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Bionic Planet: Your Guide to the New Reality

Earth. We broke it; we own it; and nothing is as it was: not the trees, not the seas – not the forests, farms, or fields – and not the global economy that depends on all of these. Bionic Planet is your guide to the Anthropocene, the new epoch defined by man's impact on Earth, and in each episode, we examine a different aspect of this new reality: sometimes financial, sometimes moral, but always practical.
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Aug 17, 2017

If you know anything about IKEA Group, the giant Scandinavian furniture company, you know that most of their products are made of wood, and you may even know that they're one of the "good" companies that tries to buy only products that are sustainably harvested.

They've pledged that, by 2020, 100 percent of their wood, pulp, and paper will either be recycled or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainably produced. So far, they're on track to achieve that, according to the Forest Trends Supply Change initiative -- which tracks the progress companies report towards achieving environmental commitments. The Supply Change entry for IKEA shows the company was 61 percent of the way towards achieving its 2020 goal as of March of this year.

Two months earlier, my colleague Kelley Hamrick at Ecosystem Marketplace published a report called "State of Private Investment in Conservation 2016", which I was flipping through this morning while researching today's show. In so doing, learned that IKEA has also started investing in forests all across Europe -- explicitly to make sure those forests are managed in ways that serve a larger public good, and in so doing help the company meet its sustainability commitments.

As of January, when the report came out, IKEA had purchased about 100,000 hectares of forest in Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics, and it had earmarked more than 1 billion more dollars for investing in sustainable forestry.

Make no mistake: they're doing this to make money, but do do so in a sustainable way, and that means this qualifies as "impact investing", which is any investment that's designed to generate both a profit and a larger public good.

The Global Impact Investing Network has identified more than $30 billion of impact investments in the last three years, and Kelley's report, which I alluded to above, identified about $8 billion earmarked for impact investments specifically involving forests, farms, and fields -- all of which need to be better managed if our civilization is to survive the climate challenge.

Now, $8 billion is nothing to sneeze at, but it really is just a sneeze in a hurricane compared to the $55 trillion global economy. What's more, on top of that $8 billion, another $5 billion was allocated, but went uninvested.

Today we speak with Noelle-Claire LeCann and Richard Fronapfel, who run impact investment group AlphaSource Advisors and see big opportunities for people who want to make money by helping the world better manage its forests, farms, and fields in the Anthropocene

Aug 10, 2017

Have you ever heard of a company called Marfrig Global Foods? How about JBS?

Hint: JBS is named after "Jose Batista Sobrinho", a Brazilian rancher who's something like the Oscar Meyer of Brazil, only much bigger.Yes, JBS and Marfrig are two of the world’s largest meatpackers, and you’ll find their products in Walmart and McDonald’s in the United States, Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom, Albert Hein in the Netherlands… but usually with someone else's name on it.

Both companies grew at the expense of the Amazon Biome, which which farmers have been chopping to grow soy and graze cattle. That started in the 1950s, and it accelerated for decades -- until about ten years ago, when consumer-facing companies like the ones I just mentioned started getting pressure from their customers, thanks to environmental groups like Greenpeace and others - and that led to something called the “Cattle Agreements”, which  are  a set of voluntary commitments to stop buying from any farms that either chop forest to graze cattle, use slave labor, or graze on indigenous or protected lands.

The Cattle Agreements came three years after grain companies like Cargill and Louis Dreyfuss agreed to a similar moratorium on soy products from the Amazon. More recently, something like that started happening in Indonesia as well. There companies like Wilmar and Asia Pulp & Paper started changing the way they buy their pulp, paper, and palm - often in cooperation with competitors.

All of these initiatives have two things in common: they involve the big four commodities that drive most of the world's deforestation – namely, cattle and soy in Brazil and palm and pulp & paper in Indonesia – and they’re largely led by the private sector, usually in response to NGO pressure, and only rarely in coordination with government agencies. Indeed, about 500 companies have pledged to reduce their impact on forests, according to the Forest Trends Supply Change initiative, which tracks corporate deforestation commitments relevant to the big four commodities.

But what about the governments? After all, both Indonesia and Brazil have created detailed climate action plans, and both of those efforts involve saving forests. That matters, because deforestation generates between 15 and 20 percent of the greenhouse gasses that man is responsible for emitting, and these two countries account for about 40 percent of the world's deforestation, according to a new report called “Collaboration Toward Zero Deforestation: Aligning Corporate and National Commitments in Brazil and Indonesia”, which looks at the ways government and the private sector are – and are not – cooperating to reduce greenhouse gasses from deforestation.

Created jointly by Forest Trends and the Environmental Defense Fund, the report identifies more than a dozen initiatives, some led by NGOs or the private sector, others led by governmental agencies, and most existing in their own silos instead of working together in unison. Today’s guests: the authors of that report: Brian Schaap of Forest Trends and Breanna Lujan of Environmental Defense Fund.

Jul 19, 2017

Our show today starts with two French communes -- namely, Contrexéville and Vittel -- because these two have some of the cleanest, purest water in all of Europe, but they also almost didn't.

Up until 1992, the farms here -- like those across Europe and around the world -- had been dribbling pesticide and cow poop into the water, while home-owners and businessmen had been doing the same for crude oil and other pollutants.

But then the communes undertook a massive environmental overhaul.

