Verdant Light

Musings on sustainability and sustainable innovation.

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Hope in a Post-Trump Climate

Here’s a bold prediction: the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States will, at worst, leave the environmental movement unaffected — and may actually improve its prospects in the long term.

Anyone who knows me personally or has followed my social media knows how vociferously I opposed Trump’s election, for profligate reasons — not the least of which being his denial of climate science and avowal to dissolve our climate commitments, such as our intended nationally determined contribution to the COP21 Paris Climate Accord (which took the form domestically of President Obama’s signature Climate Action Plan), and our bilateral agreement with China to co-lead on decarbonization between presidents Obama and Xi.


But I’ve always been an eternal optimist, and as I try to accept our new post-Trump reality, I can’t help but look at our brave new world as not a crisis, but an opportunity.

First, some reality checking. I was in Paris for COP21 and cannot underestimate the groundbreaking nature of the Agreement and all that entails. President-Elect Trump has said he will abrogate our Paris commitment, but President Obama has already made the US a signatory; now that the Agreement has entered into force (as of 4 Nov 2016), no country can withdraw from it until it has been in force for 3 years. After that, withdrawal requires a one-year notice. So, the earliest that the US can withdraw is Nov 4, 2020 — by which time the American citizenry will have already decided whether we’ve had enough of President Trump.

President Trump can, of course, simply kill the Clean Power Plan and all US efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even if we’re technically still in the Paris Agreement. The Clean Power Plan focuses its regulations on coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for 31% of US GHG emissions; President-Elect Trump has already pledged friendship to the coal industry and stated plans to open more wildlife areas to oil and gas exploration. But regulation isn’t what’s depressing coal power; the industry has been in decline based on simple economics. Conventional coal plants cost $95 per MWh in 2015, even without the carbon capture and storage requirements that would add another $50/MWh. In contrast, a megawatt-hour of geothermal electricity cost $47; onshore wind, $74; conventional natural gas, $75; hydroelectric power, $85 — all cheaper than coal. Advanced nuclear power is at parity with coal at $95, and even solar photovoltaic electricity, currently priced at $125 per MWh ($114 after federal subsidies), has fallen 79% over the last half-decade and continues to fall. (Prices are given as levelized cost of energy, or LCOE, by the Energy Information Administration.)

Potentially more potent than rescinding specific environmental regulations is the prospect of eliminating or significantly gutting the Environmental Protection Agency entirely, another Trump campaign promise. Even if this were legally possible (difficult, at best) and the American public allowed it (we’ve seen bipartisan rebellion against eliminating environmental protections in the past), I might argue that this isn’t a terrible thing — if we seize the opportunity to rebuild a better Agency from its ashes.


EPA was founded by Richard Nixon in 1970 as a counterweight against corporations who were despoiling the environment with impunity. Its early regulations were designed to keep rivers from setting ablaze, literally and figuratively — certainly good things. But society’s relationship with corporations has changed. Many corporations now see investment in our country’s social and ecological fabric as a good long-term investment (see Andrew Winston’s latest book The Big Pivot for an in-depth explanation). We no longer need counterfactual, end-of-tailpipe regulations to advance corporate sustainability; doing less bad is no longer enough. We need to reformulate the rules of the marketplace itself, and then let business do what business does best: innovate.

It’s not like EPA hasn’t changed with the times. Acting on a recommendation by the Environmental Defense Fund, George W. Bush’s EPA scrapped a proposed counterfactual regulatory scheme to curb acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, and instead enacted a cap-and-trade mechanism that decreased SO2 emissions by 36% even as electricity generated by the affected coal plants rose by 25% — and at a cost savings of 15-90% less than the expected costs of the original regulation. The Economist called this “probably the greatest green success story of the [1990s]”.

Still, this hasn’t led to success on similar market mechanisms, such as carbon pricing (despite calls from companies ranging from Patagonia to ExxonMobil for a price on carbon), or better valuation of natural capital. Perhaps we need to go back to the drawing board to design an agency that can work with progressive businesses to define the rules of a clean economy. Let us use the discontinuity of this administration to lurch forward, not backward, in the way we rebuild our new economy.

