Summary of Keynote Speech at TRC

February 19, 2013

The following is a very abbreviated summary of the Keynote Presentation that I presented at the 2013 Tennessee Recycling Coalition on February 11, 2013, at the Cool Springs Marriott.

 

 

The Importance of 2050 -- Climate Change and Recycling

 

Sustainability is most commonly defined as "development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is taken from the Brundtland Commission's Report, "Our Common Future," presented to the United Nations in 1987.



This definition is more philosophical than practical. We humans need more specificity. We need focus, and we need goals. When applying focus to the definition of sustainability, two things emerge -- supply and demand.



We often forget this most basic fact: our global economy is a subset of the earth's natural economy. Our economy depends on our planet to regenerate natural resources every year, and the amount has a limit. That limit is called the earth's biocapacity. In other words, our global supply.



According to the Global Footprint Network, humans' global demand for the earth's resources has grown steadily since the 1960s -- passing the steady horizontal line of biocapacity in 1985. When global demand exceeds supply, the result is "Overshoot." Demand has continued to grow since 1985, and we now use "1.5 earths" every year. We are projected to hit 2.0 earths by 2030.



How can we use more than 1.0 earths? Imagine a water well. Let's say that well has 1,000 gallons in it. Every time you need water, you send down the bucket, and up comes water. But every year, you use 150 gallons and every year the earth rains in 100 gallons. The result? Water is still there. But after year one, there are only 950 gallons left. Year two: 900. And so on. We are doing the same to our planet -- slowly drawing down our supply.



At the same time, we are threatening that "steady/static horizontal line of biocapacity." Global warming is causing our global climate to change. The results are already unfolding. We likely will alter our coastlines through sea level rise and numerous other landscape changes. The risk is that the steady horizontal line may tick down.



What is business doing? Very little to address the demand (consumption) issue. However, one notable example is Patagonia’s Common Threads program and its Don't Buy this Jacket advertising campaign.



But there is significant activity around emissions reductions and goals addressing climate change. From recent research of the global Fortune 200, there are 891 corporate goals on energy/emissions reductions and climate change. This is more than all other sustainability goals combined (e.g. water, waste, green buildings). This is good news -- but not good enough. The consensus among climatologists is that by 2050 we must achieve 80% or greater in carbon emissions reductions against the baseline year of 1990. Only five companies the Fortune 200 have emissions goals of 80% or greater. We have a long way to go.


Why is business acting? Because businesses are notoriously risk averse, and acting on emissions reductions is risk averse behavior. Emissions reductions means using less fuel, less electricity, less energy. This translates to cost savings. In some cases, like GE’s ecomagination line of products, it translates to revenue. In almost all cases, it means a lower risk exposure to future carbon regulations and improves brand and corporate reputation.

Carbon emissions are embedded in every product:in the materials, in the packaging, in the miles needed to move the products across the value chain. Finding ways to recycle products means finding emissions reductions.
Many opportunities are emerging -- to provide new recycling services to businesses that have emissions reductions goals.

Note: I am in the process of writing a white paper on this topic that will further highlight the opportunities that link recycling and climate change goals.

 

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