6 Ways To Move Your Company Toward Carbon Neutrality In 2022

Eliminating sources of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions at the corporate level is simply good business. Organizations can take several practical steps to ensure their place in a greener future.

Working toward carbon neutrality is a moral imperative for nations, corporations and individuals. The fact that sustainability is also a good business practice should convince business owners that it is well worth the effort.

This year will see many more organizations make strides to clean their workflows and processes of waste. As of June 2021, 59 countries—representing more than half of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions—have ratified carbon-neutrality goals. Change is necessary and quickly unfolding at every level of society and government. Here’s how companies can begin going carbon-neutral and creating lasting value that’s independent of their balance sheets.

1. Define and Target

In the rush to adopt new technologies, it’s easy for organizations to sometimes forget to define what they intend to do. Even modestly sized companies benefit from taking stock of their workflows, divisions and footprints before setting out to adopt zero-carbon or carbon-reducing measures.

The CarbonNeutral Protocol is a certification standard for companies that want the following things for their carbon reduction goals:

  • Transparency
  • A clearly defined roadmap
  • An understanding of the business benefits
  • Internationally recognized credentials for steps taken

Like many “go green” efforts, decarbonization can also be a boon for business if company representatives are thoughtful about the roadmap. The CarbonNeutral Protocol isn’t the only certification process of its kind, but what they all have in common is a set of practical steps for companies just beginning this process.

Above all, these steps emphasize defining, measuring and targeting the easiest wins and the areas with the greatest opportunities for waste-cutting and growth. A company can’t become carbon-neutral without laying the groundwork with a full inventory of its existing environmental footprint.

2. Install Clean Energy On-Site

Solar energy usually becomes a major part of the conversation when companies pledge to take their supply chains and physical infrastructure in a sustainable direction.

For example, retailer Lidl GB has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2022 and intends to do so by installing solar energy systems onsite at all of its new stores. By 2030, these and other changes should yield an 80-percent savings in the company’s total operational emissions.

Solar energy is the cheapest source of electricity ever, making it a vital part of a company’s energy portfolio—if that company truly intends to take sustainability seriously. 

3. Electrify the Fleet

By 2025, electric vehicles will be cheaper to own than light-duty vehicles with internal combustion engines. One case study involved replacing the United States Postal Service (USPS) fleet with electric cars. The financial savings could save taxpayers $4.3 billion by 2030.

This large-scale case study reveals just how cost-effective electric vehicles can be, whether the buy-in is one delivery van or a fleet of repair trucks. Over time, EVs are a vital part of trimming waste and making organizations carbon-neutral. They have the added benefit of being cheaper to maintain over time compared to gas-fueled equivalents, too. An automobile running on electricity is almost $1,000 less expensive per year to own and operate than one powered by gasoline.

4. Think Globally

Thinking locally is one of the major mistakes businesses make when it comes to environmental stewardship and corporate citizenship. Customer privacy is a parallel example that proves this point. For example, due to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California and European Union residents now expect higher transparency regarding their online data.

What happens when those rules and expectations expand nationally and globally? This is not the only area where forward-thinking territories are helping to set new examples and precedents; they are also setting them for carbon neutrality.

International corporations and those thinking of expanding need to know what awaits them regarding local environmental practices and rules. The EU has a carbon trading system that outlines emissions caps in several sectors. Another prime example of an international standard serving as a sustainability tastemaker is PAS 2060. This standard and others like it represent a growing set of expectations and business citizenship standards against which expanding companies can judge themselves. Companies lacking a global focus could soon be left behind.

5. Purchase Carbon Offsets

Not every company has the capability to immediately transition its physical infrastructure and footprint to more efficient or carbon-neutral equivalents or models. The carbon market offers an alternative for cases like this: carbon offsets.

If a company cannot remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as it contributes, it can purchase carbon offsets to close the gap. In the simplest terms, this means businesses contribute funds to outside efforts working to mitigate climate change, such as the South Pole Group. The goal of creating a carbon market is to make this exchange rate—money for tons of carbon—easy to understand and navigate.

6. Reconsider Materials and Assets

The physical assets and materials a company leverages to complete its work and contracts are a wide and varied subject of conversation. It’s also an essential one. For example, up to 60 percent of a building’s greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, can be traced to the construction phase. The materials themselves account for up to 40 percent.

There are lower-carbon alternatives for almost every material a given company relies on during their standard operations:

  • Paper vs. digital spreadsheets
  • Timber vs. concrete
  • Aluminum roofs vs. asphalt shingles
  • New fabrication vs. recycled materials
  • Cellulose insulation vs. fiberglass insulation
  • Reclaimed paper and cardboard vs. newly printed materials

More customers prefer to see transparent efforts by companies to reuse materials when they can and use low-carbon materials when they cannot. A post-COVID-19 survey revealed that supply chain uncertainties have not dulled interest in sustainable products. Two-thirds of polled consumers expect companies to be fully transparent about their products’ ecological benefits and impacts. Another survey showed that 64 percent of consumers would pay a premium if it meant buying from an ecologically minded company.

Meeting these demands is good optics as well as a net positive for the planet. Becoming carbon-neutral requires a full accounting of the material goods businesses rely on and an understanding of how low-waste, low-carbon alternatives fit into the picture.

Becoming Carbon-Neutral Is Good Business

Whether due to day-one savings, a more balanced budget over time or improved PR and customer sentiment, eliminating sources of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions at the corporate level is simply good business. Organizations can take several practical steps, such as the ones listed above, to ensure their place in a greener future.

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You Can’t Beat Climate Change Without Tackling Disinformation

Over more than a century, PR firms built and fine-tuned a machine to deceive the public. (From the Covering Climate Now series.)

