The Sustainability Spotlight is an extension of the Global Translations newsletter, which tracks major issues facing the globe.
Washington’s climate glitterati gathered at the Kalorama residence of French Ambassador Philippe Etienne on Tuesday night to be chided and nudged by Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and drafter of the Paris Climate Agreement. Global Translations joined the political and NGO heavy-hitters, as Tubiana pitched climate action as an act of “reclaiming sovereignty” (rather than giving into activists and global government). She called for a global climate self-help movement: “Don’t rely on others” to do the heavy lifting, which she accused the Australian and Brazilian governments of having done.
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) tore into green-tinged companies insisting that “there is no company that shows up in Congress on climate, except maybe Patagonia. Tech associations barely mention it.” He said that after a decade of turbo-charged fossil fuel lobbying, “I am involved in a number of secret climate conversations with some of my Republican colleagues but they can’t find a single corporation that will come out and say ‘I’ve got your back.’ It should not be too much to ask corporate America to align their lobbying with their stated values.”
Libetarian view: One green-minded Republican bemoaned the “small tent” created by well-informed climate advocates, saying they have been more focused on adopting specific ideas and identities than outcomes. A point of contention in the evening’s group discussion was whether climate action supporters should focus on making it cheap and practical to invest in green solutions rather than channeling efforts toward creating taxes and other penalties for non-green behavior.
REALITY CHECK — EU COUNTRIES UNDERMINE BLOC’S GREEN PLANS: Europe talks a good climate game, but one-third of EU countries have not yet given the European Commission their national energy and climate plans. Brussels is getting impatient with France, Germany and Spain, as well as the smaller countries, Bulgaria, Ireland, Romania and Slovenia. The Commission came up with this handy table to shame them.
US 2020 ELECTION SEASON GOES (LIGHT) GREEN: Latinx voters are set to push climate change in the Democratic Nevada caucuses next week. House Republicans are building a climate legislative plan (with an eye on covering their electoral backs) based on three tenets: carbon sequestration, clean energy and conservation. Reality check: President Donald Trump wants a 75 percent cut in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget.
VIEWS FROM THE CSO OFFICE: Sustainability teams and chief sustainability officers are increasingly reporting directly to their CEO. But sustainability teams sometimes fight a losing battle inside their organization, undercut by lobbyists and bean-counting teams. In the words of one accounting firm CSO: “Doing more good is not the same as doing less bad.” That said, standards are rising as sustainability efforts become more integrated into company business models. In the words of a CSO from the pharma sector that Global Translations spoke with this week: “I only look at partnerships that are cross-sector because there are 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and they can’t be met on their own. That’s where you find the ones (partners) who are in it for the right reasons,” he said.
We heard your feedback: you’re looking to read more about solutions than conflicts in the sustainability space. With that in mind, I’ll highlight a “scalable solution” we come across each week. Send in your suggestions.
SCALABALE SOLUTION OF THE WEEK — MIXED INCOME COMMUNITIES
Jonathan Reckford, Habitat for Humanity’s CEO, dropped into POLITICO HQ on Tuesday ahead of a lobbying blitz that saw the Habitat team meet with 350 members of Congress. His organization is best known for Jimmy Carter’s volunteer support but now constructs, repairs and renovates homes in 70 countries for 7 million low-income people a year. That makes Reckford the king of “self-help housing,” and he has a message for sustainability supporters: what seems green is sometimes injustice in disguise. There’s a difference between designing for resilience (say to hurricane-proof a house), and lumping the costs of creating energy-efficient houses onto the owner alone in order to get a regulation passed. The latter is a regressive tax on the low income groups that Habitat serves, Reckford says.
Top worry: A housing supply and affordability crisis. In the U.S., Reckford says labor shortages (immigration crackdowns), tariffs and NIMBY activism that is now sometimes BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Near Anything) are key drivers of reduced supply. Lack of supply accelerates unaffordability, which creates income ghettos and pushes those on lower incomes into 2-3 hours commutes (not green!), instead of being able to live in or near the neighborhoods where they work. The solution, said Reckford, is active policy enforcement of mixed-income housing developments. He finds it surprising that Trump — as a real estate tycoon whose family got rich by helping families onto the property ladder — isn’t more engaged with the political opportunity.
