In Q1, the Carbon Crowd goes quiet. Everyone is too busy gathering data, compiling reports, complying with energy and climate regulations, meeting deadlines, and planning for announcements on Earth Day or World Environment Day to be out and about very much. But in the midst of the busiest season, it makes sense to stop and think about how the work being done isn’t just about reporting, or even saving some money — energy and carbon reporting and the planning and innovation that builds on it can have fundamentally positive and transformative outcomes.
Carbon Positivity is a way of understanding what lies beyond all the bean-counting and of remembering why so much of what’s going on isn’t just about preserving the status quo – it’s about a fundamental change in how we do business. For many companies around the world it’s not about carbon neutrality at all. Rather, it’s about how the changes they are making to optimize their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions have net benefits, across the board.
Carbon Positivity takes at least three, transformative forms.
First, as more and more organizations are recognizing, the carbon and energy footprint of many companies and organizations extends far out into their customer and stakeholder base. Far from being a negative, for many companies the net result of their products and services is to actually reduce energy consumption. Think about the Kindle or iPad. The average reader who shifts from a physical newspaper to reading on a tablet is saving the embedded energy and carbon in a standing forest, the trucks from that forest to the newsstand (and back), and the energy of the entire printing and distribution process – a reduction, by some estimates, of over 7,000%. Or consider a digitized HMO like Kaiser. The digitization of those administrative processes not only takes a big cost burden off of the overall cost of health care delivery, but also massively reduces the energy costs of health care providers around the country.
Which brings us to the second form that Carbon Positivity takes: savings, or retained income. Accounting for energy use and greenhouse gasses often feels like a cost center. But, in many companies today and almost all organizations in the future, energy is a growing and uncontrolled cost. The work we do to measure and monitor energy consumption is a vital first step towards cutting those costs and bringing control back into the enterprise. Far from being a drag on the books, today’s energy bean counters and investments in the right software and hardware are an investment with a clear and present positive ROI.
The third and most positive thing about energy and carbon accounting is its potential to fundamentally transform organizations and markets. Some of the best examples of this (like how Cisco and WebEx are displacing air travel) are becoming increasingly well known. Less intuitive but equally powerful cases are scattered across the commercial world.
Did you know that Apple’s iPhone is putting competitive pressure on Detroit’s large auto manufacturers? Peer-to-peer car-sharing services (see Getaround.com) are shifting young and inner-city drivers from car-ownership to car leasing by the minute. Studies have shown that each car-share vehicle takes an average of four personal vehicles off the road. UPS, through its massive efforts to optimize transportation and delivery, is giving your closest suburban mall a run for its money by changing the logistics of retail. In almost every case, buying a pair of shoes with Amazon or Zappos is greener than driving to a local mall. In each of these cases, services and information are disrupting one of the key ways we consume energy and, in the process, rerouting massive flows of capital.
We know that a lot of new markets are being created by these changes but the real-world cost, energy, and environmental benefits are only just starting to be quantified. Enterprise environmental and energy management systems are making it possible to measure the impact of changing energy behaviors and technology substitution at massive scale, and we can expect to see more and more internalization of these energy and environmental dynamics in the near future. As this performance is understood, the pace of change towards energy and resource efficiency will accelerate.
So as we hunker over our desks (or digital dashboards) figuring out how to save energy or “go neutral,” it’s worth remembering that so much of what’s we’re doing today can actually be about so much more. Building new markets that can save the planet – that’s the most fundamental definition of Carbon Positivity.
Michel Gelobter is Chief Green Officer at Hara and one of the country’s leading sustainability and climate strategists, having worked for more than 25 years in business, policy, research, and advocacy on energy, environmental, and social policy. Michel is Founder and Chairman of the Board of Cooler, a for-profit social venture whose mission is to connect every consumer purchase to a solution for global warming. Prior to Cooler, Michel was President of Redefining Progress, the think-tank that helped design the world’s most aggressive climate legislation which was signed into California law in August of 2006. Michel also founded and directed the Environmental Policy Program at Columbia University, worked as a Congressional Black Caucus Fellow as well as for the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, was Director of Environmental Quality for the City of New York, and served as an Assistant Commissioner for its Department of Environmental Protection. He is also a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ceres.