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

In the past month or so, climate disinformation has been making its way into the news more than usual. There was the House Oversight Committee’s climate disinformation hearing in October, and then, just days later, leaked documents from Facebook revealed its role in spreading climate denial. The Oversight Committee’s investigation continues, as does the work to fully understand social media’s role in disinformation, about climate and otherwise.

But for all we know about disinformation and how dangerously effective it can be, tackling the problem rarely makes its way into conversations focused on climate solutions. This raises the question: How are you going to implement new green technology or policies without eliminating the obstacle that’s helped block both for decades?

Last week at COP26 in Glasgow, a group of organizers, brands, and advertisers published an open letter calling for disinfo to be on the negotiators’ agenda. Signatories included climate leaders like May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, and Laurence Tubiana, the CEO of European Climate Foundation; NGOs, like Friends of the Earth and WWF; and brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Virgin Media O2. They had straightforward asks: an agreed-upon definition of climate disinformation, action against climate dis/misinformation to be included in the COP26 Negotiated Outcome, and for tech companies to adopt policies that would crack down on the spread of climate disinformation in both content and advertising.

Climate disinfo, unfortunately, did not make its way into the COP26 negotiations. Had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports included contributions from social scientists on the role of media and information in tackling climate before the conference instead of next year, as they’re scheduled to be, perhaps that would have been different. In the lead-up to the event, though, Google did announce a new policy aimed at addressing this problem. In partnership with the Conscious Advertising Network, the tech giant said that it will now “prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.” That policy doesn’t just affect Google advertisers but YouTube creators as well, which is a big deal given that YouTube has been pushing climate disinformation to millions of viewers for years.

But one policy at one tech platform is not a systemic solution. When pressed about potential outcomes of the House climate disinformation investigation, congressional representatives seemed at a loss about what they could even be proposing to grapple with the threat. There’s a lot of talk of fining the oil companies, of Department of Justice investigations, and of providing more fodder for the two dozen or so climate lawsuits currently in state courts, but nothing around changing the system that enables disinformation in the first place—nothing that would stop the next strategy from working or keep the next industry from lying to the American people. Instead, the focus remains on making Big Oil the next Big Tobacco. But after its momentary embarrassment and a few fines, tobacco went on to profit and, perhaps more importantly, to keep deceiving the public about other products. And the oil companies, many of which were codefendants with the tobacco companies, for their role in developing the cigarette filter, watched that and learned. They pivoted almost immediately away from litigating the science. One former Shell employee told writer Nathaniel Rich, for his story “Losing Earth,” that the oil companies “didn’t want to get caught in our lies the same way the tobacco guys did.” So all that supposed accountability for disinformation just resulted in making companies better at spreading it.

To solve the disinformation problem, we have to understand that it, too, is an industry. PR firms, hired to help companies and industries avoid regulation and circumvent democracy, built and fine-tuned the disinformation machine over more than a century. The House Oversight Committee has said it will broaden its investigation of climate disinformation beyond the fossil fuel industry to its enablers—PR firms chief amongst them. The activist campaign Clean Creatives has been pressuring the PR industry to own its role in crafting and spreading disinformation, and to ditch fossil fuel clients altogether. In response to recent criticism of its work with ExxonMobil (after decades spent helping oil companies and their trade groups create and spread both disinformation and greenwashing), Edelman PR announced it will be undertaking a 60-day review of its client roster.

Some academics and advocates have begun calling for more than public shaming. “I think that their past actions provide justification for holding them to a higher standard than you would normally hold a company,” Stanford University researcher Ben Franta said. “They need to come under some level of special scrutiny, something that goes beyond mere transparency, that goes beyond disclosure. It’s almost like an information receivership.”

We don’t necessarily have a solution to climate disinformation yet. But it’s clear it will not be dismantled by a company policy here and a congressional investigation there. A problem this large and complex requires concerted effort to solve—and we can’t even start until a critical mass of people realize that doing so is critical to the success of any climate solution.

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Amyris at COP26: Sustainability on a Molecular Level

This company synthesizes engineering, design, and biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. Its chief sustainability officer explains how environmental responsibility is built into its DNA.

Amyris, a small but fast-growing synthetic biology company, first created the position of chief sustainability officer (CSO) just this year, but the company has environmental sustainability in its DNA going back to 2003 when it was founded. CSO Beth Bannerman is now helping guide and maintain that responsible heritage.

Amyris uses synthetic biology to develop molecules that are analogous to those found in nature for a wide range of uses. Applications range widely, including anti-wrinkle skin cream, fragrances, a zero-calorie sweetener, life-saving medications, and polymers for manufacturing industries. The company says it is using biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. I interviewed Beth on a rainy day under the roof of a bicycle shelter across the River Clyde from the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Steve: For those who don’t know what synthetic biology is, please describe it.

Beth: Synthetic biology is a discipline within biotechnology that synthesizes engineering, design, and biology. Our technology enables us to produce novel molecules in addition to molecules that already exist in nature. In order to produce novel molecules, we first produce known molecules that exist in nature via fermentation and then use chemistry to convert them into novel molecules. We can also produce novel molecules by combining naturally occurring enzymes and molecules that wouldn’t typically interact together in their natural state, but our technology allows us to bring them together in a unique fashion.

Steve: One of your company’s tag lines is that you’re using biology to make what is scarce in nature abundant for all. Please explain. How does that make society more sustainable?

