I just returned from India last week. Between the unbreathable air in Delhi, due to the multiplicity of smokestacks and tailpipes belching black smoke, and the mountains of trash littering the roadsides, it’s clear that this is a country with a long road ahead of it, when it comes to finding a way to exist sustainably on this planet. Yes, there are some signs of progress, albeit small ones. Solar hot water systems are prevalent. Some towns have outlawed the use of plastic shopping bags. Woven cloth bags are available as an alternative.
A larger step was taken by the Indian government this year, in the form of the Companies Act, 2013. This legislation requires companies to take action, make investments, and report against a number of metrics related to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Last week, PwC India released a Handbook on Corporate Social Responsibility in India, providing guidelines to help industry to comply with the regulation. The guide was developed for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). While CSR does not in itself address the environmental issues mentioned above, it does set the companies and the country on a path to eventually deal with them.
Clause 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, which was passed on 29 August 2013 is applicable to companies with an annual turnover of 1,000 crore INR ($161 million) and more, or a net worth of 500 crore INR ($80 million) and more, or a net profit as low as five crore INR ($800,000) and more. This will, in some cases extend to small and medium sized enterprises (SME).
This week, Cisco Systems released their 9th Annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. The comprehensive 160-page report is divided into five major sections: Governance and Ethics, Supply Chain, People, Society, and Environment. This is a broad sweep, and as CEO John Chambers says in his opening remarks, “Our focus on creating value for society, the environment and our business is reflected in the breadth of our commitments: from investing in our employees to improving labor standards in our supply chain, and from improving healthcare to reducing our environmental footprint. These are all multi-year efforts that require a long-term view to achieve positive outcomes.”
In the governance and ethics section, the company conducted five stakeholder sessions around the world to get feedback on environmental, social and supply chain issues. The company reported that they have met all of their objectives in this section including: employee certifications for code of business conduct, human rights training, and deepening engagement with socially responsible investors.
They also were recognized by the Carbon Disclosure Project, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and the Global 100 for their CSR achievements.
We all know that Elon Musk is one of the world’s great innovators. The South African-born developer of PayPal, and current CEO of both Telsa Motors and Spacex may well be a legend in his own time. In 1992, he dropped out of a Ph.D program in Physics at Stanford to pursue entrepreneurial aspirations in the Internet, space exploration and renewable energy. To date, he has achieved major successes in two out of three.
And now, as the Chairman of SolarCity, he might have achieved a Triple Crown. The solar installation company has just become the first of its kind to offer bonds backed by rooftop solar panels.
This financial innovation will allow solar companies to move away from becoming manufacturers and distributors of solar equipment, into energy companies, selling solar power as a service to their customers. The move is reminiscent of the move Xerox Corporation made back in the 60s, when they moved from selling copiers to selling copies by the click through leasing arrangements. The move proved to be critical to the company’s long-standing success.
I was disappointed to see the AP story last week, by Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo, an incomplete and shallow analysis, purporting to be an exposé of the current biofuel industry.
Characterizing the ethanol industry as “an ecological disaster,” is a distortion of the facts. Much of what they have described: the topsoil erosion and agri-chemical runoff, applies equally to all of modern agricultural methods and should be understood in that context. Yes, of course, modern agriculture does have many problems that need to be addressed. And the current corn ethanol mandate does extend that.
Who wouldn’t rather see National Parks, forests or prairies than cornfields? But given the nation’s enormous appetite for, and absolute dependence on, energy, that’s not a fair comparison. The more appropriate comparison should be between cornfields and coal mines, or cornfields and oil fields, or fracking wells, or tar sands oil brought down through enormous pipelines or perhaps even, cornfields and battlefields.
For them to weigh in with this story at a moment when the future of this vital attempt by our nation, lagging as we are in our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, to move decisively in the direction of a cleaner energy policy, is simply irresponsible.
Last year, Microsoft committed to become carbon neutral. The mechanism for achieving this is an internal carbon fee charged to each business group and department for the amount of carbon emissions associated with their operations. These fees are treated as real money so that the cost of doing business effectively gets higher, particularly for those divisions with high energy consumption. The result has been slowly working its way through the system and impacting decisions.
The beauty of an approach like this is that managers who may care about climate change, may not even believe it is a problem, are now making plans to ensure their carbon footprints are minimized.
One very concrete result of this experiment is the announcement this week that Microsoft has signed a twenty year purchase power agreement from a wind farm that is to be newly constructed in Jack County, Texas, some 70 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
The timing is significant. Just a few days after the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama issued an Executive Order designed to encourage Americans to incorporate climate change awareness into their activities and plans.
In that order, he writes, unambiguously, “The impacts of climate change — including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise — are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the nation.”
In response, he calls on local governments, businesses, and individuals to, “improve climate preparedness and resilience; help safeguard our economy, infrastructure, environment, and natural resources; and provide for the continuity of executive department and agency operations, services, and programs.”
