Verdant Light

Musings on sustainability and sustainable innovation.

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COP21: Why This Year is Different

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.

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COP21: The UN Climate Change Conference

green zone

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 chartThis 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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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.

carbon_offsets

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.