Beth: That comes from the idea that we can create molecules that exist in nature while avoiding depleting Earth’s resources, whether that be animals or vulnerable plants. We do this by using sugarcane as a feedstock – it’s responsibly sourced and sustainably grown from Brazil, where there’s abundant sunshine and rain water minimizes the need for additional irrigation. We can create molecules with yeast, which we program just like you program a computer. You feed the yeast sugarcane and it excretes the target molecule. We use artificial intelligence to design the target molecule. Through this process you can see how we’re able to protect the scarcity of Earth’s resources, because through synthetic biology we’re able to create an abundance of bioidentical molecules rather than harvesting them from raw sources. We have a proprietary Lab-to-Market system that enables us to scale from two liters to 200,000 liters of our target molecule. Access and scalability are key. The world needs to shift to more sustainable consumption and synthetic biology is a critical part of accelerating that transition.

Let me give you an example: One of our molecules, Squalane, is commonly used in skincare products as a moisturizing ingredient. With our fermentation-based approach, it requires the size of an 8x10ft. rug of sugarcane to produce one kilogram of Squalane. To harvest the same amount of Squalane in nature would require killing three sharks because Squalane is naturally found in the livers of sharks.

Steve: How does your high-throughput system work?

Beth: It started back in 2003 when we received a $45 million grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop our first molecule. That molecule was a replica of the artemisinin, which is found in the sweet wormwood tree of China and is used to treat malaria. We partnered with Sanofi to commercialize our artemisinin molecule and it went on to save over a million children’s lives. We learned a lot from that project, and since then we have improved and optimized our platform through high-throughput screening and artificial intelligence to increase the speed of the process. In the last five years, we’ve reduced the speed of taking a molecule to market by 80% and reduced our cost by 90%. Before we made these improvements, it would take several years to develop one new molecule. We’re now at a stage where we are able to commercialize 4 to 6 molecules per year.

Before, the process was extremely manual, with scientists relying on handheld pipettes, for example, which is resource-intensive, leaves more room for inconsistencies, and doesn’t easily scale. So with over $500 million of investment in our technology, including both AI and machine learning and robotics that were designed by Amyris in house, we have significantly improved our speed. Now, we can put hundreds of thousands of yeast strains through high-throughput screening and are able to test those strains at a dramatically faster rate. The other thing that the company did was invent a Genotype Specification Language (GSL), which is a DNA programming language-based design tool invented at Amyris to accelerate the design of molecules.

Steve: What are you doing at COP26?

Beth: This is the company’s first visit to a COP summit. Ahead of the conference, they hired me as the first chief engagement and sustainability officer, and earlier this year we published our first ESG report, which many companies now do to inform investors about their environmental, social, and governance programs. The timing is good for us because we have built out a family of nine consumer brands and our consumer revenue is going to outpace our B2B ingredients revenue this year.  This is an opportunity to get the attention of manufacturers and to help them disrupt the way they make ingredients. We have a climate crisis that’s not going away. Consumers are demanding sustainability – they’re much more comfortable with food and fashion and skincare that is made with biology. And, finally, we have a stage to have a conversation.

Steve: What have you achieved here that you can talk about?

Beth: We have had meetings with a variety of interesting folks who we sought out. These are manufacturers and NGOs (non-government organizations) that we’re talking to about future long-term partnerships. The surprising development is that we have received attention from manufacturers that we didn’t reach out to before the conference. We can’t claim success yet, but it starts with a conversation.

Steve: Among the people in Glasgow who are not allowed inside the gates of the official Blue and Green zones, there’s a lot of skepticism about both government and business. We hear a lot of pledges, but will action really follow? Do you think that the business community is doing enough about making the world a safer and more survivable place?

Beth: The answer is unequivocally “No.” Businesses can do a lot more than they’re doing right now. Before we published our ESG report, we were concerned that it might be seen as a veneer trying to get approval for work that actually wasn’t getting done. Potentially, it was a vanity exercise. But after talking to a number of ESG investors and listening to what consumers are demanding in the way of transparency, we decided that in order for us to tell our great story, we needed to back it up with data. So we have done that. We not only set our three goals but laid out a road map for achieving them. One of our goals is to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. We spelled out all the steps we need to take to get to that place.

Another thing we did is launch our first ESG council, which is made up of executives from across the enterprise. This is a group of folks who have very clear accountabilities to help drive toward the goals. This is our opportunity, win or lose.

Steve: Are you saying that other companies should do the same?

Beth: Yes. We have a market cap of $3.7 billion. We’re not one of the big players yet. It’s difficult for a small company to split its focus and focus on sustainability. That said, I would encourage small companies to do this. Investors are no longer just looking at growth plans. They want to see sustainability plans, and these things can’t just run in parallel; they have to be integrated and woven together.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of a series of dispatches from COP26.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

November 8: Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

November 9: Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

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This company synthesizes engineering, design, and biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. Its chief sustainability officer explains how environmental responsibility is built into its DNA.

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This company synthesizes engineering, design, and biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. Its chief sustainability officer explains how environmental responsibility is built into its DNA.

SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

This company synthesizes engineering, design, and biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. Its chief sustainability officer explains how environmental responsibility is built into its DNA.

COP26: What Businesses Should Expect To Come Out Of The Climate Summit

This company synthesizes engineering, design, and biology to make abundant that which is scarce in nature. Its chief sustainability officer explains how environmental responsibility is built into its DNA.

To Make a More Resilient Society, Build Community

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

On Tuesday morning, a couple dozen residents of Alloa, Scotland, wandered through the ruins of two buildings on the outskirts of town. The 150-year-old structures had their windows boarded and metal fencing lined the road to prevent vandals from breaking in. All around were rubble-strewn fields where once a sprawling whiskey distillery had stood.

The group was sizing up the property as a potential new home for Resonate Together, a local non-profit dedicated to helping local people recover from trauma—including the COVID-19 pandemic—and begin to live more hopeful lives. The buildings and the wasteland around them were symbolic of the fate of Alloa itself. Once a thriving industrial center, it’s now a symbol of decline.

