and resource conservation -- and both governments and businesses will be crucial to making that change happen.

Photo of construction site provided by Protosov A&N via Shutterstock.