As folks smarter than me have already argued, the sustainability movement has enough momentum to survive President Trump. I view this period as the dot-com winter of the 2000s: a harsh testing grounds for truly sustainable models. Strong models like Amazon and Google survived that testbed, and similar resilient models will outlast this sustainability winter. Let’s be poised and ready to lead once the spring blooms.


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What’s In the Paris Agreement?

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.


In case you were wondering how many pages it takes for an international agreement among 196 countries to change the fate of the world, the Paris Agreement is a mere 32 pages. In comparison, the TI-89 graphing calculator sitting in my desk drawer like an old war medal from my engineering days has a manual of 1,008 pages; page 32 is halfway through its “Getting Started” section.

The Paris Agreement is beautiful in its simplicity, matching the reality of our global condition: we have to reduce our carbon emissions or else. The Agreement was signed on December 12, 2015 and is set to take effect today, Earth Day, the 22nd of April 2016 in a signing ceremony at the UN. I’ll do my best to explain it here with matching brevity and clarity.

A Pithy Preamble

The Paris Agreement starts with the clear and compelling case that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

There’s a lot packed into this opening salvo. Climate change is an urgent and potentially irreversible: if we don’t act now, we may never be able to alter its course. We are, as Carl Sagan is often attributed as saying, “by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”

It is a threat first to human societies: although with a species extinction rate of 1,000 times the background rate, many scientists believe that we’re currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet—that sadly isn’t an argument that will sway world leaders to action. The threat to human societies is a more convincing argument for concerted human action. The Agreement specifically mentions upholding the human rights of “local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

Neutralization of this threat requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, a remark certainly directed at countries that weren’t bound (China, India) or didn’t ratify (USA) the Paris Agreement’s failed predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol.

Finally, the Agreement calls for accelerating the reduction of GHG emissions. I think this strikes the right tone of urgency, optimism and pragmatism: we won’t halt emissions any time soon, but must build on positive efforts already underway to reduce emissions. Acknowledging reality, the Agreement continues that “deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention”—that is, Paris is just the beginning.

In the Preamble, the Agreement lays out a clear performance metric: success is “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” While I was in Paris, there was a lot of excitement over the week over the introduction of language addressing the more stringent 1.5 °C target, which wasn’t in there at the start of the COP. This language was pushed for by many of the indigenous nations present—some present in their full native regalia—since half of a degree could mean the difference between their nations thriving, or being abandoned as they sunk beneath the waves like so many modern Atlantises.

Article 2: the Paris Agreement in a nutshell

After twenty pages of context-setting, Article 2 of the Paris Agreement actually spells out exactly what the Agreement is all about. Here it is in full:

  1. This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:
    1. Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
    1. Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;
    1. Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
  2. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

In order to achieve the goal stated clearly in paragraph 1(a) above, each country must act. But the way these actions are called for reflects paragraph 2’s “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” That is, most countries submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to our climate challenge, or INDC. Article 3 of the Agreement lays out exactly what these are:

As nationally determined contributions to the global response to climate change, all Parties are to undertake and communicate ambitious efforts . . . with the view to achieving the purpose of this Agreement as set out in Article 2. The efforts of all Parties [signatory countries] will represent a progression over time, while recognizing the need to support developing country Parties for the effective implementation of this Agreement.

Elsewhere, it defines exactly what INDCs are to include; they must have “quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in the light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention.” As mentioned previously, these mitigation pledges and plans of action are a revolutionary way to address climate change that rely on nations’ concrete plans for change rather than a top-down (and, in a political context, arbitrary) target. But the risk of such a bottom-up set of plans is that they don’t, in aggregate, add up to the change we need. Unfortunately, that is indeed the case here.

The most significant paragraph in the section on INDCs states that they currently lead to projected 2030 GHG emissions of 55 gigatonnes, whereas limiting warming to 2 °C would require a cap of 40 gigatonnes; and further investigation will determine how much lower the cap must be to limit warming to 1.5 °C. As the Agreement concludes: “much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.”

MIT professor John Sterman and his colleagues at the Climate Interactive research group estimate that if all the current targets are achieved, but nothing more, we will experience 3.5 °C of warming. Luckily, the Agreement has a plan to remedy this shortcoming.