The Executive Order lays out the following actions:
- Several government agencies including, Defense, NOAA, and EPA, are to forge a plan to protect resources and watersheds
- All agencies are to make an inventory of climate change risk and actions they recommend to address them
- Resources such as open data frameworks to enhance cooperation between local governments, NGOs and the private sector will be established
As the battle over genetically modified foods continues to rage across the planet, significant victories are being scored on both sides. The victories on the pro-GMO side usually come about as announcements made by officials after a series of meetings of men in suits, talking quietly, behind closed doors, even, perhaps, making undisclosed promises or threats. The victories on the anti-GMO side are more likely to come after noisy rallies of people who are not so well-dressed. In both cases, however, there is someone in a position of authority listening.
The latest round was heard by Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo of the Twelfth Federal District Court for Civil Matters of Mexico City. He obviously was not persuaded by the men in the suits. Verdugo ruled that GM corn posed ”the risk of imminent harm to the environment.” He ordered the Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture and Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, (environmental protection agency), to “suspend all activities involving the planting of transgenic corn in the country and end the granting of permission for experimental and pilot commercial plantings” immediately.
Just about everything in our world is changing: the climate, the way we live, the way we make a living. Most of those changes are due to the advent of technology and the economy that propagates that technology around the world. At the heart of all of it, is money, the economic blood that flows through the system, collecting, storing and distributing value between people and enterprises, across distance and time.
Money, too, appears to be changing, impacted by the same electronic digital technology that is changing everything else. But will this new digital money simply be more convenient, or will it actually change the nature of our economy?
One big area where we see this happening is in developing countries where mobile money provides financial services in the form of secure digital transactions, ushering in a new era of a cashless economy. They allow rural farmers and vendors to easily process payments, even in outlying areas, allowing them to participate directly in the world economy. This is a big deal says Kosta Peric of the Gates Foundation, who is featured in the film, especially when you consider that some 2 billion people do not have access to any kind of modern financial system. You can’t build a business without one. “You need loans, you need a safe way to pay for things, you need a way to track your wealth. If you don’t have all of that, how can you grow? There is no way. But in developing countries, even people who don’t have a bank account, have a mobile phone.”
Yes, we have lots of natural gas right now. Yes, the prices are low. Yes, natural gas is cleaner than just about any other fossil fuel. That’s all good news.
Sadly, much of that natural gas is obtained by fracking, a drilling method that has many environmental agencies concerned. And fracking wells do not last long. That means that many more wells will be needed and the prices will invariably go up because of the costs of drilling ever deeper. This stuff does not come gushing out of the ground by itself the way those first Pennsylvania oil wells once did. And the low gas prices are dampening investment in renewables, which is, of course, exactly what the fossil fuel companies want.
Today’s natural gas story turns out to be a good one, for the most part. Here comes another player in from left field. As you may know, methane gas is being captured from many landfills around the country and burned to produce electricity. This is actually a good thing, because, according to EPA, methane is 21 times more potent that CO2 as a greenhouse gas. But when you burn the methane, it is converted to CO2 and water.
Now a company in California, called Clean Energy Fuels is taking landfill methane, and making it available for natural gas powered vehicles through a network of 35 filling stations across California.
Mike Ward, President of IKEA USA gave the keynote address at the 6th Annual Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Conference in Orlando last week where he unveiled IKEA’s sustainability strategy.
I caught up with Ward a couple of days later to discuss the new strategy in greater detail.
TriplePundit: What are the main elements of IKEA’s new sustainability strategy?
Mike Ward: The new strategy really outlines for us how we want to transform the business in the next few years, using sustainability as a key platform of the business plan. People and Planet Positive is a way to explain to ourselves and to everyone what we’re going to be focusing on.
3p: So what’s different now?
MW: We’re looking at three change drivers. The first is a more sustainable life at home. We’ve always been fascinated with the way people live, and have focused our innovation on improving life, always at a low price. Sustainability adds another dimension to that challenge. Next we discussed energy independence and independence in the way that we source materials. That shows up in our commitment to renewable energy and the work we’ve done in our supply chain, particularly with respect to wood and cotton. The third aspect is a better life for the people and communities where we do business.
We’ve written quite a bit about e-waste here over the years. It is a growing problem that is oddly emblematic of our cyber-frenetic lives. Gadgets come and go with dizzying speed, the fruits of innovation that have ushered in our hyper-connected, information-rich lifestyle, have also grown into mountains of modern jetsam. At last count, there is somewhere between twenty and fifty million tons of the stuff being discarded each year. And like a lot of today’s trash, it is sometimes hard-pressed to find a final resting place, sometimes ending up in places like Africa or China where, desperate to extract bits of value, indigent people do themselves unintentional harm by exposing themselves to lead and other hazardous materials.
The electronics industry is worried about this, too. Legislation like the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, which was introduced last year, but failed to pass, would have made it illegal to ship e-waste overseas and with takeback rules also in the offing, could well have caused some manufacturers to drown in their own, well, for lack of a better word…excrement. The bill is expected to be recycled next year.
But what about reducing the amount of e-waste to begin with?
A huge portion of this waste mountain consists of cell phones. Back when I was growing up, phones were quite a bit larger than they are now, but people rarely threw them out and hardly ever replaced them. They were extremely reliable and they did the one thing that they were supposed to do, make phone calls, very well and didn’t change much over the years. So it was not unusual for people to hang onto the same phone for twenty years or more. Not a lot of e-waste there.
