A Look Back at 2016 - part 1

Tuesday 03 January 2017

The Paris Agreement became actionable
The notion of a "post-Paris world" took shape, as countries and companies dug into the nitty-gritty of what they must do to meet the goals set forth by the pact inked at COP21 in late 2015 by 196 countries. The agreement was formally signed by more than 150 of those countries by September, surpassing the threshold for ratification, the fastest of any international agreement in history.

For the private sector, one focus was on moving past the usual suspects of climate leadership to a much broader field of companies large and small. Corporate coalitions like We Mean Business pointed out the vast wealth to be created in the transition to a low-carbon economy — at least $13.5 trillion, according to one analysis. In other words, real money. The burning question, of course, is whether the political change in leadership in the U.S. will alter this course — and should America backtrack on climate commitments, whether it will cause other nations to do so, too.

Autonomous vehicles got rolling
The notion of self-driving vehicles, not very long ago an audacious fantasy, picked up speed during 2016, as car makers and mobility companies such as Uber and Lyft rolled out prototypes and pilot programs. This uncharted territory is roiling regulators and causing city planners to ponder what happens when all these driverless vehicles hit the roads? Will it lead to a promised decrease in urban congestion, reduced road-building costs and fewer parking lots and garages?

Tech impresario Elon Musk’s latest "master plan" gave autonomous vehicles a starring role, and not just for cars. His vision included autonomous buses, summoned by phones and hailed at traditional bus stops. Where will all this leave millions of truck, bus and cab drivers — not to mention all those newly minted Uber and Lyft drivers? It remains to be seen whether these technologies will be a net-positive to people and the planet.

Leadership companies increased their lead
Companies have been upping their sustainability commitments, particularly as they near the end of five- and 10-year cycles. 3M, AT&T, Avery Dennison, BASF, Dow, Pepsico and Pratt & Whitney were those that set 2025 sustainability commitments and goals. Walmart laid out a series of goals for 2025, including achieving zero waste in its facilities in Canada, Japan, U.K and the U.S., and to be powered by 50 percent renewable energy sources.

Meanwhile, Interface, the floorcovering innovator, laid out a series of goals under the rubric Climate Take Back that looks well beyond 2025, including making "factories that are like forests" and transforming "dispersed materials into products and goodness." It bodes well for continued progress, without and even in spite of the lack of political leadership.

The circular economy got real
The business world may still be getting its collective arms around what it means to have a "circular economy," but the term already is resonating among a clutch of leadership companies, and has moved from a meme to a market. At GreenBiz 2016, the CE 100 USA was launched, a spinoff of the Circular Economy 100 created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The year saw a flurry of developments, from research (the circular economy as a $1 trillion opportunity), aspirations (circular buildings, circular cities), innovative apps and startups, logistics, investments and, notably, efforts by companies to build new circular models. Is this truly the future? It’s too early to tell. Many companies still view "circular economy" as a synonym for "recycling," although that’s only part of the picture. Still, the trend is encouraging, not merely because it brings a systems view to companies’ value chains and sustainability efforts. And it is just getting going.

Ocean plastics joined the supply chain
If the circular economy is about keeping materials (among other things) in circulation, it has created a sea change in thinking about plastics — how they’re made, how they’re used and what happens after that. One bright spot has been reclaiming plastic waste from oceans and putting it back into production. What seemed a parlor trick just a few years ago is now being seen as a business opportunity. Coca-Cola, Dow, Interface, Method, even Tiffany have begun mining the seas for use in their supply chains. It’s not yet cost-effective in many cases, at least compared to using virgin or curbside-recycled soda bottles.

But there are social benefits to consider, especially in developing economies. Interface, for example, created Net-Works, which hires locals in the Philippines and other countries to collect abandoned nylon fishing nets, which litter the landscape and ocean, harming coral reefs and other ecosystems. Such efforts were given new urgency by a 2016 report from a World Economic Forum/Ellen MacArthur Foundation study stating that by the middle of this century there will more plastic than fish, by weight, in the world’s oceans. Will companies see that as potential revenue swimming away or a new resource to be mined? The coming year will determine whether the tide really is turning.

This article appeared on www.greenbiz.com

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