Stocktake and Ratchet

It sounds like a phrase straight from the hipster business name generator, but the global stocktake and the ratcheting mechanism are crucial concepts of the Paris Agreement that will correct the shortfalls in the INDCs. First, every 5 years the world will come together and perform a stocktake: that is, a measurement of the global carbon stock. If we’re not headed in the right direction—or not headed there fast enough—each country will submit a new INDC, thus “ratcheting” up their targets to get us back into the safe zone. Beginning in 2018, countries will start reviewing their progress and targets to reconvene in 2020 and reassess their performance.

The Agreement also creates a few mechanisms to ensure that countries have the best shot and meeting their targets. First, fulfilling paragraph 1(b) in the Article 2 cited above, the UN secretariat will develop a website to share “low greenhouse gas emission development strategies,” as well as adaptation strategies, particularly for the developing countries. (Mitigation refers to steps taken to reduce emissions in order to prevent climate change; adaptation means dealing with the effects of climate change in order to lessen the impacts on human societies and ecosystems.)

And it’s not just tech-transfer. As paragraph 1(c) alludes to, a funding mechanism called the Green Climate Fund was conceived of during COP15 (Copenhagen) and formally created at COP16 (Cancun); the Paris Agreement calls for it to provide $100 billion (USD) to assist developing countries in mitigation and adaptation activities. You can track developed countries’ ongoing GCF pledges.

Final Analysis

All in all, the Paris Agreement is historic—and not enough. Alone, it will not solve our climate challenge; but it’s the best step forward we’ve ever had. It was a hard-fought accord that was nearly sunk with a single errant word, but its very stakeholder challenges are its strength. That is, 196 countries, representing 98% of the global population, signed on to fight a colorless, tasteless enemy; a fight that acknowledges that our long-term survival depends on changing our very way of life. That itself is a bold step forward—and should give us all hope. As French president Francois Hollande said upon its final gaveling: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”

"Espaces Générations Climat" at the Green Zone

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My Impressions from COP21

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

My company sent me to COP21 to demonstrate our commitment to sustainable innovation. This is the first COP I’ve had the privilege to attend—and it wasn’t exactly what I expected as a seasoned Net Impacter. (For those of you who’d like more background on past COPs, see the previous two blog posts in this mini-series!)

The main venue for COP21 was Le Bourget, a close suburb of Paris. Here the negotiations took place in the “Blue Zone”, an area strictly reserved for UN-credentialed negotiators (of which I wish I were one!). The adjacent Green Zone (pictured above, and in this photo) was open to the public, as was a neighboring Tech Gallery. Away from the main venue in the center of downtown Paris was the “Solutions COP21” expo at Paris’s most storied art exhibition center, the Grand Palais (pictured below). Additionally, independent organizations hosted hundreds of COP21-related side events around Paris, mostly to support the climate negotiations and spur the participants towards an international accord.

In my other posts, I noted the presence of both the business community and the general public at several of these venues and side events. The thing that really surprised me about COP21 was the disconnect—and simmering conflict—between the participation of the business community, and that of the general public. This is really a regressive view compared to what I’ve experienced at each of the eight Net Impact conferences I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

For the first time ever at a COP, the host city accepted corporate sponsorship to help defray their costs in putting on the conference, which was one major source of the conflict. For example, an artist-activists’ campaign called “brandalism” impugned companies for our sponsorship. Some of this pushback was well warranted: fossil-energy companies are still promoting dirty technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a bridge to more renewable technologies, which is controversial at best. Still, many of the sponsor companies were also unveiling cool innovations for a low-carbon society, such as:

this scale-model column of algae biofuel production that Suez Environmental is proposing to build to capture and utilize excess CO2 and heat from power plants; and

your humble scribe (left in photo) sitting in this city-connected, autonomous electric concept car from AKKA Technologies.

Adding to the public-corporate disconnect, many of the business community’s discussions and exchanges took place in private meetings such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) meeting and the Sustainable Innovation Forum that were closed to the general public.

My company and others were unwittingly on the front lines of this corporate/public conflict as protesters tried to stage a public protest against the sponsor companies at the Grand Palais, shutting down the expo for a few hours. As France is still under a state of emergency following the Paris attacks, such public demonstrations are banned, and so the government was fairly forceful in removing the protesters. Security was tight at the Grand Palais public expo—though I was credentialed as an exhibitor, I was patted down and my bag searched each time—and there were heavily armed guards patrolling our exhibition area. Still, this youth hip-hop group that was on stage one night in the Grand Palais was left undisturbed as they called for divestment from some of the sponsors’ dirty fossil fuels. The people would be heard!

