Amazon’s big opportunity: Transparency in sustainability

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards; and, accelerating environmental innovation.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.

Over the past few years, Amazon’s sustainability team has been busy setting ambitious goals on renewable energy, making their voice heard on smart environmental policies, and leveraging their expertise in technology to drive innovation that can benefit the planet – and boost profits.

I recently chatted with Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon and former CEO of The Sustainability Consortium, about how innovation and environmental goals intersect at Amazon, the launch of the new Amazon Sustainability Question Bank, and how sustainability issues could play a role in deciding the next Amazon headquarters (HQ2).

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Our president promised jobs. Instead, he’s slashing them.

Earlier this week, Trump announced his decision to impose a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels. A tariff will have a negative impact on solar – one of the fastest growing industries in the entire country.

Environmental Defense Fund released its second annual jobs report yesterday, In Demand: Clean Energy, Sustainability and the New American Workforce, following Trump’s decision. The report shows that solar jobs now outnumber those in the coal industry 1.6 to 1, with coal employing only 160,000. Even better, these jobs are local, well-paying and available to individuals from all types of educational backgrounds and career history.

But now, solar jobs are at risk. Yesterday, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimated as many as 23,000 jobs would be lost under Trump’s tariff. The supportive policy environment that encouraged this growth is no longer in place. Let me explain.

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Why 2017 was the worst and best year of my entire sustainability career

Of my 20 years in the corporate sustainability world, I’ve never seen a year like 2017.

Like many of you, I watched in shock as we inaugurated a reality TV personality as our 45th President. Since then this Administration has rolled back critical environmental and health protections and ceded U.S. government leadership on climate change and clean energy. Issues that I am passionate about and have devoted my career to advancing. Issues that affect kids like my son, who turned 6 this week, and the over 6 million other children across the country that suffer from asthma.

At the same time, our family members, friends, and colleagues from coast to coast have been impacted by heart-wrenching extreme weather events – made stronger by climate change. In the past 12 months alone, we experienced the country’s most devastating hurricane season (with damage estimates ranging to $475 billion), record breaking temperatures that grounded airlines to a halt, freezing temperatures in the Southeast that caused over $1 billion in agricultural losses, and wildfires that continue to blaze across the state of California.

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How to make Thomas Friedman’s climate optimism a reality

Heroic imagination is required to protect health and ensure prosperity in a world of climate chaos, according to Thomas Friedman at the recent New York Times ClimateTECH conference. This potential is ours to realize, says Friedman, due to the unleashing of new technology a decade ago. With Twitter, YouTube, GitHub and the like, the interdependent power of many has never been greater, and the independent power of one has never shone brighter.

Not surprisingly, Friedman’s words inspired the conference audience of entrepreneurs and established companies there to discuss new clean tech innovations.

The problem is that although inspiration and imagination can help motivate change, they are not strategies to achieve it. Building a climate-friendly economy will help us realize the greatest opportunity of our lifetime — creating jobs and protecting health.

Seizing the opportunity to build prosperity while facing climate chaos requires more than a field of a thousand blooming start-ups. It requires massive, continuous innovation, and exponentially increasing investment to bridge the gap between inspiration and implementation.

Here’s how to address both challenges.

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Three reasons for companies to defend the Clean Power Plan

US businesses turned out in force at COP 23 in Bonn, demonstrating to the rest of the world that they are committed to action on climate change, despite the US government’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In fact, 2017 has been a banner year for corporate climate leadership: over 1700 businesses signed the We Are Still In declaration, and nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies now have climate and clean energy goals.

Now, there’s an immediate opportunity for companies to show leadership on climate change here at home: speaking up in defense of the Clean Power Plan, which the current Administration wants to eliminate but is still very much in play.

Here are three reasons for your business to publicly defend the Clean Power Plan before the EPA comment period ends on April 26, 2018.

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COP 23 caps off a milestone year of corporate climate leadership

Photo credit: Rhys Gerholdt (WRI)

After the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21) in 2015, where the historic climate accord was established, it was near impossible to imagine a future COP where the US federal government wouldn’t play a central role. Yet now, at COP 23 in Bonn, Germany, the US government doesn’t have an official presence at the event – for the first time ever.

To fill the void of federal policy action, companies and organizations from across the US are voicing their support for the Paris agreement at the U.S. Climate Action Center, a pavilion sponsored exclusively by non-federal US stakeholders.

The Climate Action Center is an initiative of the We Are Still In coalition of cities, states, tribes, universities, and businesses that are committed to the Paris Agreement. Thus far over 1,700 businesses including Apple, Amazon, Campbell Soup, Nike, NRG Energy and Target have signed the We Are Still In declaration – evidence that public climate commitments are quickly becoming the norm.

