This time of year, it’s traditional to wrap things up, tie the year up in a nice, neat bow. To note what has happened in the sustainable world, with all the trimmings.
Yet, as specialists in sustainability, we must look a little askance at any kind of wrap (4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper produced annually), at tying things up in a nice, neat bow (61,000 kilometers of ribbon used each year), or making notes (2.65 billion Holiday cards, “a football field 10 stories high”). And, of course, we worry about putting it all under a tree (25-30 million live trees annually and 23.6 million constructed of PVC in the U.S. alone).
 Lifehacker.com, How to Recycle all Your Holiday Garbage
 Stanford University, Frequently asked questions, Holiday Waste Prevention
 Statista, Christmas trees sold in the U.S. 2004 to 2018, 2019
 National Christmas Tree Association, Oct. 2019
Predictions, on the other hand, have a far lighter footprint. Last December we roundup up others’ predictions for sustainability. An upsurge in the Circular economy was in one analyst’s crystal ball, and that has certainly been coming to pass. Vegetable ‘meats’ were in another’s, forecast to trend upwards — and this surely was The Year of the Plant-Burger.
An emphasis on measurement and valuation was also seen in the offing, although, while that has indeed been underway, we feel there’s a long way yet to go — as we’ll note in our PreCap ahead.
The list rounded out anticipating a rise in Green construction starts and in corporate partnerships with green-and-CSR NGOs.
Yet this year — this critical, make-or-break year of what is, perhaps, the most critical decade in humanity’s history — we’re not just summarizing what others have projected.
We’re also casting our own (organic, farm-raised) bones, dusting off our (100%-post-consumer recycled) Tarot deck, and savoring the last drops before reading our (fair-trade) tea leaves.
We’re just ten years out from the IPCC’s 2030 winter take-all deadline and we need to know where we stand.
So we’re devoting this Special Issue to the Ghost of Sustainability’s Past, 2019, and to the Spirit of Sustainability Yet to come. After all, as dark as that Christmas Eve night was for Scrooge, the foreshadowing of his own tombstone was a catalyst for dramatic and permanent change. Perhaps our awareness that we have a very short window to sort ourselves out will do as much for us.
2019 Recedes: ReCap
The Word Has (Finally) Gone Forth from This Time and Place: Sustainability
In the wider world, this was the year sustainability arrived in the mainstream of public consciousness. The impact of the IPCC’s report defining climate change as not only an emergency, but one requiring immediate and massive triage or else cannot be underestimated.
It may have been the ‘or else’ that galvanized the greater world community, or it may not; but it cannot be denied that we’ve never seen anything like the wave of climate meetings, climate actions, climate strikes, and climate marches we were treated to in 2019.
The notion, too, that a 16-year-old girl, who cut school in Sweden each Friday to stand alone in front of the Parliament building with a homemade sign, has just been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is more reminiscent of a Harry Potter plot than a real-life story.
Yet Ms. Thunberg, Generation Z’s unlikely ambassador to the U.N. and de facto leader of the youth climate movement, was runner up for the Nobel Peace Prize, tore the world’s top politicians a new one on international television, and has earned the vilification of those who, to put it mildly, are not all-in on climate change.
Exactly how far Gen Z and their teenage clarion can push the world towards action is unclear, but a whole generation of climate first-responders who are not yet 23 years old, and many of whom are voting and marching for the first time, is a force the world has not seen the likes of recently.
Plastic: In 2019, Lots of People Started Doing Stuff About It
Plastic was another dominant 2019 theme. As we’ve been reporting, plastics have moved from the ocean ‘patches’ to global ubiquity with the advent of micro plastics, which have been found throughout our waters in unprecedented quantities; and we are now grappling with plastics so tiny they can actually become part of the fabric of our tissues.
Nano plastics, which you can read about here, and the effects of which we do not yet have data for, are everywhere and cannot be cleansed with a boom, a sweep, a net, or a sieve. As we’ve also reported however, strains of bacteria and of fungi have been discovered happily snacking on PET and other plastics, and may be viable for breaking down man-made polymers.
On the other hand, plastics hitting the world’s radar — and ours — has also produced programs like Loop®, a partnership between a recycler and several of the world’s largest consumer-product corporations. Loop was announced this year at the Davos summit to create new, closed-loop products with reusable containers, to-and-from shipping, and high hopes for a circular future.
