When we look back at 2012 from what we hope will be a sustainable future, what will be the things that stand out as the most significant? What were the events that helped to tip the scale in favor of mass concerted action? Or what actions demonstrated most vividly our inability to change, condemning future generations to untold suffering at the hands of an unforgiving planetary response to our excesses.
Surely there was ample evidence of the planet’s growing discomfort with the extra layer of carbon dioxide we have added to the upper atmosphere. It was once again, the hottest year on record which featured a historic summer drought, the largest since the Dustbowl of 1939. This was followed by Superstorm Sandy which covered nearly one-fifth of the contiguous U.S. The fact that it hit NYC hard gave it unprecedented coverage. All told there were 11 weather-related disasters with damages in excess of $1 billion. That was second only to last year, when there were 14 of those. All in all, as a year, 2012 just about put the last nail in the coffin of climate change denial.
This year could be called the year of natural gas. Huge new reserves of the stuff were discovered right here in the U.S. and elsewhere. This has to be seen as a double-edged sword. Hastening the demise of coal with a significantly lower carbon footprint is definitely a good thing. Replacing gasoline and diesel in cars would also be a good thing from an emissions standpoint. But it is still a fossil fuel and it still emits significant carbon dioxide. Worse, its low cost is diverting attention and investment away from other energy sources that are carbon-free and renewable. Worse still is the fact that the way it is being collected, through fracking, has potentially dangerous environmental consequences.
Barack Obama’s re-election has to be seen as big news on the sustainability front, as compared to the alternative choice presented by a climate-change denying, fossil-fuel loving Mitt Romney. Obama’s economic policies are also far more likely to lead to a robust recovery, while emphasizing research and support for green energy.
An NREL report predicting that renewables can meet 80 percent of our electricity demand by 2050 came out this year. Information like this has done a lot to raise public awareness and confidence in the fact that business as usual is not the only way to go.
This was the year that the all-electric Tesla Model S won Motor Trends Car of the Year.
It was also a big year for awareness of sustainability issues in our food system. Numerous companies, bowing to consumer pressure, have agreed to curb cruel industrial farming practices, such as sow gestation crates and caged hen eggs. The urban farming movement surged forward. Scientific studies were released showing arsenic in factory chicken, MRSA in pork, tumors from GM corn, and premature death lurking in red meat.
GM food continues to be a battle ground. Companies are desperately pouring money into defeating efforts like California Proposition 37. But as levels of awareness continues to rise and with major companies like Kaiser Permanente raising concerns, it would seem that a tipping point is near. But we’re not there yet. With so much food industry influence having penetrated the federal government, it’s going to take a while for the will of the people to be translated into policy.
Others, like Andrew Winston have summarized some of the major sustainability accomplishments among companies. Much good is being done, but more companies need to keep the big picture in mind, rather than simply focusing on what they can fix. The Ocean Health Index came out this year as a major tracking tool for the state of our oceans. Right here at TriplePundit, Leon Kaye recently wrapped up the Top Issues of 2012 in Water.
Worth noting is the fact the Ray Anderson, the CEO of carpet manufacturer Interface, and a seminal figure that help to lift the sustainability movement from obscurity into its current position of relative prominence, passed away this year. Anderson, who was profiled in the classic, Natural Capitalism, pioneered the idea of a zero impact business. Correction: Ray died in 2011 but is definitely still worth mentioning.
Another prominent sustainability leader, Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, received the FIRST award for responsible capitalism and the Fearless award this year for doing away with quarterly reporting. Says Polman, “We need to fundamentally re-evaluate the way in which we do business.”
Meanwhile, with only little over a week left in the year, we still don’t know if the wind production tax credit will be renewed, as it hangs in the balance of the government’s attempt to resolve the budget showdown and the looming threat of the fiscal cliff. Failure to renew the credit could set back the industry, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs and a slowing in what has been impressive growth in wind power deployment.
All told, this year will most likely be seen as another year of teetering on the climate abyss, starting to tip back away from procrastination and towards solutions, though not quickly enough. Hopefully, it will be seen as one of a handful of years in which things truly began to change.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
RP is currently competing for a spot at Sustainbility Week in Abu Dhabi. You can vote for him here.
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