Youth group raps about divesting from dirty fossil fuels

My takeaway from these split interests is that we as Net Impacters still have a long way to go to prove to the general public that business—corporations, non-profits, social enterprises—can be a part of the solution. Look out for my final post on the agreement that came out at the conclusion of COP21, coming shortly. My initial assessment is that the negotiations this year took the radically different approach of focusing on what countries can do to innovate for a low-carbon economy and society, rather than setting legally binding targets with no guidance as to how to meet them. This means that our roles as sustainability professionals will be central on the path forward from Paris to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Time is running out—as this melting ice clock art installation made clear and visceral for all participants!

Melting ice clock art installation
Melting ice clock art installation


COP21: Why This Year is Different

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

In my previous post I gave some background and history of the Conferences of the Parties (COPs), the annual UN Climate Change Conference. While this is the first COP I’ve attended, there’s ample evidence that “this year is different”. Here are a few reasons why:

  • First, most people say that they’re realistically hoping for an accord, not a protocol. That means it likely won’t be legally binding, and thus won’t need to be ratified by the US Congress (sorry for the name-dropping, but I had a chat with French ambassador to the US about this, and he told me that the US Congress was the main reason why they weren’t trying for a legally binding agreement).
  • To keep everyone still accountable, countries submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to spell out their reduction targets. Many countries submitted these, which nearly all emissions (see leading graphic). The US was among the first to submit (thanks Obama… no, seriously!) and committed to a 26-28 percent cut against 2005 emissions levels by 2025.
  • The US and China are finally committed. While our Congress has still maintained they won’t ratify a legally binding accord, the US and China announced a landmark climate agreement late last year, setting the stage for their INDC commitments. (President Xi of China said that China will peak its emissions by 2030, then start reducing them, if not earlier; and committed to 20% of its energy coming from zero-emissions sources by 2030.)
  • Europe is already committed to legally binding 40% cuts.
  • A major economic sticking point at COPs past, the rich countries have finally agreed to subsidize poor countries’ leapfrogging of cheap, dirty technologies into cleaner ones. In 2009, the developed nations agreed to send $100 billion each year to the developing nations.
  • The business community is here in force, such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), sending negotiators a clear message that we support a climate accord. (You can watch the full livecast of the WBCSD’s council meeting here.) Even ExxonMobil is calling for a carbon tax, as Ken Cohen (who keynoted the 2014 Net Impact conference) lays out in this blog post.
  • The public here—both Parisians and visitors—are as vocal as ever, from indigenous tribes from affected island countries, to Americans affected by fracking, to Asian citizens blighted with thick urban pollution.

In the next post I’ll give some of my impressions on attending some events at COP21 — and on these last two points in particular, the presence of both the business community and the public.


COP21: The UN Climate Change Conference

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

Excitement is the highest here in Paris for this year’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or “Conference of the Parties” (COP) 21, than any other single event I’ve been involved with in my sustainability career. It’s perhaps the most important COP since the one held in Kyoto in 1997, during which the Kyoto Protocol was signed. The conference has been repeated annually since the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, called the “UNF triple C”) was established in 1992. But this one is different—for a number of reasons.

First, some background for the less climate-geeky among us. The Kyoto Protocol was a seminal international agreement that recognized mankind’s role in warming and destabilizing the global climate. Signed in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, it was a pioneering protocol (meaning, a legally-binding agreement) that set reduction targets for signatory countries.

It wasn’t considered successful, though. First, India and China were categorized as developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol; the reality of their explosive development in the last two decades has shown that their treatment as modeling the emissions of poor, developing economies is way off the mark. Second, the world’s historically largest polluter, our fair United States, signed the protocol in 1998 under President Bill Clinton, but did not ratify it; any treaty must be ratified by the US Congress to be considered binding. Since Congress—then as now—refused to sign it, Clinton didn’t even put it to vote, and the US has remained unbounded by Kyoto.

carbon emissions by country chart

This chart of current emissions shows clearly why Kyoto failed to put a halt to global warming: taking into account the US (didn’t ratify), and China and India (the Protocol did not impose any emissions targets on developing nations), and Canada (who later pulled out), a full 50% of emissions weren’t counted under the Protocol—even before we get to the long tail of “Other” countries.