During the year Loop added major-league retailers like Kroger, Tesco, Loblaws, to their initial roster of manufacturers such as Clorox, Proctor and Gamble, and Unilever — to name a few. Delivery giant UPS was also heavily involved.
We attended the 2019 Ocean Plastic Leadership Summit (OPLS), held in the Atlantic gyre off Bermuda (read about it here). The most important takeaway from the Summit was the willingness of wildly differing stakeholders — from major activist organizations like Greenpeaceon one end to major plastic polluters on the other — to sit down on a ship together for days collaborating away on the issue.
Renewables: The Forage for Storage
During the year we highlighted several new and promising storage systems for power generated by renewables, the lodestone of the green-energy industry. CO2 itself is a viable medium for renewables storage, and Scotland debuted new tech making hydrogen for fuel from excess tidal energy generation.
Perhaps the most fascinating approach we reported this year is a new utility being tested in Berlin using nano-coated salt to store excess energy. But we’re especially keeping an eye on — and an upcoming issue of Sustainability R.O.I. will cover — a new liquid battery called solar thermal fuel, a fluid that can apparently store solar energy for up to ten years, make it available for use, then recharge again in the sun. Game changer? TBD but we’ll have more on it soon.
Meanwhile, Back at the Brazilian Amazon… The International Year of the Forest Fire
2019 was certainly The Year of the Forest Fire. The world is going to have to come to grips with the phenomenon of wildfires that can be seen from space. Whether man-made through climate negligence, as we’re seeing in Australia, Alberta and Alaska — and many other places not starting with ‘A’ — or man-made for-profit fires, as in Brazil.
California rounds out our ABCs, but we can skip to I and M, Indonesia and Madagascar, and let’s not forget Russia, where Greenpeace reports 12 million hectares (≈ 30 million acres) have burned since the beginning of the year. Many of these fires are raging on into 2020.
And Speaking of 2020… Here’s our PreCap
Gen Z: A Generational Tipping Point?
All current information points to a younger generation zeroed-in on climate change. While the reasons are obvious — they are about to inherit this Earth — they are an age group that traditionally has little voice or power. This particular generation of high schoolers, however, may be an exception.
We all saw student climate strikers take over the streets of virtually every major city in the democratic world in 2019. The U.S. has seen unprecedented levels of activism on gun control, also being led by teenagers. The affected — and apparently aggrieved — young people have been roused to action and they have unheard-of crowdfunding, crowd-organizing, crowd-everything tools their forebears did not.
All current information points to a younger generation zeroed-in on climate change. While the reasons are obvious — they are about to inherit this Earth — they are an age group that traditionally has little voice or power, and sometimes little interest. This particular generation of high schoolers, however, is an exception.
We all saw student climate strikers take over the streets of virtually every major city in the democratic world in 2019. The U.S. has seen unprecedented levels of activism on gun control being led by teenagers. The affected — and apparently aggrieved — young people have been roused to action and they have unheard-of crowdfunding, crowd-organizing, crowd-everything tools their forebears did not.
Amnesty International reported this month that the 18 – 25 crowd — Gen Z, Post-millennials, Digital Natives, the iGen, or what have you — list climate change as their number-one concern, based on a survey of more than 10,000 young people.
In fact, the survey showed, of the 23 top concerns facing their country or the world, the respondents listed climate change at #1 (41%), pollution at #2 (36%). Loss of natural resources was ranked #4 (23%), while access to clean water came in at #8 (19%). In other words, four of that generation’s top-ten concerns had to do with climate and the environment.
As defined by birthdays after 1997 to somewhere in the 2,000s, Gen Z is now the largest U.S. age demographic, with more than 90-million members. Likewise around the globe, with voting ages generally between 16 and 18, this bodes well for climate legislation, activism, and focus.
In the U.S. alone, there are 15.3 million students in grades 9 – 12, meaning 15 million young people – deeply concerned about climate change and already trained to advocacy and activism — entering the voting rolls between the 2020, 2022, and 2024 elections.
This time next year we’ll be recapping a period of youth activism unlike any since the Vietnam-war era, yet one with far greater access to information and therefore less naïve and more forward looking. As we all know, one member of this generation just hit the cover of Time for her impact on climate change activism.
In a world where many live in scarcity, one commodity is always in full supply. And, while there’s always plenty of blame to go around, we expect environmental blame to be in overdrive before 2020’s in the books.
The effects of climate change are becoming too frequent, too severe, too onerous a financial burden to many large and powerful institutions, for denial to be maintained.
