sustainable business

Big business and policy can scale sustainability. But will they?

Anya Khalamayzer | November 12, 2019

Jasmin Sessler/Unsplash

Something was different at VERGE this year. In my fourth year attending the annual GreenBiz conference that brings together government and public and private actors to scale cross-sector sustainability innovations, I felt a real shift. Maybe it was the overflowing conference rooms, or that Greta Thunberg and the Green New Deal were kitchen-table topics. Sustainability—no longer a “nice to have”—is influencing corporations and government in significant ways, despite roadblocks and rollbacks at the federal level.

As we approach a new decade—and the global deadline for taking meaningful climate action—leaders in local government, cleantech and big business are looking for ways to accelerate sustainability solutions.

Public policy and scale go hand in hand

Support for the Green New Deal took center stage in scientist Saul Griffith’s speech. The founder of Otherlab, a renewable energy and robotics research and design lab, said that in the face of climate crisis, “normal market rules can’t apply.” The U.S. needs to “forgive fossil fuels” and completely replace them by mobilizing resources toward electrifying heat, vehicles and energy production using renewable resources, Griffith said, adding that it can give America the lifestyle it has today with less than half the energy—and a $25 billion economic benefit. “We have no time for startups,” he said. “Startups need to work with big companies to get to scale on time.”

And cleantech companies that want to scale can’t afford to be passive about climate-smart policy. “We need supply-side and demand-side policies to make the transition work,” said former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who led the state through the automotive industry’s financial crisis while focusing on electric vehicle production. She said states should create an “industrial cluster” of laws and incentives for sustainable supply chains, as Michigan did with EVs—and that we need elected leaders to support cleantech for these companies to succeed.

Panelist Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, a battery-electric bus company with customers (including the federal government) in 40 states, expressed a common approach when he said he focuses on public health and infrastructure quality over politics. Granholm responded with a warning: cleantech companies should rethink avoiding politics. If you’re looking to scale with an environmental play, she said, “then agnostic is not going to get you there.”

Big data, used better

Becoming better stewards of data can help us become better planetary stewards, and we’re getting better at distinguishing the signal from the noise, speakers said.

“Humans are calibrated to see change where we expect it and at the pace we expect,” said Andrew Zolli, vice president of global impact initiatives at Planet, a company that’s deploying lightweight satellites that image Earth’s entire surface and make the images universally accessible. “The fast-moving trends get the most the attention, but it’s the slow-moving ones you need to pay attention to.”

Mapping detailed, incremental changes helps us visualize what’s normal and where humans are changing the environment in critical ways, and can even predict damage before it occurs, he said. Zolli called these changes “big indicators.” For example, Planet has shown that roads built in the Amazon precede illegal deforestation, and if we pay attention to those indicators we have a chance to head off rainforest destruction.

In addition to improving access to data, we are getting better at managing it. Planet partnered with Google and the U.S. Geological Survey to move NASA’s Earth Observation Data archives into the cloud and free scientists from managing them. The open-source platform can gather information about deforestation and the spread of disease as the planet warms, and “it’s going to turn on the tap for data around the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals,” said Rebecca Moore, Google’s director of Geo for Good.

Big companies need to step up, big time

Corporations are feeling more pressure to follow through on sustainability commitments.

For example, if we’re going to scale clean energy, banks and utilities must account for the barriers that underserved customers face, said Holmes Hummel, founder of Clean Energy Works. The organization pioneered the Pay As You Save investment model, which allows anyone to access distributed clean energy. “We can’t call for abolishing fossil fuels without making sure everyone has a stake in the ground,” Hummel said.

Ramsay Huntley, vice president of clean technology and innovation at Wells Fargo, said big companies’ “strength is in their scale” and that banks and utilities should use their clout to deliver clean energy for all. Last year, Wells Fargo pledged $200 billion in financing through 2030 to businesses and projects that support the transition.

Similarly, in a panel on regenerative agriculture, Cargill and General Mills acknowledged the need to incentivize farmers to plant crops that help soil store carbon—even if there’s no consumer demand yet.

The pieces of a sustainable economy aren’t all on the table yet, but they’re falling into place. Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said building a “network of people around the world who are doing all they can for a future we can look forward to” keeps him hopeful.

He calls it applied hope: taking action and working together to accelerate change.

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