(At the time of Kyoto, the US was the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases; we’ve since been eclipsed by China, but still retain the dubious distinction of having the most cumulative historic emissions. Plus, with one-quarter of the population of China, the US remains the highest per capita emitter.)

So the world needs a new agreement. There have been several milestones leading up to COP21. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, negotiators—led by, surprisingly, the climate negotiation team under President George W. Bush—won a major victory in the Bali Accord, in which all countries—developed and developing—agreed to be responsible for reducing emissions or curbing emissions growth. (Whether the rich countries will subsidize the poor countries’ sustainable development has remained a sticking point.) Then at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders got very close to an agreement, but failed—and it nearly derailed international climate efforts. But subsequently at COP20 in Lima last year, the UN drafted an outline of an agreement that would commence in 2020. (Copenhagen’s outcome covered targets through the year 2020.)

So after years (decades!) of negotiations, hopes for a Paris agreement are high. In the next post, I’ll highlight some of the ongoing advances during this week’s negotiations, as well as my impressions of the week in Paris.

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Where airplanes go to die (and be reborn)

This past spring, I had the unique opportunity to tour the Pinal Airpark, thanks to my company’s participation in the International Aerospace Environmental Group. This included the amazing opportunity to walk through a Boeing 747 that was being disassembled and recycled that week. Here’s what I saw and learned.

Planes that will be decommissioned fly here (it’s also a working airfield, with runway), or if they can’t, a team goes out and chops them into pieces that can be shipped via shipping container. The owner of the aircraft gives the recycling company a “harvest list”, or list of parts — in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands — that they want to recover and either reuse, resell, or recycle for raw material.

Here is one of the three Boeing 747-400s (“whales”) that were being parted out. As Pinal is in the Sonoran Desert, the dry conditions preserve the planes fairly well, although you can tell from the puddles that it does occasionally rain.

First, they wrap the parts that are sensitive to dust in aluminum foil: the windows, the engines, and the landing gear (pictured here). The foil is changed every 30 days. The engines and landing gear are two of the most valuable components, so these will definitely be harvested if they’re in usable condition. To remove the gear, they hoist the whole plane up onto railroad ties.

The engines from this 747-400 have already been harvested! Note also that the fuel has been drained (as have all other hazardous liquids), and the fuel lines sealed. As another safety precaution for the recycling workers, the auxiliary power unit (APU), which generates non-propulsion power (e.g. electricity) during aircraft operation, has also been removed.

They drain the fluids into these “cookie tins” as they call them.

Here’s the cockpit of the 747-400, stripped of the miles upon miles of copper wiring, which is a valuable commodity. Here you can also see the famous pilot’s takeoff checklist. Believe it or not, we also found an operating manual for the 747-400… it was typewritten!

All I need is fuel. And engines.

They, strip the galley too.


The only way I’ll see First Class

Aircraft are also stored in working condition at Pinal — both new aircraft, ready to be received by the airline but not yet painted, like this one in “live storage” (note the engines wrapped in foil)…

190…As well as old planes that sit before they’re needed. Sometimes they’re grounded here because airlines don’t need to fly all their planes. This particular plane (a McDonnell Douglas DC-9?) has been sitting here for 17 YEARS, and is now being recommisioned to fly as a cargo plane again!!

Note the logo: Evergreen International was apparently a notorious clandestine ops company used by the CIA, like Blackwater now. The US attempts to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua apparently flew out of this airfield – perhaps this very plane!

