The climate fight: A view from the trenches

Published on (Dec 14, 2019)

By Kumar Venkat

I was one of many consultants and analysts trying to help companies cut their carbon emissions a decade ago. In the end, we did not manage to put a dent in the annual greenhouse gas inventories of nations. The record high global emissions this year and the rising US emissions are not surprises. We could have predicted this emissions trajectory years ago.

We would have had to put in place carbon regulations about a decade ago in order to start bending the emissions curve right about now. In the 2000s, many companies were actively looking at their operations and supply chains to find opportunities to reduce emissions. This was in part driven by pressure from consumers and activists, but corporations also anticipated that regulations were just around the corner. When I first started my consulting business, I couldn’t keep up with the demand for carbon footprinting services.

But all that changed as 2010 closed out. I can almost point to the midterm elections that year as the defining moment for American companies. Once Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, businesses realized that there would be no cap-and-trade or any other kind of carbon regulation coming soon. Companies still talked about sustainability in their annual reports, but the funding for voluntary carbon reductions dried up.

I eventually went back to work in the tech industry (where I had come from originally), hoping that the politics would change before it was too late and others with more staying power than me would walk us through the remaining critical steps. When the Paris climate agreement was negotiated in 2015, I was ecstatic. Finally, there was a faint light at the end of the tunnel. I thought of Paris as a statement of intent, a stake in the ground that we had never had before.

Then 2017 came along and the new president announced his plan to withdraw from the one and only global climate agreement. US emissions, after dropping in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, increased last year at the highest rate since 2010 as the economy picked up steam — showing clearly that our economy runs on fossil fuels and we can’t hope to cut emissions without addressing this basic fact.

In the coming decade, we can expect to see additional fallout from the Trump administration’s reversals of emission limits on power plants and gas-mileage standards on light vehicles — two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. The next decade is also the last one we have to reverse course and begin reducing global emissions every year in order to have a shot at meeting the 1.5 degree Celsius Paris target.

Perhaps this is exactly the kind of dire emergency that we needed all along to focus our minds. But the fact remains that we have no history of ever solving a crisis of this magnitude.

Nothing even comes remotely close. Not the plague in the 14th century. Not the world wars, concentration camps or terrorist attacks. Not any of the floods, hurricanes or fires. We have no useful human experience that we can draw upon, no track record that we can point to. We have yet to mobilize worldwide action after a quarter century of trying.

There are small indications that the tide may be turning. Over 2200 businesses have broken ranks with the US government to support the Paris accord. Polls show signs of increasing urgency around climate change. Youth leaders are calling for true climate action with a passion that is inspiring the rest of us. Not a week goes by without a major climate story in the news, and it is no longer an academic subject. I’ve had more casual conversations about climate change in the last few months than in the previous 20 years.

As I prepare to return to the climate battlefield, I am not confident that we’ll win this one. But I would like to believe that, this time around, an entire army of us will fight like we’ve never fought before.

Ending recycling as we know it

Published on (Dec 14, 2019)

By Kumar Venkat

If we assume that just half the US households recycle regularly and spend 10 minutes a week rinsing and setting aside the recyclables, we are looking at over half a billion person-hours of time invested annually. Add to this governmental involvement and subsidies, and recycling may just be the one big thing we do for the environment as a country.

But do we really know what happens once the bins are emptied into the recycling trucks?

One way to look at the environmental benefits of recycling is through the greenhouse gas emissions saved. Recycling in the US saves a modest 2.7 percent of total national emissions, based on 2014 data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Three-quarters of those savings come from just paper and paperboard.

Just adding steel, aluminum and other metals to the mix would extract 89 percent of the emissions savings from less than 60 percent of the recyclables by weight.

Plastics, which are ubiquitous in our society but notoriously difficult to recycle, account for fewer than two percent of the emissions savings from recycling. Other materials such as glass and organic waste offer even less of an environmental return relative to their weight when recycled or composted.

The economics are not friendly to recycling, so closing the materials loop is difficult at best. The supply of virgin materials typically far exceeds the supply of recycled materials and global demand is usually large enough to consume all available production. Prices are then determined by virgin materials and there is generally no cost advantage to using recycled materials in new production since environmental benefits are not reflected in prices.

Plus, the scale economies in virgin production cannot be easily replicated in the more spatially diverse and labor-intensive recycling processes. The market has adjusted to this by exporting a significant part of the paper and plastic waste to countries with lower labor costs, but that may be changing as China begins to tighten the import of waste.

So what we are left with is a rather unsatisfactory system that survives probably because the idea of recycling our waste into new products is a comforting one in a throw-away society.

If we could design a more effective system, we would want to get the price signals right. A meaningful price on carbon could make recycled materials more competitive due to the emissions savings and could trigger a virtuous business cycle that increases the volume of recyclables collected and profitably processed.

In the absence of carbon pricing or a tax on virgin materials, it would make more sense to simply maximize the benefits of recycling while reducing cost and effort by limiting it to as few materials as possible. The materials that deliver most of the environmental benefits are paper and metals. These are also the easiest to sort and process into new products.

Since paper waste is largely generated in urban areas, we could locate highly automated recycling plants close to where the waste is generated. Instead of exporting the waste, we could be processing the recyclables in the US at a competitive cost.

Not recycling plastic might seem like a radical step, but recycling has never been the answer to the large amounts of plastics we use and discard each year. Taking recycling out of the equation would have the added benefit of making our plastic pollution more explicit to both consumers and producers.

While technologies like biodegradable plastics may be viable in the future, reducing and reusing plastics remain the best options today. When plastic inevitably turns into waste, we should send 100 percent of it to landfill and stop subsidizing it under the guise of curbside recycling.

It is time to take in the lessons of our long-running recycling experiment, and design a more efficient and targeted system. We also need to confront the enormous amounts of waste that we generate and acknowledge that recycling as we know it today is not the antidote to all the raw materials and energy expended on single-use products in our society.