The potential new home for Resonate Together in Alloa, Scotland. (Image credit: Dan Hamm)

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a small town just a few miles away illustrates the challenges we face in making society more resilient as well as a potential path to do so.

Alloa, with 20,000 residents, was once a thriving center for innovation in shipping, wool weaving, and glass making. Now, most of its industries have shut down, old buildings are shuttered and jobs are scarce. The town is racked by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and hopelessness. Yet a social enterprise named Resonate Together has gradually gained ground there, with arts and crafts programs designed to help individuals recover from trauma and rebuild community together.

“Resonate Together is a whole-system approach that’s led by the community,” says Angela Watt, a sculptor and former Cobol programmer who established the organization a decade ago. “We start with the principle that people want to be approached as human beings and not with their typical labels.” The goals, she says, are to improve employability, address inequality, and improve mental health.

Resonate Together’s programs tend to be more freeform than is typical in social services. People come together there, drawn by the opportunity to work on an art project or learn a new skill. They get out of the house, talk to one another, compare notes on life, and create art. In the process, they strengthen the community.

The newest program, called Potentia Collective, is intended to help individuals and the community recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Each week, the group addresses a different aspect of recovery. A few weeks ago, they wove sculptures using ivy gathered in a local park—which took them out into nature. Alloa resident Mary Banks says the experience has helped her deal with depression and gain confidence to resume university studies. “This is about sharing positivity,” she says. “We can start something that makes us proud of our community and maybe it can be done in other small communities that are struggling.”

The UN has set a goal for the world to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid climate-change calamity, but it also recognizes that potentially devastating changes are surely coming and we need to make communities more resilient to deal with them.

In the United States, national, state, and local governments have spent untold billions of dollars on programs aimed at revitalizing towns and small cities left behind as industries faded away. In most places, all that investment has not reversed the tide of economic decline. The money does little more than hospice communities as they slowly die. But the Resonate Together experiment in Alloa, which depends on volunteerism and small dollops of government and grant funding, shows that grassroots efforts at regeneration can give people hope, unleash creativity, and, perhaps, lead to economic revitalization. Not every town can be reborn as a mini Silicon Valley, but, by healing individuals and reviving hope, communities can lay the groundwork for discovering new purpose.

Recovery is a first step, and that’s what Angela Watt was focused on when she launched  Resonate Together. She had moved to Clackmannanshire, where Alloa is located, because she had taken a job that required her to live in central Scotland. Over time, she came to understand the complex forces that mire a place in poverty, and she wanted to do something about it. She had trained in university as a sculptor, and, when the opportunity arose, she led the arts component of a government-funded project aimed at helping revitalize the downtown. Afterwards, she proposed to the town council that they fund an ongoing arts program, but was turned down. Then, with financial help from her mother, she went ahead and launched Resonate Together anyway.

Resonate Together founder Angela Watt (Image credit: Dann Hamm)

When she first approached local residents about the program, they reacted negatively. People said they were tired of being drawn into programs where outsiders came in, got them excited, and then left when funding ran out. So Watt saw that for her project to succeed, it had to be run on a shoestring budget, and designed by and for local people. Around that time she attended a workshop on quantum physics. She learned about systems theory, and how we can find patterns in nature even within apparent chaos. Applying this thinking to local communities, she saw that as long as individuals are isolated from one another, they would likely struggle. By bringing people together to share their stories and learn—to create resonance—both individuals and communities could recover, she thought.

From the start, Watt and her group of volunteers had environmental sustainability and community resilience in their minds. A number of the crafts programs involved restoring furniture, reusing clothing, and fixing broken tools and devices. “We encouraged people not to horde. We’ll recycle or upcycle,” she says. “We had workshops. We taught people how to repair things and build things.”

In addition, in the fine arts programs they encouraged people to sell their creations—and staged exhibitions to help them do so. It built confidence and participants made a little money.

One of Watt’s volunteers, Jamie Coe-Welch, first became involved in Resonate Together six years ago. At the time he was depressed and suicidal. Participating in the arts programs brought him back from the brink. He specializes in pyrography—creating illustrations by burning lines in wood.  “Doing art made me feel better. You can do wonderful things,” he says. Now, Coe-Welch volunteers as  a peer counselor helping other people deal with mental health issues.

Watt says it’s hard to measure the impact of Resonate Together, since so much of it is aimed at boosting individuals’ attitudes and confidence rather than delivering more concrete results, such as degrees and jobs. Still, it’s clear that the programs have improved participants’ mental states. For instance, one survey showed that 36 participants actually said they had avoided suicide because the programs gave them hope.

As the impacts of climate change spread and intensify across the globe, even the healthiest communities will be challenged to respond—and the weakest will be sorely tested. Economic shifts already underway will likely be accelerated. Regenerative programs such as Resonate Together aren’t generally seen as related, but they need to become key elements in society’s response to climate change. New technologies may help blunt the sharpest blows, but fostering hope and strengthening community is just as essential.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, was published by Columbia University Press in October. This is the last in a series of dispatches connected to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

November 8: Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

November 9: Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

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Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

The Orkney Islands, just above mainland Scotland, may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation. A consortium of government, business, and community organizations is developing programs to test hydrogen as fuel for a ferry that runs between the Orkney mainland and the tiny island of Shapinsay. This could be the beginning of a massive global shift from diesel power to renewable energy for short- and medium-haul ships.

The UN Climate Champions have designated “transport” as a theme for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Much of the attention is on efforts of national leaders to address climate change, but in fact, much of the innovating that could eventually lead to massive shifts in energy use is happening in small, out-of-the-way places.

Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands with a population of just 22,000, but it has an abundance of wind, waves, and tides—all of which are being tapped to produce energy. Alternative-energy sources on the islands produce more than 120% of the electricity consumed there. A number of municipalities there have created community-owned businesses that provide energy locally and to the UK national grid.

One such place is Shapinsay. With a population of just 315 people, it’s a micro community, but one that looms large as a model for how local authorities can produce their own energy on behalf of citizens. If many other communities followed suit around the world, it could have macro impact. “It’s a dream that communities can generate their own energy to run their own transport. You don’t have to be dependent on fossil fuels and the multinational energy suppliers,” says David Hibbert, a technical superintendent for the Orkney Harbour Authority, which runs nine ferries between the islands.

Shapinsay Turbine (Credit: Adrian Bird)

The all-volunteer Shapinsay Development Trust decided in 2006 to erect a wind turbine on the island. The plan was to make the island more self-sufficient energy-wise and to sell excess energy to the grid—using the profits to pay for local services. “They wanted to use the money to improve the quality of life for people on the island, to make it more attractive to live here, and to help repopulate the island,” says Adrian Bird, the manager for Shapinsay Renewables, which runs the turbine and sells the energy it produces.

The plan worked, but perhaps too well. The electricity that Shapinsay and other Orkney communities supplied to the grid soon overwhelmed the capacity of the two distribution cables connecting the islands with the Scottish mainland. Frustrated, those involved began exploring other ways of using their resources. Quickly, with the help of technology and maritime experts, they spotted hydrogen power for ships as a potentially lucrative market. Their electricity could be harnessed using electrolizers to produce hydrogen, which would power ships when they’re tied up on shore, and, potentially, move them across the water.

The ferry projects date back to 2014, when Orkney Harbours Authority and the Orkney Council teamed up to commission a study to discover how the ferries could rely less on fossil fuels. The report suggested they switch to hydrogen power. As a first step, in 2019 the Authority began powering the ferries with hydrogen when they were tied up. Then they began exploring approaches for powering the ferries with hydrogen at sea, using the Shapinsay ferry as the pilot site.

That project has stalled, due primarily to the fact that government safety regulations have not yet been revised to accommodate hydrogen as a fuel—mainly over safety concerns. This is frustrating to the people involved. “We talk about an energy revolution but by definition the rules will have to change, and that’s a slow process,” says Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, based in Orkney, which is a leader in testing marine energy systems.

Supporters of the ferry projects are hopeful that eventually, if they persevere, the Shapinsay ferry will be the first or one of the first ferries in the world to run on hydrogen. Chris Dunn, the principal naval architect for Malin Group, a Glasgow-based marine engineering firm, was involved in earlier stages of the project. He hopes to eventually help bring it to fruition. Hydrogen takes up a lot of space, so it’s unlikely to be viable for long-haul shipping, but he sees hydrogen as a potentially important alternative to diesel for powering short- and medium-haul boats and ships. “It’s an important step along the path of leaving fossil fuels, and a step we have to take,” he says.

In addition to the regulatory hurdles, another issue facing alternative energy champions is the high cost of producing hydrogen as a power source in places where electricity is less abundant than Shapinsay. To help deal with that, the United States Department of Energy last June launched Hydrogen Shot, which seeks to reduce the cost of hydrogen energy production by 80 percent to $1 per kilogram within the next decade. 

The latest challenge community energy producers on Orkney face is that the winds have been less intense over the past couple of years.  So now they produce less energy. “It’s shocking. Something’s going on here,” says Shapinsay’s Adrian Bird. Officials are hoping this is a short-term blip rather than a long-term shift caused by climate change.

Steve Hamm is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His book about Pivot Projects, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, has been published in the US and UK by Columbia University Press. This is one in a series of dispatches from the COP26 conference.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

November 8: Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

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The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

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The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

The cracks are appearing in modern capitalism. Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen?

GLASGOW, Scotland – The host city for the UN’s COP26 climate conference was on fire last week—metaphorically speaking.  After the wakeup call from COVID-19, the pressure was on to finally do something decisive about global warming, and the city was bursting with energy, ideas, and great expectations.

The world’s leaders and climate conference delegates gathered in this post-industrial city flanking the River Clyde to negotiate agreements and announce new initiatives. Meanwhile, a host of executives from corporations large and small were on hand to boost their Green cred as tens of thousands of people protested in the streets. Seemingly everywhere I walked in the city there was some sort of climate-related activity.

In a city park, I saw about 20 5- or 6-year-olds participating in a climate-education program. They were wearing yellow t-shirts with the word “Disruptor” on their backs.

There was a lot of divergent messaging going on, but, to me, the most important signal I picked up was the shift in attitudes of young people. They are paying attention and they are pissed off. Business leaders would be smart to heed them.

I had a privileged vantage point from which to draw this conclusion. In addition to my duties as a correspondent for Techonomy.com and other media organizations, I led a small team from Pivot Projects, a global voluntary problem-solving group, to make two short videos capturing the voices of young people. We asked them two open-ended questions: 1) What is your dream of a more sustainable future and 2) What are you doing about it?

You can watch the finished videos here.

Of course, the climate movement has been something of a children’s crusade ever since teenage climate activist/icon Greta Thunberg in 2018 launched her famous “School-strike for Climate” protests, also known as “Fridays for Future.” Those weekly student “strikes” spread like TikTok amongst school children around the world. And during the first week of the two-week COP26 conference, there were plenty of young people in the mass protests that happened just about every day, too.

But what was particularly interesting about the 40-plus young people my video team interviewed was that while a handful were card-carrying climate activists, most were not. They were university and high school students, young professionals, and regular folks—including a barista and a restaurant dishwasher. Many of them, unprompted, voiced skepticism about the world’s bosses—both political and commercial. They called for businesses to step up and take aggressive action to reduce their carbon footprints, and they decried the thirst for profits at all costs that they said seems to drive many business leaders.