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NYC paves the path for a better future, encouraging other cities to follow

Earlier this week, New York City became the first city to devise a plan for meeting the goals outlined in the Paris Accord —the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement from which President Trump pledged to pull the U.S. from. The 1.5°C Paris Agreement-compliant climate action plan comes in response to Executive Order 26 (EO26), signed by Mayor de Blasio that reaffirms the city’s commitment to upholding the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The plan identifies specific strategies for reducing GHG emissions necessary to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as set forth in the Paris Agreement. Leading the charge is the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS), which has been moving the city’s decarbonization efforts forward by accelerating the implementation of existing projects launched under the 80 X 50 initiative—a goal of reducing GHG emissions 80 percent by 2050.

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Leading methane commitment from Exxon’s U.S. driller: Why it matters

The degree to which the oil and gas industry can be trusted to play a constructive role in a low carbon future depends in no small measure on whether and how it reduces climate pollution today. That’s why company insiders, investors, and policy makers should take careful note of the sensible and innovative commitments announced by XTO Energy, the ExxonMobil subsidiary that leads the United States in natural gas production.

The industry’s many outside stakeholders both in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly calling for emission reductions and greater commitment to cleaner production. Companies that heed those calls, and advance new technologies, will be much better positioned to answer society's demands for responsibility. Read more

Shell becomes latest oil and gas company to test smart methane sensors

This week, the oil and gas giant Shell took a positive step toward addressing methane emissions. The company announced a new technology trial at a wellsite in Alberta, Canada, where it is piloting a specially designed laser to continuously monitor emissions of methane, a powerful pollutant known to leak from oil and gas equipment.

The move by Shell is a glimpse into the future and demonstrates growing market interest in smart, sensor-based methane detection technology. Shell’s project joins a similar field test already underway in Texas, operated by the Norwegian producer Statoil, and a California utility pilot run by Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Each of these deployments is promising, but the ultimate test will be broad-scale adoption of innovations that generate actual methane reductions.

For industry, there is an incentive to move ahead. An estimated $30 billion of natural gas (which is largely methane) is wasted every year due to leaks and flaring from oil and gas operations worldwide. In addition, roughly 25 percent of global warming is driven by methane. Oil and gas methane emissions also contain chemicals that adversely affect public health.

For these reasons, methane is a problem that has caught the attention of regulators, investors and consumers alike. Advancing new technologies to enable the oil and gas industry to tackle this challenge more efficiently is key, even as companies use established tools to manage emissions now.

Collaborations Spark Methane Innovation

When you bring the right people to the table, innovative solutions will follow. Behind the Shell, Statoil and PG&E demonstration projects is a collaborative initiative, the Methane Detectors Challenge, begun by the Environmental Defense Fund four years ago. The project united eight oil and gas companies, R&D experts and technology innovators in an effort to accelerate the development of next-generation methane detectors.

The formation of this project was motivated by a key insight: new technology to manage emissions needs to be created and deployed faster than ever. The Methane Detectors Challenge offers a unique resource to innovators – access to real facilities and collaboration with potential customers – which is essential to help entrepreneurs understand the market, demonstrate demand, and ultimately achieve economies of scale.

Both the Statoil and Shell pilots are using a solar-powered laser, created by Colorado-based Quanta3. The technology uses the Internet to provide real-time data analytics to wellsite managers via mobile devices or web portals.

Continuous Visibility, Faster Response

The oil and gas industry has a lot to gain from smart methane sensors that can prevent the loss of valuable product and reduce pollution.

Imagine a future where continuous leak detection systems allow operators to digitally monitor methane emissions occurring across thousands of sites. It’s a game-changer on the horizon. The burgeoning field of continuous methane monitoring offers a range of possibilities – including technologies capable of identifying emission spikes in real-time, allowing operators to cut mitigation time from months to days. Over time, smart sensors on wells may even help predict and prevent leaks and malfunctions before they occur.

Smart Methane Sensors Triggering New Market

The methane-sensing laser deployed by Shell and Statoil is one of many technologies in the emerging methane mitigation industry. In North America alone, more than 130 companies provide low-cost methane management technologies and services to oil and gas customers – a number likely to expand as innovators innovate, pollution requirements tighten, and producers increasingly appreciate the urgency of dealing with methane to maintain their social license to operate.

Smart automation technologies are already being used across the oil and gas industry to improve operating and field efficiencies. Continuous methane detection technology is the next logical step, which has the potential to provide significant economic, environmental and societal benefits.

The Shell pilot is a milestone to celebrate and we recognize the company for its early leadership. Now, we need governments and industry to show the determination needed to meet the methane challenge head-on. Sustained leadership is a prerequisite. But the keys to solving this problem are smart policies that incentivize ongoing innovation, and clear methane reduction goals—supported by technologies like continuous monitoring.