New systems approach: Overwhelmed by the scale of the problems it was facing, Habitat said it rethought how to make markets work better for low-income communities. Reckford said the result is a multi-stakeholder strategy, including microfinance for home improvements, “up-zoning” to allow more building of housing and more uses for buildings that already exist, working to develop Habitat bonds with international banks and operating 1000 stores across North America for low-cost recycled house products, keeping 200,000 tons out of landfills last year.
SHOW ME THE DATA! Companies need data to meet their sustainability commitments: otherwise how else to measure whether they complied? That’s Doug Peterson’s rationale for S&P Global moving heavily into sustainability (or ESG to use the preferred finance-world acronym). The S&P CEO had plenty of warnings for Global Translations. “There’s more investors looking (to invest in green projects) than there is cash available,” he said, but they’re playing in a “messy field,” a kind of green Wild West. He said that at a minimum, “Investors want standardized data. They don’t (necessarily) want a rating, they just want the data and scenario analysis” to make their own decisions.
Watch out for “climate stress tests” to be required for pension funds, banks and other financial products, as a response to a big data gap. “There are no requirements and standards for disclosure, it’s all voluntary.” Speaking of voluntary information, check out the 2020 RobecoSam Sustainability Yearbook, with companies ranked here.
Green-lining: “There are still people who think oil is a good investment,” Paterson said but as they get crowded out by investors who insist on going green: “They’re probably going to be segregated”
GLOBAL TRANSLATIONS SUSTAINABILITY LETTERBOX ….
This week was more about reports than traditional letters landing on our desks.
Air pollution is “mass murder”: Fossil fuel-caused air pollution leads to 4.5 million early deaths each year, and may hold back global GDP by 3 percent a year, according to a new Greenpeace report, which claims to be “the first global estimate of the economic burden caused by air pollution from fossil fuels.” Meanwhile a new study in Nature reports about half of air quality-linked deaths in the U.S. happen in states where the pollution did not originate.
Loss of ecosystems would cost trillions: A drop of 0.67 percent of annual global gross domestic product by 2050 — adding up to a cumulative $9.87 trillion — is on the cards, according to a study published today by WWF, the Global Trade Analysis Project and the Natural Capital Project. That’s if the world doesn’t take steps to guard crop pollination, protect coasts from flooding and erosion, maintain water supplies, store carbon and manage timber production and fisheries sustainably.
POLARIZING: This week, The Guardian reported Bill Gates ordered the world’s first hydrogen-powered superyacht: 370 feet and worth an estimated $644 million, featuring an infinity pool, helipad, spa and gym. The issue: the yacht-maker Sinot denies any relationship to Gates, the BBC reported. The real question: is a superyacht (and its helipad) ever sustainable? Send your thoughts.
GREEN GAMERS UNITE! The United Nations has launched Mission 1.5, a video game for collecting the opinions of 20 million people on the ways they want government leaders to act to limit climate change. After the game, players are asked to vote on their favorite climate actions in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish.
WEED NEEDS: Marijuana is the United States’ most energy-intensive crop, partly because federal prohibition creates massive market and environmental inefficiencies.
FOURTH TIME LUCKY FOR COP: After the previous COP26 president was fired and two big names turned down the role, Indian-born Alok Sharma was named as COP26 president and U.K. business secretary in a U.K. government reshuffle Thursday.
MARK CARNEY INTERVIEW: Catch-up on Mark Carney’s interview with Bloomberg’s Francine Lacqua previewing his new United Nations’ role mobilizing climate finance.
ALBRIGHT ALL-IN ON SUSTAINABILITY: Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), of Madeleine Albright fame, has launched a sustainability practice led by Elizabeth Littlefield, with former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner on board as an adviser.