For example, Ewan Scholefield, an electrical and mechanical engineering major at University of Strathclyde, told us, “There’s a lot of waste and inefficiency in our system for the sake of profit. Also, more people are interested in appearing like they care about climate change than actually doing something about it.”

A design student said corporations should be “forced” to toe the environment line.

Capitalists have enjoyed a smooth ride since the collapse of the Soviet system left them without an alternative world economic view to grind against. Meanwhile, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a relative few, as a duo of media giants (Fox News and Facebook) control/poison minds on a mass scale, and a handful of tech behemoths (Amazon, Google, Apple, Netflix, etc.) control great swaths of commerce. Many regular people feel ignored, abused, or left out. I’m not suggesting I see an incipient mass uprising against capitalism, but cracks are appearing in the hegemony that modern capitalism—with its profits-at-all-costs ethic—has commanded for more than three decades.

The neoliberal embrace of unbridled capitalism—the idea that the sole task of leaders of publicly-traded corporations is to maximize profit—has enjoyed mass fealty since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s declared war on labor unions and preached that businesses can do a better job of managing society than can government leaders. But we have seen how institutions and ideas with apparently unassailable dominance have cracked and teetered. (Think the music industry pre- and post-iPod). “When an industry gets disrupted, it is the most dominant players, blinded by their success, that are the last to see it coming,” says my friend Damian Costello, an Irish disruptive-innovation consultant.

Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen? Clearly, some have their ear to the rails. Patagonia, the outdoor retailer, has long been committed to environmental sustainability; and Salesforce, the cloud computing giant, recently made a splash with its announcement that it is already carbon-neutral on an operating basis. But the pledges of many large corporations strike me—and young people we interviewed—as highly suspect.

Businesses that don’t operate sustainably risk losing young people as customers, but they also risk missing out on some of the best and brightest employees—those who insist that the organizations they work for must play a positive social role. For instance, 30,000 young people in France have already signed the Ecological Awakening pledge. “Unless they change, companies will not be able to attract the young talent they need,” says Peter Head, chairman of Resilience Brokers, a non-profit sustainability consultancy.

We stand at a crossroads. If business leaders make aggressive efforts to operate more sustainably, we have a chance to prevent temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to avoid global calamity and mass extinctions. Today’s young people will likely be alive when the first wave of even-worse climate disasters comes. The corporations that drag their feet may find they will not be forgiven, their treasured “brand equity” greatly devalued.

So, capitalists beware: today’s 6-year-olds wearing “Disruptor” t-shirts may come to get you, or turn their backs on you.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of a series of dispatches from COP26 for Techonomy.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

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Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

The cracks are appearing in modern capitalism. Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen?

Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

The cracks are appearing in modern capitalism. Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen?

How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

The cracks are appearing in modern capitalism. Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen?

COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

The cracks are appearing in modern capitalism. Today, young people are demanding that corporations put saving the planet before profits. Will corporate bosses listen?

Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

What if universities collaborated with their local communities with the goal of helping cities become more resilient and sustainable? That idea is being tested in Exeter, England.

Universities are essential to progress. They prepare our young people for careers, train the workforce of the future, and foster research that advances knowledge. Yet many universities turn their backs on the residents of cities and towns where they are located. It’s almost as if town and gown occupy separate universes.

But what if universities entered into collaborations with their host places with the goal of helping cities and towns become more resilient and sustainable? That idea is being tested in Exeter, England, where the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter has launched a pilot project aimed at bridging the gap between academics and townies.

In the midst of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Techonomy is highlighting new approaches to addressing the climate-change crisis in Scotland and the rest of the UK that might catch on elsewhere. (Earlier Dispatches dedicated to COP26 coverage are listed at bottom.)

The Exeter project is called Exeter Living Lab and it’s the brainchild of Peter Head, a climate activist and chairman of Resilience Brokers, a UK-based sustainability consulting organization. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, he co-founded an organization, Pivot Projects, with the goal of helping society and communities pivot to more sustainable trajectories. One element of his vision was that universities could combine forces with local government leaders to help communities achieve net-zero-carbon goals. He calls these partnerships living laboratories.

Pivot Projects is a global all-volunteer collaboration aimed as using collective intelligence, systems thinking and modeling, and AI-assisted research tools to help communities identify and launch sustainability projects. The organization originally approached City of Exeter government officials, but they were too busy dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to engage, so the project instead established a beachhead with The University of Exeter. It found a willing partner in Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute there. “We hope this will become a good convening place to bring different social actors together and create opportunities for positive thinking,” Lenton says.

Exeter City. (Credit: Creative Commons Bill Boaden)

The Exeter Living Lab began to take shape in the late winter of 2021 when Head and James Green, a recent graduate of a masters-of-sustainability program, convened Zoom meetings involving faculty members, students, and representatives of community organizations in Exeter. Green, who serves as community manager, was tasked with training participants in the use of Pivot Projects’ systems-mapping and research tools, which included SparkBeyond’s Research Studio, and guiding participants week to week. The group also joined Pivot Projects’ collaboration platform, which includes Slack, Trello, Google Docs, and Zoom. The first order of business was for the group to create a systems map of Exeter using the Kumu visualization tool—which included concepts related to sustainability, organizations, and initiatives.

Like Pivot Projects itself, the Exeter group was voluntary and largely self-organizing. Typically, dozens of people attended early meetings, among them 25 students who were enrolled in the university’s one-year master’s program in sustainable development. “My goal was to help foster a creative environment, not to dictate or check boxes on expected outcomes,” says Green. “That gave the group space to see how they wanted to collectively move forward.”