This DHL plane was first used as a passenger plane, then retrofitted for cargo. It doesn’t have a cargo door, just one normal L1 passenger door, so it could only be used for small parcels. Consequently, they’re stripping it for parts for the DC-9 retrofit pictured above.
Kind of blurry but these are engines all wrapped up. Engines are among the highest value parts, containing lots of high value metals, and sometimes can even be used again in an aircraft.
Here, a crane and cutting tools are used to section and shred the aircraft body for scrap aluminum after the owner’s harvest list (which can be 500 to 1500+ parts) has been removed from the plane.
“Delta infinity”: more planes in live storage. Ever wondered where the actual extra planes went when air travel decreased in the recession? Found ’em.
Or, have you ever wondered where the aircraft of now-defunct airlines ended up? I found this plane from Trans World Airlines, TWA, still sitting here waiting patiently to be harvested and recycled!
Planes are flown here — if they are still airworthy — or shipped here from all over the world. Some countries do not allow the planes to be deconstructed in their countries because they’re afraid of both violating environmental regulations, and of creating PR issues. Apparently since the barriers to entry of aircraft deconstruction are low, there are a lot of unscrupulous vendors, like the ones who fly-tipped (illegally dumped) the entire interior of a Ryanair Boeing 747-200, which then washed ashore in Scotland.

And finally, a bit of a non-sequitur to the recycling of these aircraft, but… does this slightly alarm anyone else??


The end-of-life of aircraft is a rapidly evolving field. According to GJD Services, a UK-based aircraft disposal company, “over the next 20 years, approximately 5,000 commercial airliners are expected to be withdrawn or retired from service at a rate of approximately 250 per year.” (Read more in this great blog post.) One issue that the industry will increasingly begin to face is how to recycle newer generation aircraft in which carbon-fiber composites, which are incredibly tough to dismantle and to recycle, have replaced aluminum in the aircraft bodies. While the much lighter composite bodies can sip a quarter of the fuel of the first aluminum jets, there may be end-of-life recycling tradeoffs. I’ve learned that the sustainability of the aerospace sector is a pretty complex endeavor, but one that many in the industry are working hard to achieve.

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Microsoft’s Carbon Tax: Changing The Rules of the (Internal) Marketplace

I’m in Seattle this week for some meetings, and today I was able to carve out some time to visit the Microsoft campus and have coffee with a friend and colleague on their corporate citizenship team. We chatted about the state of our sustainability profession, and one of the recurring themes of discussion were the ad-hoc nature most sustainability initiatives. It’s what I like to call the Teenage Sex Problem, after a well-loved quote in the sustainability profession (source, unfortunately, unknown):

Sustainability is like teenage sex: there’s a lot of people talking about it, but not a lot of people doing it; and those who are doing it aren’t doing it very well.

What our profession needs to really move forward are not sexy, celebrated innovations like mushroom packaging or shipping container architecture, but rather, systems that can be built on top of — or better yet, into — business processes.

Microsoft has implemented one very cool marketplace rule that I wish all companies would adopt: they’ve instituted an internal carbon tax. They’ve pledged to carbon neutrality, by reducing emissions as much as they can and offsetting the rest — renewable energy credits (RECs), carbon offsets, wind power purchase agreements (PPAs), etc. Many companies do this, but Microsoft has taken the really innovative approach of passing on the cost of the offsetting to the source of the emissions. For example, if a salesperson elects to fly to a client meeting, there’s a small fee added to their travel booking for the emitted carbon; similar charges exist for, say, groups leveraging time and equipment in a server farm for computation or data storage.

Inside the Microsoft carbon fee

Source: Microsoft sustainability report

I think this is really revolutionary. It aligns the interests perfectly: if the employee makes a decision not to pursue the activity that would emit the carbon, then this eliminates the need to purchase that amount of offset anyway. In reality — posits my friend — the actual fees today are not significant enough to change behaviors. That’s not the point. The system exists, and has been integrated into each group’s business processes — the rules of Microsoft’s internal marketplace. As the cost to mitigate climate effects through offset purchases rises, the marketplace rules dictate that the costs will naturally rise to compensate; and eventually, this will begin to change the behaviors of employees looking to optimize their budgets. (Provided you believe in offsets as a successful system.)

Now if only we could revolutionize the external marketplace in the same way, with carbon legislation.

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Erasing Our Sins of Emission

Airplane with contrails

I recently had a discussion with a member of my team about the concept of carbon offsets. She had written a great post on our internal Green Teams site about how to reduce your emissions while flying, with a few tips that were new even to me (e.g.: flying during the day, instead of after the sun sets, reduces the environmental impacts of the plane’s contrails!). One of her tips was to purchase reputable carbon offsets, which she concluded with this statement: “Remember: Just because you’re buying offsets doesn’t make it OK to use more carbon than you absolutely need.”

