A year ago, the world was hopeful that a global agreement would come out of the COP15 sessions in Copenhagen. With the United States joining the UN climate negotiations for the first time in almost a decade, all the players were at the table. Unfortunately, legislative gridlock ensued in the US and elsewhere, and the past year’s progress has been disappointing.
This week, COP16 takes place in Cancun and in this post-election environmental landscape it is being viewed by many as nothing more than a trivial exercise. While there’s a risk of that with respect to governmental action or legislation, the true north of this gathering will be entrepreneurs, not policymakers. This year’s conference is much more about innovation – people coming together to talk about ways to do things differently. That’s where the real promise of the event lies.
No one in Copenhagen doubted that innovation is ingredient number one for improving resource efficiency and solving our dependence on fossil fuels. In the last year, that message has been continually reinforced. While Congressional efforts at energy and climate legislation in the US foundered, entrepreneurial solutions for resource optimization, energy efficiency, and climate protection thrived almost everywhere else – in the corporate sector, local governments, and even the federal government.
The reason for this is simple – in good times and in bad, there’s no better way to cut expenses more quickly and with less pain than through energy efficiency. This has always been true, but the combination of policy pressure, economic and environmental risk, and new technologies and tools have made energy action a compelling imperative and the rate of activity is accelerating independent of government action.
The promise of alternative energy technology remains high, but so do risks associated with its large scale adoption. While there’s important innovation happening across the globe, there’s really a deeper transformation happening that has to do with energy. Organizations are realizing that they can have a greater impact on efficiency simply by doing the same things differently instead of recapitalizing their entire infrastructure with new technologies that they hope will work.
On the corporate front, engagement and activity shows no sign of slowing down. The cost savings, brand and value benefits speak for themselves, and it’s almost as if the risks of inaction are compounded by government inaction. With or without clear policy, the reality is that no responsible fiduciary can safely ignore risks like resource price volatility, increasing water scarcity and unsustainable supply chains.
Companies are thinking not just about their footprint, but the footprint of their supply chains and their customers. The most prominent example is probably Walmart, which is holding suppliers accountable for their environmental impact while building a community among them to help them learn and improve. Intuit is helping small businesses understand how to reduce their energy bills while helping them with accounting. And companies like Akamai, which provides content distribution and performance services, are feeding near-real-time energy intensity information to their customers so they can improve efficiency on the fly.
Local action on energy and resource optimization is also accelerating. Cities are starting to use cutting-edge technology to reduce the impact of their operations. Bucking the stereotype of city governments as dinosaurs, Mayors like Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia are competing to run the greenest cities in the world. They’re also thinking well beyond the boundaries of their own government and engaging their own communities more broadly around these issues, looking not just at the way energy is used by their own buildings but also their citizens. San Francisco’s EcoMap project allows neighborhoods to evaluate transportation, commercial, and residential energy and resource use so citizens can come together to address them. Palo Alto, California, started with climate as their focus and shifted their efforts to energy, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15% and reducing electricity, water and natural gas for a projected cost savings of $600,000 – $700,000 in just three years.
At the federal level, despite Congressional inaction, a Presidential Executive Order (number 13514) is driving unprecedented sustainability action from reporting to reduction initiatives. Federal agencies must reach 50% recycling rate by 2015, they must reduce vehicle petroleum consumption by 30% in 2020, and 95% of all federal contractors will soon have to meet sustainability requirements. Even the military is in on it, requiring that 50% of the power for the Navy and Marines come from renewable energy sources like solar and biofuel by 2020.
And these are just the stories from the United States. What’s happening in Cancun for the next several days is a global mindmeld around these kinds of collaborations and innovations. Activists motivated by profitability and efficiency (otherwise known as Businesspeople) will be coming together with colleagues from around the world to charge their batteries with cutting-edge tactics and go home inspired to do more. That’s why Cancun is the place to be this week. It may seem irrelevant to many, but if you are dealing with energy efficiency and optimization in any way and you are not in Mexico, you’ll be three steps behind.
Michel Gelobter is Chief Green Officer at Hara and one of the country’s leading sustainability and climate strategists, having worked for more than 25 years in business, policy, research, and advocacy on energy, environmental, and social policy. Michel is Founder and Chairman of the Board of Cooler, a for-profit social venture whose mission is to connect every consumer purchase to a solution for global warming. He is also a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ceres.