Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Best and the Worst of Sustainability and Climate in 2015

Last year was a momentous year for both climate action and environmental destruction. Perhaps most importantly, 2015 will be remembered as the moment in history when the world finally woke up to the threat of climate change.

Here is a review of the ten best and the ten worst sustainability and climate stories of 2015.

The Best of 2015

In reverse chronological order here are the 10 best sustainability and climate stories of 2015:

10. Canada's Petro-Conservatives replaced by Eco-Liberals

After ten years of failed leadership Canadians turfed their oil-obsessed conservative government and replaced them with the Liberal party who made a raft of energy and environment promises. Delivering on these promises will be difficult after a decade of Conservative rule. However, this change signals the dawn of a new Day in Canada and hope for climate action in the country. We have seen the appointment of Stephane Dion and Catherine McKenna to key environmental and climate posts. So far both the Prime Minister's mandate letters and the throne speech suggest that the new government plans to follow through on its campaign pledges. The Liberals were quick to differentiate themselves from the previous government by un-muzzling government scientists and assuming a leadership role at COP21.

9. The Growth of Sustainable Investing

Last year was a big year for green investors.  A growing number of investors are now banking on climate action. SRI and impact investing are becoming an increasingly important part of efforts to combat climate change. There are a number of drivers advancing green investment and there is growing demand for nonfinancial information. Many see sustainability as an opportunity to add value and new financial instruments including those in solar energy and other renewables are helping to advance green investing.  These efforts are also being helped by a host of resources designed to assist those interested in responsible investing. One of the most interesting sustainable investment trends in 2015 involved the increase in action from institutional investors who are getting on-board with initiatives like the The Montreal Pledge

8. Divestment from Fossil Fuels and Investment in Renewable Energy

In 2015 the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown and came of age. Concerns about stranded assets are driving investor concerns as they grapple with the realization that fossil fuels will be replaced. The divestment movement saw a broad range of support from cities, investors and even a prince and the movement is having an impact on investors, businesses and power companies. The fossil fuel industry will not go quietly and returns look grim for the foreseeable future. This increases the urgency of the need to divest and the realization that this is only logical option. The fossil fuel industry has reason to be nervous as there is a powerful logic and a number of benefits associated with divestment. Even without considering climate concerns there is a strong economic case that can be made for divestment. The United Nations has pledged its support for divestment and some major investors have pledged to divest including the Norway Pension Fund and the Rockefeller Fund. These efforts have been aided by events like Global Divestment Day as well as the proliferation of resources designed to help investors to divest and reinvest.

7. Most Important Climate Actors

While there have been a number of stellar global actors who have helped to advance climate action in 2015 two people stand out as having done the most to move the climate agenda forward. The top two climate leaders last year are a President and a Pope. Together President Obama and Pope Francis have done more to advance climate action than anyone in history. Despite GOP climate denial the President has shown solid support for clean energy.  Likewise the Pope has remained stalwart in the face of opposition from the GOP, he even called out Republican climate deniers in his address to Congress.

6. Most Sustainable Countries

While there is a long list of nations that are acting to combat climate change, Nordic countries continue to be the most sustainable countries in the world according to at least two independent assessments. Two countries that also deserve to be mentioned as among the most sustainable in 2015 are Germany and France.

5. Leadership in Innovation

Innovation is essential in business and when it comes to those who practice sustainability it is a matter of life and death. In 2015 we saw a number of sustainability focused innovations. There is a growing understanding that creativity is essential and there is good evidence to support the contention that sustainability drives innovation and generates returns. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that innovations in sustainability are essential if we are to meet the climate challenges we face.

4. Sustainable Business

Despite the complexity and arcane lingo sustainability is gaining ground. Last year was an important year for sustainable business. Historians may very well say that 2015 was the year that sustainability reached a tipping point. The leading climate focused sustainable companies in 2015 put forward a number of products, projects and leaders. The successful outcome of COP21 resonated throughout the business community.  Companies showed that they can double their revenues and add value. Simply put sustainability contributes to the bottom line, lends legitimacy to profitability and combats the culture of corruption. Climate solutions that combine people, product and profit makes a compelling case for Sustainability and this holds true for corporations, banks and investors. As revealed by PwC, Risky Business and other reports, acting on climate change is an opportunity that makes economic and business sense. The science of sustainability is supporting the kind of business leadership we saw at the World Economic Forum (WEF).  This is translating to growing interest in sustainability at business schools. While we still need more consistency we are seeing major corporate initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases because carbon reduction makes good business sense

3. The Growth of Renewables and Improving Battery Technology

In 2015 it became apparent that the growth of renewable energy is unstoppable. Part of the increasing confidence in renewables comes from improvements in battery storage which is an essential component of a clean energy infrastructure. Declining price points and increasing efficiency of both stationary batteries and EV batteries are driving this optimism. The COP21 deal signals the end of fossil fuels and the dawn of unprecedented growth for renewables. The market reaction to the Paris deal seemed to corroborate this point as fossil fuels crashed while renewables soared.

2. The Fall of the Fossil Fuel Industry

It is clear that fossil fuels are being replaced by renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry is in trouble and the situation is destined to worsen as subsidies are coming under increasing scrutiny.  The financial losses and diminishing oil industry profits we saw in 2015 signal the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. Simply put concerns about stranded assets make oil a bad investment.

1. The Positive Outcome at COP21

The deal reached at COP21 in Paris is a momentous leap forward and an unprecedented turning point in human history. There are a number of optimistic predictions for climate action in the wake of the agreement. This includes the accelerated demise of the fossil fuel industry and unparalleled growth for renewable energy.

Worst News Stories of 2015

In reverse chronological order here are the 10 worst sustainability and climate stories of 2015: 

10. Canadian Conservatives Failed Climate Leadership

Although they were kicked out of power by the Canadian electorate at the end of 2015, Canada's long ruling Conservatives continued their reign of environmental destruction until the end. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper's Conservatives Canada's failed climate leadership began to manifest as an economic disaster. The government cynically made new emissions reduction promises and an unattainable decarbonization pledge. The Harper government reneged on its promise to mirror US climate policy
and worst of all the extent of the government's tar sands complicity came to light. After their defeat the environment record of the new Conservative leader suggested that the party has not learned a thing. 

9. Countries that Undermined Climate Action

The countries that did the most to contribute to climate change are Saudi Arabia and Russia. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst countries on earth because it is the world's largest oil producer and because of its efforts to undermine COP21. Russia is on this list because it is also a large oil producer that is actively involved in offshore drilling in the Arctic. The nation is also a leading proponent of Arctic sea traffic. Russia is eager to exploit new shipping routes made possible by the retreating ice and this along with Arctic drilling could have calamitous impacts on the far north's fragile ecosystem.

8. Indonesian Fires

The Indonesian fires of 2015 were one of the worst environmental crimes of the 21st Century (Video). Each year slash and burn agriculture destroys vast swaths of forest in Indonesia, but 2015 was the worst yet. The combination of smoke from the fires and loss of forest carbon sinks is responsible for huge amounts of atmospheric carbon and other pollutants.

7. Growing Climate Refugee Crisis

There is a growing climate refugee crisis brewing in the US and around the world. The etiology of a climate refugee is complex, but it is fair to say that climate change plays a role in some of the world's current refugees and it will certainly play a far greater role in the mass dislocations of the future.

6. Volkswagen's Epic Greenwash

One of the most disturbing business stories to emerge in 2015 is the disheartening tale of how Volkswagen tried to cheat emissions tests.  The actions of the German automaker threaten to undermine the public's trust in automakers mileage claims. It may even compromise the popular perception of sustainability initiatives around the world. 

5. The Porter Ranch Methane Leak

The Porter Ranch methane leak was one the worst fossil fuel disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf in Mexico. This sad tale sheds light on the dangers of methane and may lead to more responsible fossil fuel extraction practices.

4. Fossil Fuel Spills

As in previous years there were a number of fossil fuel leaks in 2015. These spills prove once again that extracting and transporting fossil fuels is not safe.

3. Republican Climate Obstructionism

Republicans' ongoing climate obstructionism continued in 2015. All you need to do is follow the money money to see that the GOP's climate denial is fueled by the fossil fuel industry. While we may expect that the profit incentive is the driving motivation for the climate subterfuge of some businesses, it is a sad day when these same interests hijack governments and thwart climate action. On the issue of climate action, Republicans oppose the views of the majority of Americans, they ignore or deride the scientific consensus and they rejected a unanimous pledge from world government's to act on climate change at COP21. The slate of  Republicans presidential contenders also derided the COP21 climate talks. Republicans have not only prevented passage of climate focused legislation, they have actively worked to dismantle the administration's Clean Power Plan. In one of the few pieces of legislation that did pass in 2015, the Democrats signed a deal with the devil that would allow fossil fuels to be exported outside of the US. Although it was vetoed by the President, Republicans passed legislation to kill the Clean Power Plan. 

2. Global Heat Records and Extreme Weather

Last year made history as the warmest year ever recorded. As the year come to an end record heat dominated the headlines and provided unseasonably warm Christmas temperatures. In addition to the highest average temperatures in recorded history, 2015 was marked by another year extreme weather events. The bad news is that while 2015 was the hottest year on record, 2016 is expected to be even hotter.

1. Exxon

By far the worst climate story in 2015 was the revelation that Exxon actively lobbied against climate action despite the fact that it has known the facts about the role of fossil fuels as the leading cause of anthropogenic climate change. Rather than heed their own scientific findings they knowingly tried to conceal the truth in an effort to bring as much oil to market as they could before the facts caught up with them. While lies and misinformation from the fossil fuel industry should come as no surprise, Exxon's malfeasance takes it to another level. Their actions warrant being described as a crime against humanity.

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