I hope you didn't leave 2014 without realizing there have been notable—often underreported—big capital market breakthroughs on climate change, water protection and other sustainability fronts. Stock exchanges requiring company disclosure on sustainability risks or bonds backed by electricity payments from solar rooftop panels may not at first glance seem compelling, but these are the mechanisms that move markets and help build a more sustainable future.
Producing energy at a cost equal to conventional fossil fuel sources is the Holy Grail for wind and solar energy producers, and that day is arriving. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Now as we head into 2015, it’s worth taking a moment to shine a light on key areas of progress.
1. Electric utility business models are changing before our eyes by eschewing new centralized power plants in favor of energy efficiency and decentralized distributed energy, which are less expensive for consumers and more resilient to extreme weather. Case in point: Consolidated Edison’s ambitious $100–$150 million investment in energy efficiency and distributed energy—rooftop solar, battery technologies and smartphone-assisted energy conservation—to avoid building a new $1.1 billion substation.
2. Energy storage is a critical cog in large-scale deployment of renewable energy. That’s why it’s a big deal that Southern California Edison announced contracts last month for more than 260 megawatts of energy storage, five times more than what the state’s utilities commission required. Among the companies selected: Ice Energy, which installs rooftop devices called Ice Bears that freeze water in 450-gallon pots. The devices run at night when temperatures are lower so making ice is easier; during peak hours, the ice is used for space cooling.
3. After many months of warnings, the financial industry is waking up to the oil industry’s potentially wasteful spending on development of new fossil fuel reserves when global oil demand is weakening and carbon-reducing trends are taking stronger hold. In a stunning recent analysis, Goldman Sachs found nearly $1 trillion of oil projects at risk due to shrinking demand and plummeting oil prices. Among the potential “zombie projects”: expensive Arctic oil, deepwater drilling and Canada’s oil sands.
4. Nearly a dozen stock exchanges, including Singapore and Taiwan, are requiring disclosure from listed companies about what they are considering and doing to manage sustainability risks such as climate change and water scarcity. This is a big deal because it’s a basic management dictum that if you’re not disclosing a particular risk, you’ll never be able to manage it. Nearly 7,000 companies already produce annual sustainability reports through GRI, but this can help capture the 70,000 plus companies that don’t yet. NASDAQ, a key partner in a Ceres-led effort to unify investors and global exchanges on this issue, is considering a similar move.
5. San Francisco’s water utility is giving new meaning to “love that dirty water” by allowing building owners and developers to produce and exchange onsite water with each other—a radical departure from traditional monopolistic water utility models. It’s paying up to $500,000 to developers who can produce water onsite—including gray water, rainwater or stormwater—for use by other entities in the city. The utility’s own headquarters is living proof of the benefits of onsite water systems: It uses 60 percent less water than comparable-size buildings with an additional construction cost of less than 1 percent.
6. U.S. farmers are among the most productive in the world, but that productivity comes at a huge cost: Their practices are not sustainable, especially in regard to pollution and water use. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Field to Market, a public/private partnership that includes Unilever, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, announce an ambitious effort to accelerate sustainable growing practices on 20 percent of the nation’s farmland—50 million acres—by 2020. The colossal corn sector—the U.S.’s biggest commodity crop by far—will be a top priority.
7. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s are making big changes in how they scrutinize water systems that borrow money—via bonds—for major water infrastructure projects. If the changes are finalized next year, these critical credit-rating agencies will include climate risks in evaluating water utility bonds. The changes—which Ceres has been advocating since publishing a report on water bond risks several years ago—send an important signal that water systems may get higher credit ratings if they invest in systems more resilient to drought and flooding, and lower ratings if they are especially vulnerable to extreme weather. A higher credit rating can mean lower interest rates, which translates to more affordable consumer water bills.
8. Producing energy at a cost equal to conventional fossil fuel sources is the Holy Grail for wind and solar energy producers, and that day is arriving. Austin Energy signed a deal last spring for 20 years of output from a solar farm at about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is 1 to 2 pennies less than utility-scale coal or natural gas power. Meanwhile, American Electric Power has signed long-term commitments for 2,500 megawatt of wind power, most of it in Texas and other parts of “wind alley” in the Midwest.
9. Bonds are lifeblood for any company that wants to raise capital so it can grow. Solar company execs have talked for years about selling bonds backed by solar electricity contracts, but it’s been hard to pull off. That all changed when solar installer SolarCity got the go-ahead from Standard & Poor’s to issue first-ever bonds backed by electricity payments from its solar rooftop panels. The company has since issued more than $300 million of bonds, including $201.5 million sold in July with interest rates ranging from 4 to 5.45 percent.
These capital market breakthroughs are in line with what Ceres has been working on since launching 25 years ago and will help catalyze sustainability across entire industries and the broader economy.
Looking into 2015, I have some wishes: a U.S. stock exchange adopting a sustainability listing standard; the green bond market eclipsing $100 billion a year; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizing its carbon-reducing rule for existing U.S. power plants.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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