The next ‘thousand-year-flood’ doesn’t care if it carries off the home of a climate denier or an environmentalist, and when the truth finally becomes personal, anticipate deniers howling for relief along with everyone else — and looking for someone to blame.
They may not find such a receptive audience, however. As Fortune succinctly framed it, “for the insurance industry, global warming has advanced from a future ecological challenge to a present financial shock.”
Reinsurance company Munich Re called 2017-18 the worst two-year period for natural catastrophes on record, with insured losses of $225bn.
The largest reinsurer in the world, Swiss Re, has taken in twice as much in premiums for disasters at it has paid out in claims over the past twenty years. Not bad, not bad at all. However, “for the past two years, Swiss Re has had to pay out vastly more for large natural catastrophes, those over $20 million apiece, than its models anticipated for an average year’s loss.
In 2017, Swiss Re expected to incur $1.18 billion in large “nat-cat” losses, based on actuarial averages, but racked up a bill of $3.65 billion.” In 2019 hurricanes once again blew their projections out of the water – rain and floodwater in this case.
So insurers at least, have no doubts whatsoever about climate change. Their prime question is, how do we protect ourselves? They are, after all, masters of managing financial risk. So, what are their plans?
For one, as Fortune notes, some are pulling back from insuring carbon-dependent industries such as coal. In our last issue we noted that there were two tipping points: one for climate change, the other for the movement working to preserve our world as it was. We did not, however, consider adding ‘lack of insurance for carbon polluters’ to the scales. Hmmm.
One reason such companies are easing back from insuring Big Carbon? As Fortune continues,
“In January, the CRO Forum, a Netherlands-based organization of chief risk officers of big insurers, warned of new sorts of climate-related claims that may confront insurers. Among them: hefty bills from corporations they insure against lawsuits.
At this point, legal action charging that big carbon emitters contributed to climate change or failed to react sufficiently to it is just beginning to emerge. But, as the insurance group noted ominously, the science of pinning climate blame on corporate polluters “is developing fast.” (Emphasis ours. -Ed.)
The oil industry, for example, whose documents prove they knew decades ago the effects their products were having on climate, may be in for a beating. We believe it will be in motion by late 2020.
We also anticipate that politicians and individuals alike who denied climate science right up until it smacked them in the head, will zero in on Big Carbon polluters. Rending of garments and anguished cries of, “They knew but they didn’t tell us!” might be heard in committee hearings and courtrooms everywhere.
The courts, too, will be busy assigning blame in their black-and-white fashion, and their decisions could have consequences far beyond any one decision. As we’ve seen above, insurers and investors are mighty touchy about backing or underwriting industries taking a pasting in the courts.
For those considering the current state of the U.S. judiciary, we suggest that such decisions are just as likely to happen outside the U.S. – and even from other jurisdictions, they can still affect multinational companies, including those based in the U.S.
Government Policy Post-2020 Election: It’ll Be About Climate Regardless
Whoever wins the next election, we are convinced next December’s debate will be all about government’s role in climate change. Either how we prevent the government from continuing down its dark and stormy path, or how we use government to pull the world back from same.
Let’s say the Democrat wins. No doubt we’ll reengage with Kyoto and Paris, no doubt we’ll see a return to our accustomed air and water protections.
But how will we deal with carbon? Will we tax it into submission? Will we embrace cap-and-trade? Will we remove subsidies, or transfer them to green initiatives, allowing the market to correct carbon?
Or will we be forced to turn to less-direct action given the U.S. political system’s veto points?
On the other hand, should President Trump win a second term, how will the world deal with the only nation in the world to sign and then repudiate Paris, to tilt at windmills on national television, and to fill its ministries with those who represent harm to the planet?
In terms of nuts-and-bolts regulation, the first-term damage has been consistent and systematic:
• Clean Fuels Grant Program: Rescinded
• Clean Power Plan: Repealed
• Oil and Gas Emissions Standards: Weakened
• Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS): In Rescission
• Clean Air Act Emissions Standards: Repealed
• Energy Conservation Standards for lamps: Repealed
• The Methane Rule: Stayed
And much, much more of same. There is no reason to believe this agenda won’t pick up speed in a second term.
Most likely the rest of the world is, in some sense, waiting for the U.S. election to decide how best to proceed.
While a U.S. leader can be ignored, shunned, laughed at, and repudiated, the actions of the world’s most powerful country cannot. Should Trump be reelected, the reality of another four years of American improbity and climate recalcitrance may galvanize the rest of the world.