So the idea behind Phonebloks, a phone that is made up of detachable blocks, each of which contains an upgradeable functional module, is that people would once again hang onto their phones, at least the main parts, for a long time.
It’s not easy to save face when you’ve come out swinging, very publicly, with everything you’ve got, only to find that you’ve lost the argument because your position was indefensible. One approach would be to “declare victory and go home,” which Senator George Aiken was reported to have said in 1973 as a way to get out of the quagmire of Vietnam, despite the fact that victory was never ours to claim.
This, apparently, was the approach chosen by the American Family Association when they decided to call off their three-year boycott of Home Depot for financially supporting gay and lesbian organizations.
In a statement, Randy Sharp, AFA’s Director of Special Projects said, “We’re glad to report that we are suspending the boycott of The Home Depot. After monitoring the company for several months, we’re satisfied that the company has withdrawn its major financial contributions to gay activist groups and to their activities. [...] We certainly do expect The Home Depot to deny that they have turned back their contributions to gay activist groups, but AFA has monitored the company – and actions speak louder than words.”
So, with a little rhetorical sleight of hand, they anticipated the denial that they somehow knew was sure to come. How could they be so sure of that?
Indeed, Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said “We haven’t made any changes to our policies for inclusion and respect of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. We have not directed our associates to discontinue participation in Pride or other community events, and have no intention of doing so.”
By preemptively predicting Home Depot’s denial, AFA has assured credibility among their faithful constituents without disclosing any specific allegations that could be challenged or refuted on a factual basis.
I think we all know that the sooner we can get the market saturated with electric vehicles, the better off our carbon footprint will be, especially as we continue to retire more coal plants and replace them with natural gas or renewables.
So what is standing in the way of that happening? Probably the first thing is cost. Most people feel that an EV is out of their price range right now. GM took a major step to address that last month when they announced that they were reducing the price of their 2014 Chevy Volt plug-in electric by $5,000. Coming in below $28,000 does not exactly make it a bargain, but it will bring it down into a lot more people’s price range.
After sticker price, probably the next obstacle is what has come to be known as range anxiety. That is the concern that drivers have that they could get stranded out on the road, unable to find a place to charge up their car when the battery is depleted. One way to deal with range anxiety is to do what Chevy has done with the Volt and add a gas tank to their electric car so the gas can be used to charge the battery, should it run down in the middle of nowhere. After all, one of the reasons we like cars is that they can take us into the middle of nowhere, something no bus, or train, or airplane can do.
All-electric cars do not have that option. They must rely on the good sense and planning of their drivers and, of course, the growing availability of EV charging infrastructure. So how do they deal with range anxiety among their potential customers?
If you’re Elon Musk, the mind behind Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Solar City, you’re in the habit of meeting challenges head on and taking matters into your own hands, and often setting an example along the way. Musk will set an example for range-anxious drivers by taking one of his Tesla Model S sedans on a cross country drive, from LA to NY, with no fears of getting stranded along the way.
The California Public Utilities Commission issued a proposed decision this week that will guide power companies towards an increased utilization of energy storage. The proposed framework lays out both a timeline and a set of goals that will, according to Energy Storage North America (ESNA), “jump start the market for energy storage solutions” in this country.
“This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” said Janice Lin, Managing Partner of Strategen Consulting and Chair of ESNA’s upcoming conference. (See Lin’s editorial in Triple Pundit here.)
The announcement comes just in time for the Energy Storage North America (ESNA) Conference and Expo 2013, at which CPUC Commissioner Carla Peterman, who authored the proposed decision, will be the keynote speaker. This will be the first conference in North America specifically focused on energy storage.
What is at the heart of a sustainable city?
If you look at this ranking, which considers Vancouver, San Francisco, Oslo, Curitiba, and Copenhagen, as the most sustainable cities in the world, it appears that lots of green technology is key. Vancouver is heavy with renewable energy including lots of hydropower and it has the lowest per capita carbon footprint on the continent.
San Francisco has great air quality, waste management and commuting options.
Oslo is literally green, with two-thirds of its area covered with trees. They also have great bike and car-sharing options and its city-wide district heating system uses 80 percent renewable fuels. Curitiba is famous for its mass-transit system. They have also substantial green space, and have a very successful recycling program. Copenhagen is great for biking, wind power, green roofs, and have pledged to be the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.
Of course, this begs the question of whether a green city is a smart city and whether either of these is a great city.
I had a conversation about just these very things last week with Mike Calise, Director, Electric Vehicles, Partner Business at Schneider Electric. Mike believes that electric vehicles will bring numerous synergies that will accelerate the development and adaption of smart cities. He’s excited about cities, where he says, “the battle for our future will be won or lost,” because by the year 2050, close to 70 percent of the world’s population will be living there, and generating roughly 90 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Schneider and other technology vendors, such as Cisco Systems are developing portfolios of smart city projects that are beginning to color in the picture of what a smart city might really look like.