As time went on, attendance dwindled. Only three of the students opted to build their master’s thesis around work in the Living Lab. One early participant, Exeter City Futures, an organization that had been formed to help Exeter achieve its net-zero carbon goals, did not become as engaged as the organizers had hoped.

But the three master’s students and a small core of faculty members and people from the community carried on. One of the  students was David Bacon. His master’s thesis grew out of the early Kumu mapping exercise. He invited a handful of the Living Lab participants to help him create a systems map focused on the energy sector—which helped him explore the opportunities for collaboration between energy distributors and community organizations at the local, regional, and national levels. The exercise also connected him with Exeter Community Energy, which manages community-owned renewable energy projects in the city. He liked the organization so much that he’s now its volunteer operations and maintenance director while he looks for a paying job in the renewables field.

Another of the persistent attendees was David Pencheon, who before retiring had senior-executive roles in innovation and sustainability for the UK’s National Health System. He was drawn to the Living Lab after hearing from a friend that his 7-year-old son was terrified of climate change. The little boy had trouble sleeping at night. Pencheon thought the lab could start small but perhaps grow to have a substantial impact in the region. “Small collaborative actions are crucial. They give citizens agency and they can be steps to bigger system-wide changes,” he says.

Nicky Britten, a professor emerita at the University of Exeter Medical School, had hoped the lab would help her find sustainability projects in Exeter that she would want to join, but says that though the group conversations were often stimulating, her search hasn’t paid off yet.

But this is how self-organizing projects go, all three realize. They are sticking with the project for now. They hope that more of this year’s master’s students will use the organization as the basis for their thesis research. The three also say they will reach out to include more community organizations. “We need better connections to community groups in Exeter,” says Bacon. “This was academically led. Now it needs to be more community involved.”

University of Exeter’s Tim Lenton says he’s heartened by the first small wave of activities at the Living Lab. “It’s a worthy experiment, and it has yielded some encouraging results.” he says. “Now I have to find more resources to keep it flowing.” Meanwhile, the Pivot Projects team is reaching out to other universities to see if they want to try out the living lab model.

Not every seemingly good idea catches fire immediately. This one might need to smolder for a while. I live in the shadow of Yale University and have long believed that it should be much more active in the community—for the sake of students and residents alike. Maybe this is an idea whose time has not yet come, or it just has yet to find the right combination of place and people. Nonetheless, I’m convinced this sort of project is indispensable as the world seeks, in large ways and small, to prepare for and adapt to global warming.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of his dispatches from COP26.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

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Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

While the U.S. is awash in venture capital and has an abundance of startup competitions, in many corners of the world such investment money is scarce. The lesson for people who believe innovation can help save the planet: Put up, or shut up.

Glasgow – The first week of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has been packed with news and announcements from within the official venue and from the streets of Scotland’s second city. But on the symbolic level, it’s possible that no event was more important than the Net Zero EDGE startup contest that took place here today.

In a high-profile event at Glasgow Science Center, on the River Clyde opposite the COP26 conference venue, Scottish EDGE, the UK’s biggest funding competition for startups, presented awards to entrepreneurs who made their pitches to a panel of judges for the Net Zero award. The biggest winner was Faisal Ghani, CEO of Dundee-based SolarisKit, which develops and sells a compact solar water heater. He got £100,000. Two other entrepreneurs got £50,000 each. “We hope that this new award category offers well-deserved recognition for startups leading the way in the transition to net zero—and inspires others to do the same,” says Steven Hamill, chief operating officer of Scottish EDGE.

While the United States is awash in venture capital and has an abundance of startup competitions, in many corners of the world, including Scotland, such investment money is scarce. That’s a problem, because in order to address climate change, we need explosions of innovation everywhere. Most of the sophisticated technology solutions will likely come from well-funded scientists and organizations located in the usual places, but a lot of the practical, street-level solutions and applications of those technologies will come from creative people in seemingly unlikely places.

Scottish EDGE pitch session (Credit: Scottish EDGE)

Scottish EDGE was launched after the global financial crisis of 2008, with the recognition that Scottish entrepreneurs had very little financial support. The organization now gets funding from the Scottish government, the Hunter Foundation, the Royal Bank of Scotland, support organizations, and private donors. The main competition takes place twice a year and has so far supported more than 400 early-stage Scottish businesses with more than £18 million in funding. Some of the previous special award categories include social entrepreneurs, circular economy, and biotech.

Today’s Scottish EDGE competition was the first to focus on climate change, but startups addressing sustainability have won awards in the past. Among them is S’wheat, a tiny company outside Edinburgh run by a couple of high school sweethearts that won Top Prize in a special EDGE award for startups with leaders under 30, in 2019. S’wheat’s story illustrates the challenges—and opportunities—for small socially-minded outfits to innovate, and potentially to have a positive impact on the world. It developed the world’s first reusable bottle to be made entirely from plants.

Jake Elliott-Hook and Amee Ritchie met in high school in the town of Musselburgh, near the Scottish seacoast, and continued their relationship after they went to different colleges. Jake remembers being troubled by the fact that classmates frequently threw out their reusable metal or plastic water bottles—which seemed like a waste.  “I thought, ‘What’s the use of having a reusable bottle if it ends up in the landfill? Why not have plant-based bottles that are reusable but also biodegradable?’” he says.

Elliott-Hook and Ritchie decided to do something about it. After two years of research and correspondence with potential suppliers and manufacturers, they launched a company to produce and market bottles made from a mix of wheat straw and bamboo.

Water bottle made from plants (Credit: S’wheat)

The couple raised a bit of money through a crowdfunding campaign in 2019, and got startup guidance via Bridge 2 Business, a college-based program offered by Young Enterprise Scotland, a non-profit organization that offers business and financial education programs. The organization serves about 10,000 young people ages 18 to 30 every year.  “I loved their idea. I saw potential in them,” says Lisa Wardlaw, the organization’s college delivery manager, of the S’wheat founders. “They have worked incredibly hard and learned a lot.”