My response: why doesn’t it?

Our discussion that ensued gets to the heart of the conflict between environmental activists and corporate sustainability leaders. Activists generally believe that the solution to the harm we’re foisting upon the world is to deny ourselves the desire or means to commit this harm; it’s what I sometimes call “sustainability through sacrifice”. In this camp fall the folks who talk about everything from raising the thermostat to population control.

Some of this is simply good practice and good business, especially when it comes to reducing waste. But drawing this attitude to its logical extreme can get very depressing very quickly, and pretty soon you’ll just want to quit everything and go find a nice quiet cabin in the woods, or become your own version of No Impact Man. From a company perspective, there’s the attitude that if we just reduced fuel, cut routes, decreased manufacturing lines, even sold fewer products — in the extreme, if we closed our doors and sent everyone home — the world would be better off.

That kind of attitude makes me crazy. Even if we posit that everyone could live a zero-impact life — and I’m not sure that’s even theoretically possible — there’s no way that we could change the attitudes of enough people in time. It’s just not feasible to imagine civilization evolving past the infrastructure of roads and planes and Big Macs and iPhones that drive what we fondly refer to as “the economy” in time to make a difference within a timeframe that would allow the biosphere to recover.

Besides the unreasonableness of the activist’s creed, it’s not even the best path forward for the planet: it ignores the good we can also do as humans. I’m not a Silicon Valley-climate-apologist who believes we can tech our way out of environmental degradation, but I also don’t want to ignore the positive actions we can take, such as growing responsible biofuels (algae, switchgrass) to power commercial aircraft. This, then, is the second path to sustainability, that embraced by the corporate sustainability leader: reduce what is easy to reduce, and then actively create positive impact. Switch from reducing badness to increasing goodness when the reductions become more expensive than the possible positive actions and technologies.

So back to offsets. First, reduce travel you don’t need — but honestly, who ever says “you know what, I don’t think I need that trip to San Diego in January after all”? OK, let’s assume most travel is necessary or desired. Second, take positive actions: buying offsets are positive actions. If you’re unsure of how they work, here are carbon offsets in a nutshell:

  1. you calculate how much carbon your share of the flight is responsible for (the flight’s emissions divided by the plane’s total capacity);
  2. you purchase, through a reputable broker, that amount of carbon offsets (e.g. 2,000 lbs);
  3. the carbon offset broker then uses your offset money (combined with others’) to fund carbon-capture projects — such as wind farms, landfill methane capture, coal mine methane capture, and more controversially, deforestation avoidance or reforestation — that remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere as you offset;
  4. for example, you offset a Boston-Paris roundtrip nonstop (about 3,000 lbs for currently about $20), and 100 others do as well; your offset broker might invest in a 300,000-lb sequestering wind turbine with this $2,000.
  5. The cost per pound is based on how the broker can most cheaply take a pound of carbon out of the air; this becomes a fungible “environmental currency” because, unlike fresh water or toxicity, a pound of carbon emitted or sequestered is equivalent anywhere in the world, because there’s only one atmosphere.


SO: what is the harm in doubling my travel next year, if I fully offset all of it? Since I usually round up to the nearest 1,000 lbs, I might even argue that this would be slightly environmentally positive. One way I usually consider questions like this is to ask myself what would happen if everyone in the world took the same action. In this case, the result would be that offsets would increasingly become more expensive; as the “low hanging fruit” of offset projects were funded, it’d be hard to find new ones. But aside from the cost and availability, if everyone offset at least 100% of their travel emissions, I do think the world would be better off.

offset-indulgencesAssuming, that is, that you believe that they are really doing what they say they’re doing. I’ve never actually seen any of the wind farms, methane captures, etc. that I’ve funded by purchasing offsets, though I have spoken with the company’s representatives (I use TerraPass) and found them to be quite above board. One also has to trust their calculations of airline emissions and of the projects’ sequestered amounts, and also trust that the projects being funded wouldn’t have happened anyway without our funding — this is a requirement called additionality. Some have compared carbon offsets with the old “indulgences” of the Catholic Church — where you could buy absolution from sins — but I’m not sure that offsetting our “sins of emission” is worse than not committing them in the first place.