This post was also published on EDF's Energy Exchange blog. Image source: Shell/Ian Jackson


Aileen Nowlan is a Manager at EDF + Business. Follow her on Twitter for more news on EDF's work on innovation and energy.

Trump budget breakdown: Time to defend the clean energy economy and American innovation

My first week on the job at Environmental Defense Fund was also the week the Trump administration released its full federal budget proposal. I joined the EDF + Business team after working at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), implementing technology-to-market innovation partnerships for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). The proposal slashes EERE and related offices and programs that have been at the forefront of successful public-private partnerships. At a time when the U.S. is backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement and federal clean energy technology investments are critically and urgently needed, this budget threatens American innovation.

Funding that nurtures new businesses without requiring their owners to give up any stake in their companies can be make-or-break for the early-stage startups that drive innovation. When government, well-positioned to make this kind of unique investment, puts forth tax-payer dollars, it encourages the private sector to buy-in as well—oftentimes with a multiplying effect. DOE has created opportunities like these that reduce risks for both entrepreneurs and investors. It is through this public-private collaboration that meaningful partnerships and lasting progress are possible for clean energy and our nation’s economy.

Clean energy and innovation threatened

Titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the president’s budget proposal jeopardizes nearly a decade of progress in building our clean energy economy.

Dulling the cutting edge of our nation’s innovation enterprise curtails our ability to strategically lead in scientific and technological innovations more broadly, across sectors. Decelerating cleantech research, development, demonstration, and deployment would also inhibit our ability to deal responsibly with climate change and its consequences.

Specifically, the President’s plan cuts FY18 funding to EERE by over $1.4 billion, down nearly 70 percent from FY16 and FY17 levels, and it all but eliminates the $290 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), with a 93 percent reduction for FY18. It zeroes out EERE’s Strategic Programs Office that initiated, funds, and organizes tech-to-market efforts like the National Incubator Initiative for Clean EnergySmall Business Vouchers Pilot, and Energy I-Corps, which build innovative partnerships among startups, small businesses, incubators, and accelerators and give them unprecedented access to national lab scientists, engineers, and equipment. The plan does note that strategic subprograms would be consolidated or transferred to elsewhere within DOE.

The budget also includes 70 percent cuts to both EERE’s Solar and Vehicle Technologies Offices. These are home to successful public-private partnership programs like the SunShot Initiative, which helped the solar industry achieve DOE’s vision of $1-per-watt three years early, and SuperTruck II, which builds upon the success of the original SuperTruck program that showed 115 percent improvements to freight fuel efficiency are possible.

The reductions go as far as eliminating the Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs Office, which has worked with state, local, and tribal governments for decades to assist more than 7 million low-income households find significant savings through energy efficiency. These upgrades have lowered these families’ utility bills an average of $283 per year and brought demonstrated improvements to health and safety.

There is something for everyone to be concerned about in this proposed budget, and even the fossil fuel industry stands to lose.

Even DOE “crown jewels” that Energy Secretary Rick Perry vowed to protect are not safe as the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) now faces a 20 percent cut. NREL celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with its 2,200 employees who hold over 300 patents and further support the growing clean energy economy through more than 500 technology partnership agreements with businesses, nonprofits, and academic institutions. Despite these and other successes, the proposed budget significantly defunds or eliminates clean energy activities across all 17 national labs.

The contradictions between the administration’s rhetoric and numeric reality are signs that our Energy Department may very well lose its unique and leading role at home and abroad in driving innovation.

There is something for everyone to be concerned about in this proposed budget, and even the fossil fuel industry stands to lose from cuts to ARPA-E and EERE, which also work on methane leak detection and advanced combustion engines. These offices, programs, and labs have proven results, and to end or scale them back would be a disservice to U.S. industrial competitiveness and the American people.

Common ground and hope for progress

The good news is that clean energy continues to receive bipartisan support, and the proposed DOE cuts are widely opposed, including by at least six Republican senators. There is also broad consumer backing even among Trump voters for Energy Star, a joint EPA-DOE program helping consumers identify and select energy-saving products. Yet it too has been targeted by the administration. Fortunately, the private sector continues to step up, with diverse businesses and investors making serious cleantech commitments around the globe.

As I begin my work at EDF during these challenging times, I find hope in the common goal of human prosperity shared by the public and private sectors, in the opportunities created by collaborative approaches, and in the vast infrastructure and resilient spirit that are the true foundations of American entrepreneurship and innovation. Our country has a history of unexpected, rapid, and game-changing breakthroughs in science, technology, health, and sustainability that have improved the lives of millions of people. These can continue and accelerate into the future if, and only if, we do not back down now.

Follow Bryce Golden-Chen on Twitter

Photo source: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr