By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs
As someone who is mostly immersed in the world of science and environmental policy, either sharing ecological research related to climate change or tracking congressional efforts (or lack thereof) to develop policy to mitigate and adapt to global warming, it came as an eye-opening and pleasant change of pace to me this week to learn about US business and federal agency actions already underway.
The Ecological Society of America (ESA) was invited to be a supporting partner of the 2013 Climate Leadership Conference. With the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the headline sponsor, the meeting drew some 500 leaders in business, government and non-governmental organizations to share their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy, water, and waste, and think about new opportunities.
Too often, I find myself caught up in the frustrations felt by many in the scientific community in regard to congressional non-action in the arena of climate change. A topic that often comes with some pessimism was instead cast in a much more positive light—well-known industries—Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, IBM, Hershey, Ford Motor Co.—taking positive steps to help address the problem, sharing best practices and ideas to continue to save energy, improving the efficiency of their operations and thereby also enhancing their bottom line.
For example, Steve Tochilin, General Manager, Environmental Sustainability, with Delta Airlines, talked about the “elephant in the room for Delta and other airlines,” namely that about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from airlines, a figure that is expected to grow as aviation increases in Brazil, India and China. “Fuel is killing us,” he said, referring to skyrocketing costs. Since, so far, there is no viable alternative energy source for planes, every airline is looking to increase fuel efficiency, said Tochilin.
Delta is working to reduce how much fuel it uses by some common sense steps to reduce the weight its planes must carry, including: moving to more fuel efficient jets, offering more direct flights (to avoid circling), ripping the “kitchens” out of planes (many routes no longer serve food so why fly around with the extra weight?), installing lighter seats, hauling only the water (water is really heavy) needed for a given flight, etc. Delta was recently added to the Dow Jones sustainability index.
Staples Inc., the office supply store and world’s second largest e-commerce site, has focused on reducing the carbon footprint of its buildings and vehicles, according to Mark Buckley, Staples’ Vice President for Environmental Affairs. But while it’s had success in reducing its energy use in these areas, Buckley conceded that because the bulk of its carbon output is in its products, “we can do all we want within our four walls and with our [vehicle] fleet, but we need to address GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions embedded in our products.”
Jessica Sanderson, Sustainability Director with Novelis, emphasized that a large, successful company enjoys a certain freedom to take creative steps in saving energy and reducing waste. Novelis is the world’s largest producer of rolled aluminum used by soda companies and automotive industries. Sanderson said the company can now choose where it gets its aluminum, diversifying its suppliers and ensuring best sustainability practices. According to Sanderson, the company plans to shift mainly to obtaining aluminum from recycled content by 2020 as one way to reduce the amount of carbon it releases. “Our customers are becoming our supply chain,” she said. Consumers of canned beverages and the auto industry will figure large in Novelis’ recycling plans.
Equally heartening, was learning more about the steps large federal agencies, such as the Defense department, is taking to meet the charge of President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order. That order directs federal agencies to increase their energy efficiency, use less gas for their vehicles, conserve water, reduce waste and leverage federal purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible technologies and products. Since the collective federal government operates over half a million vehicles, occupies nearly half a million buildings, purchases more than $500 billion each year in goods and services, and employs more than 1.8 million civilians, the way it runs its operations can have a big impact on energy consumption and GHG emissions.
Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary, Installations, Energy & Environment, with the US Army portrayed working to comply with the Executive Order as a win-win strategy: the Army saves energy, operates more efficiently, adapts to limited resources and becomes more “mission” effective. Hammack said she can use the vast energy needs of the Army and its 152 “cities” (Army posts) to facilitate more private sector energy investments—a private sector energy supplier may be willing to build a new, more energy efficient facility because of the certainty that a nearby Army post will need that energy. Hammack also talked about changing behavior—for example, in one case, the military dress code was modified to permit t-shirts instead of the usual long-sleeved attire and therefore allow a 5 degree higher setting on a military building’s air conditioner, significantly reducing its energy useage.
“We all came here because we want to fix problems,” said Blaine Collison, Director of EPA’s Green Power Partnership, in reference to the Climate Leadership Conference. It was a happy reminder that while some of us have sometimes myopically focused on what Congress is or isn’t doing on issues we think are extremely important, many US business leaders haven’t been waiting around—they are taking innovative steps to improve their energy efficiency and stay globally competitive at the same time.