So the bottom line is that I really don’t feel bad for holding Gold Medallion status on Delta. I’ve purchased offsets for each one of those flights, offsets that I trust. I’d encourage others to do the same, because traveling the world is what makes it smaller, more personal, more unified, more mutually understanding, and ultimately — worth saving.

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Don’t Breathe the Air

There’s an adage that goes: “In a developing country, don’t drink the water. In a developed country, don’t breathe the air.”

This adage arose during a dirtier age — then a gift of a newly industrialized society. But in the last several decades we’ve gained a much greater understanding of the ills of air pollution, and have done great things like create a cap-and-trade mechanism for sulfur dioxide and NOx to reduce acid rain. Surely that old canard only now applies to rapidly developing countries like China and India.

My intern sent me an article recently that shattered this illusion, and reminded me that air pollution is by no means a thing of the distant past or equally distant Orient. Titled “Particules fines : 5e jour d’alerte en région parisienne” (fine particles: fifth day of alert for the Paris region), the article from Le Monde Planète describes that the Paris region had particulate counts that are off-the-charts — e.g., over 80 micrograms of PM10 (particles smaller than 10 microns in diameter per cubic meter) — for the fifth consecutive day on the 13th of this month. According to the article, particles this fine are known to exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and allergies, and even finer particles (2.5um) are proven carcinogenic. (Translations from the original French article here are my own, so please take them with un grain de sel.)

Générées par l'industrie, le chauffage et le transport (diesel), les particules peuvent provoquer de l'asthme, des allergies, des maladies respiratoires ou cardiovasculaires. | AFP/JEFF PACHOUD

The article describes how Paris currently has a perfect storm of poor air quality. In winter, like any major urban center, Paris generates plenty of emissions from heating, industrial usage, and diesel fumes. But for this stretch, the winter climate also created meteorological conditions of cold, dry, and still air, which led to the pollutants remaining trapped.

A coworker of mine who lives in Paris described how this recent spate of high pollution has significantly affected her life. Each day, she consults an app that reports the air quality of Paris, and on days when it’s this high, she cancels any plans to go outdoors with her young son.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when we are trapped inside by the very world we’ve labored to create.

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Mandela’s Legacy for a Sustainable, Equitable World

Mandela Nobel Peace Prize biogrpahical photoThis week, we both mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela and celebrate his mark on the world. There have been some wonderful commemorative pieces written, but I find myself reflecting on what “Madiba” and his movement have come to mean for global sustainability.

You may not realize that Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement was actually the genesis of the modern Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) movement. According to my friend and SRI industry veteran Jed Sturman, firms in the 1990s followed the precedent set by the Quakers in the 1600s — who had looked to divest from holdings supporting or supported by the slave trade — in divesting from apartheid-supported South African investments.

An amazing legacy of socially-responsible and sustainable investment has grown up since, from Ceres and its spin-off, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), to the drive to integrated reporting — social- and environmental value on the same annual report as financial statements. But I find myself reflecting more fundamentally on his tactics.

Mandela was amazing not only for his perseverance in his cause of racially equitable democracy in South Africa, but for uniting the world behind it. He broke a dynastic system of privileged self-protecting wealth with his vision, inspiration, leadership, and moral imperative. We face many of the same entrenched system conditions in the tragedy of the commons of global climate change, with issues ranging from environmental degradation of natural capital to economic justice in developing nations.

F. W. de Klerk — the last white apartheid president of South Africa, who released Mandela from prison and eventually shared his Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid — spoke upon Mandela’s passing that his greatest legacy was reconciliation for all races following his election as President. In our efforts, it’s easy to blame rich nations for polluting the most, or developing nations for raising their citizens’ standards of living through unsustainable means. Talks like COP and Rio+20 broke down on this hurdle. But let us instead remember that while neither our contributions to a degraded biosphere nor our suffering in a destabilized one are equal, the environment itself does not play divisive politics.

Mandela taught us that his Africa was not black Africa, or white Africa, but One Africa. It’s a worthy reminder to us sustainability professionals: emissions aren’t rich or poor, toxic chemicals don’t speak different tongues, and growing deserts know no political boundaries. There is but one biosphere in which we all breathe, eat, drink, and mate. Only through a movement built on unity can we solve the greatest moral imperative of our generation.