They may ask, can anything be done even though the lone superpower left in the world is out to sabotage those efforts? Can voluntary action work? Can businesses provide an active counterweight?
This time next year, one way or another, those things will be top-tier issues.
Meatless Meats: Millions Served Many More on the Grill
The rise of the non-meat patty — a rise many have been awaiting for years without result — has come to pass. The stunning growth of Impossible Foods, purveyor of the Impossible burger — available at such behemoths as Burger King, White Castle, Red Robin and Little Caesar’s — and the Beyond Burger, also rocketing up the charts in Dunkin’ and other outlets from coast-to-coast, has shocked the burger establishment.
The dichotomy of a company committed to converting the hard-core meat eater, in an outlet like Burger King, which has reaped the financial rewards of deforestation and factory meat farming, is not lost on either party. Yet the symbiosis is working. Burger King had its largest growth spurt in decades in 2018.
Here, too, is an example of values in action. Four years ago, Impossible Foods had an offer on the table — from Google — of between $200 and $300 million for the company: they turned it down. In 2017 Business Insider quoted Impossible Foods CEO and founder, Pat Brown, to the effect that, “The company is defined by a mission that — no matter how much someone who wants to acquire the company may say they believe in it — no one believes in it with the commitment that we do, and we’re not going to put it at risk.”
The trend would indicate they made the correct decision. Given the growth curve, we anticipate others will be entering the market with similar products this year looking for big-time partnerships. it’s time for imitators to enter the market through their own outlets. The Big Prize, of course, would be McDonald’s, which has dipped its toes in the vegan-patty market with a test-offering in Scandinavia and, this year, a pilot of a McDonald’s proprietary Beyond Burger in Ontario, Canada.
Given an exponential growth pattern between 2016 and the present, we see no reason why we won’t be talking about meatless offerings again at the end 2020. Look for the continued strong growth of meatless in next year’s December recap.
Measure Everything: Total Impact is Coming
There has been a trend towards measuring stuff for some time, and some of us have had the bug for longer than others. Valutus, of course, has had a thing about measurement for years, but we are noticing one particular strain of the disease that is just getting underway and which, we predict, will be a hot topic come next December: Total Impact, also known as Full Impact.
Traditionally, a company’s impact centered around its revenues: how many customers they served or people they employed, how much value in assets did they control? How large was their market share or — the frequent refrain — how much did they increase shareholder value this quarter? Monetary results are meaningful, no doubt, but what about the wider footprint?
As we wrote earlier this year, “A company’s true impact is much deeper than its carbon emissions, its water use, its payroll, or its taxes paid. In fact, a huge chunk of a company’s impact is submerged, not visible on the surface at all. Generally, it stays that way until the right questions are asked.”
Consider the 3+ billion iPhones out there in the world. We’ve reported in this space the advent of inexpensive power and gas metering in rural Africa, all done by cell phone, and the submerged social effects once women and children don’t need to forage, then burn, charcoal toxic to them and to the environment. They can then attend school or do other useful work. These impacts are not measured on the traditional balance sheet.
On the other side, what of their manufacture? Their use? Their disposal, given the complexity and breadth of materials and batteries within each device?
How about the power they take to operate, or the social environment created by their manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China? Is there a value to the example they set for other companies?
Elephants knock down trees on their way through the brush, bears and big cats shred bark to sharpen their claws, while beavers, of course, change the landscape itself with their architectural efforts.
Elephants don’t mean to create firebreaks or habitat for the dung beetle, and beavers don’t plan to reduce downstream flow, nor do big cats mean to expose insects for hungry birds. Yet those submerged effects happen just the same.
Likewise, business often churns up the landscape on its way to making things and generating profits, with consequences rippling out far and wide across their customer base, their value chain, employee ecosystem, and planet. It’s important to know what those effects are, how large the impact is, and who is affected.
Consider the fur industry’s impact on those same trees and rivers when it harvested beavers almost to extinction. Such impacts — both the pro and the con — can and should be measured to see the clearest possible footprint of a company across all activities.
There is still a need for a unified standard in TI reporting, however the basic framework — looking at Social, Economic, and Environmental impacts — is fairly consistant.
Valutus has a particular take on how to ferret out the total impact using something we call Impacts Science. Impact Science leans heavily on raising submerged impacts to the surface while also valuing catalytic impact. (For more on this, see our series on Total Impact: Part I, Part II and Part III.)
This may just be the year we end by noting that big companies began working on TI reporting.