Their second major break was winning the Scottish EDGE contest later that year in the Young EDGE category—which brought them £15,000. “Their passion and drive to do something impactful was quite encouraging to see. Also, they had a product to show and demonstrate, and that helped them,” says Scottish EDGE’s Hamill.

Elliott-Hook and Ritchie went on to win a couple of additional competitions. Their startup-competition fame also landed them an appearance on a UK television show, Buy It Now, which helped spread word about them and their bottles.

The couple designs the bottles, purchases the material from Asia, and has the bottles manufactured in Scotland. They started marketing the bottles online in April, 2020, and have so far sold about 3,000 at $34 a pop. (Expensive, but take a look: they’re classy.) Elliott-Hook says they’re making enough money to support themselves and pay the rent and businesses expenses, but it’s still a micro company with just two employees—the founders.

They recently launched a co-branding effort, hoping to get companies to pay to have their names on the bottles and help with distribution.

Will S’wheat be able to cross the chasm and become a sizable company capable of producing a significant impact? That’s unclear, just as with many bright business ideas that are still in diapers. But it’s clear that without small but meaningful dollops of capital and a lot of encouragement, they wouldn’t even have gotten this far. There’s a lesson here for people who believe innovation can help save the planet: Put up, or shut up.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of a series of dispatches from COP26.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

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Water & Climate: Wicked Problem Meets Threat Multiplier

Water insecurity due to climate change has the potential to uproot nearly every aspect of modern society: food production, urban and rural settlements, energy production, industrial development, economic growth, and natural ecosystems.

Water and climate change are wicked problems, independently and jointly. In a 1973 article in Policy Sciences, Horst W. J. Rittel and Marvin M. Webber introduced the idea of a “wicked problem,” a social policy dilemma that has no definitive scientific solution and is intertwined with other problems.

Where the two wicked problems of water and climate change overlap, climate change is a threat multiplier.

While water security and climate change have often been treated as separate problems, in reality they are inextricably linked.  As the impacts of climate change increase, so do the stressors that decrease water security.  A thoughtful evaluation of where these two wicked problems intersect will help guide the public sector, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and civil society towards enduring solutions.

The Wicked Problem of Water

Historically, water issues have not only plagued societies, but in some cases, brought them down. It’s not always drinking water but water as an agricultural issue, too (think: no food = no society). Today, a great number of regions and countries face issues of either excess water or aridification. Water quality and pollution issues are also often at play, adding another complicating element. In turn, agro issues are also intensified.

Drinking water is just part of a bigger set of problems. Economic prosperity itself is also hindered by problems with natural ecosystems, flooding, poor water quality, and inequitable access to water.

These water challenges can, in part or in entirety, be attributed to poor governance and public policy. Other contributing factors include aging water infrastructure and underinvestment, slow adoption of innovative technologies, and the gross undervaluation of water.

For millions of people globally who live without running water, accessing drinkable water also entails increased personal security risks, primarily for women and children.  Climate change creates additional pressures on often already tenuous situations. In other words, it amplifies and multiplies existing threats.

Climate + Water = Instability

In addition to the impacts of climate change and water instability on human health, the two are also increasing natural disasters and affecting food security, power production (e.g., thermoelectric power generation), business continuity and growth, and social well-being. Increased water insecurity due to the impacts of climate change has the potential to uproot nearly every aspect of modern society if left unchecked: urban and rural settlements, energy production, industrial development, economic growth, and natural ecosystems.

Stakeholders that are associated with all those issues have specific needs for amounts and quality of water. These needs are essential to how we regulate water systems and deeply affect the decision-making processes behind that regulation. But the needs of various stakeholders often conflict. And the majority of the world’s water systems are in some way threatened. (Only 23 percent of the world’s longest rivers (over 1,000 miles long) flow to the ocean uninterrupted.)

Consider a regulated reservoir with hydropower stations located along an upstream river, with agricultural fields located downstream (a very common situation). This reservoir is regulated with specific rules based on past water-related conditions, but climate change is changing these historical conditions. If water availability is reduced, the hydropower station would like to keep more water upstream to maintain a stable power production, but farmers downstream want more water to maintain crop production.

In addition, other stakeholders such as citizens, businesses, and natural ecosystems rely on surface water resources and its tributaries, and each one has their own interests and needs. Therefore, climate change has the potential to exacerbate water-related issues: it can increase the intensity and length of conflicts, increase poverty, increase food deserts, and disrupt access to education and knowledge.

Who solves wicked water and climate problems?

Wicked problems like those related to water and climate change rarely sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organization. Yet everyone from individuals through multinational corporations and governments has a role to play in solving them. Solving such wicked problems begins with individuals understanding how their choices impact water and climate, and changing how they behave. Then those changes must typically be incorporated by numerous associated stakeholder groups.

All stakeholders need to engage, and be engaged, in solving wicked problems, because different organizations have different relative strengths. For example, entrepreneurs have speed and focus but not size and scale, while the public sector has size and scale but less speed and focus. All other stakeholders sit between these two extremes. Businesses, depending on their sector and company strategy and culture, can be a bridge between the entrepreneurial and public sectors.

The question of who solves wicked problems is illustrated in the below illustration (adapted from XGENESIS).

The way forward

The intersection between climate change and water is complicated. To address it, we need to solve multiple problems. These include, but are not limited to, water scarcity, increased flooding, quality and lack of access, climate impacts, and the intersection of the two. There are no simple answers, but clarity about the root causes of these problems is necessary if we are to begin to achieve an equitable, secure, and resilient future.

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