Farmers started getting rid of their cows and weaning themselves off of pesticides by rotating their crops in ways that didn't give bugs a chance. Home-owners and businesses started digging up their oil tanks and replacing them with natural gas installations. Today, more than 90 percent of the land in both communes is under some sort of environmental protection.

But this overhaul wasn't led by environmental regulators. It was led by a private company with a very clear incentive.

The company was Swiss food giant -- and perpetual water bad boy -- Nestlé, and its incentive was the fact that its lucrative Vittel, Contrex and épar mineral waters were only lucrative because they're certified as "natural". To keep that certification, they had to clean up the rivers that feed the aquifer that in turn feeds the springs that the waters gurgle up from.

The stakes were high enough – and the incentive strong enough – that Nestlé created a separate consultancy called Agrivair and spent more than €24.5 million throughout the 1990s “to design a system to either compensate farmers for their change in practice, or acquire the land and lease it for free under conditions targeting groundwater protection,” according to a new report called “State of European Markets 2017: Watershed Investments”.

The report is one of three market outlooks that the Forest Trends initiative Ecosystem Marketplace created to support a cluster of new online university courses launched by green businesses accelerator ECOSTAR to help organic farmers, watershed managers and other “green entrepreneurs” better understand the business elements of their respective missions. The ecosystem services e-learning course will run from October to December, and the application deadline is September, 30th. You can learn more at ecostarhub.com/e-learning-course.

The Agrivair project still pays farmers an average of €200 per hectare to keep things green, and it’s one of more than a dozen “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) programs highlighted in the three reports. Lead author Genevieve Bennett, a Senior Associate at Ecosystem Marketplace, says the project illustrates the ability of companies to provide resources when properly incentivized. She adds, however, that private and public interests rarely line up so neatly, and that such projects work best within a well-structured regulatory environment.

“You don’t really want a private company taking a lead on decisions about water resources management in your basin,” she says in an extensive, 45-minute interview that will run on episode 19 of the Bionic Planet podcast, which is set to be posted on Monday, 17 July. “That’s a public issue…but where there is a seat for the private sector at the table is contributing resources: if you’re a beverage company and you’re concerned about clean water and you want to kick in some funding to help pay for that…that’s a positive thing.”

Jul 13, 2017

Today we speak with Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of the Global Canopy Programme (GCP).
A zoologist by training, Andrew realized that to save the forest, he had to leave the forest and enter the economic system that was impacting it. So he founded and runs GCP in Oxford and recently became a Senior Adviser to Ecosphere Plus, which is an impact investment group that funnels money into sustainable land-use. I caught up to him in May at the Innovate4Climate conference in Barcelona.
I first met Andrew at the 2007 climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, when I was just starting to learn about the impact that forestry and farming had on climate change and how our consumption patterns fit into that. I'd done some research on my own and then plunged into the deep end -- jumping from technical panel to technical panel, and sleeping just four hours per night for two weeks.Andrew stood out from most of the other science guys because of his ability to communicate complex issues in simple ways -- which is a rare skill. More importantly, his ideas have stood the test of time, while a lot of the simple communicators are oversimplifying or speaking from a position of ideology instead of science.As I mentioned, we spoke at the Innovate4Climate conference in Barcelona.

Jun 19, 2017

When UK retailer Marks & Spencer launched its ambitious sustainability strategy in early 2007, it dubbed the strategy “Plan A” to remind us that we have just one planet, so there is no Plan B.

Plan A amounted to nothing less than a complete restructuring of the company’s supply chain – from the thousands of small farmers who produce its raw materials to the millions of people who buy its products – and it launched with an ambitious list of 100 commitments covering everything from the way it treats its partners to the health and well-being of its employees.

Despite the name, Plan A was designed to change over time, with an initial five-year phase ending in 2012 and leading to a more ambitious second phase, and then another after that. By late 2009, however, it was clear that the project had succeeded in galvanizing the workforce and winning over suppliers, but it wasn’t resonating with customers.

“Internally, Plan A has been a powerful change brand, helping 75,000 M&S employees and 2000 suppliers to see the links between activities as disparate as taking trans fats out of food, reducing energy use and promoting Fairtrade,” wrote Mike Barry, the company’s director of sustainability, in a 2009 piece for the UK marketing magazine “Campaign”.

“Consumers buy more deeply into sustainability when they are engaged in change, and not just told about it,” he continued, explaining the company’s 2009 decision to add a consumer-facing tagline: “Doing the right thing”, coupled with an education campaign.

Overhaul for the Long Haul

The 2008 banking crisis hit the retail sector hard, but by late 2009 Plan A had achieved 45 of its 100 commitments; and in 2010, auditors attributed £50 million of extra profit to Plan A – mostly because of energy efficiency and streamlined procurement costs. But Rose decided to leave the company that year, and one of his final acts was to initiate an early end to the phase one so that the sustainability team could harness the lessons learned for a new five-year phase through 2015, with regular five-year intervals after that.

“It might take 20 or 25 years to build a truly sustainable Marks & Spencer, and you can’t have a 25-year plan in retail,” says Barry. “Things change by the day, the week, the month.  So what we had to have is a recognition that every few years – and five’s a nice cycle – we’d update the plan, and think about where to go next with it.”

Rose’s successor, Marc Bolland, recommitted to Plan A, which added 80 more commitments for the 2010-2015 period. By 2012, Plan A was delivering a net benefit of £105 million, according to that year’s annual report.

“The substantive part of this benefit comes from improved resource efficiency, although we are now deriving extra benefits from initiatives that drive our existing business and from new revenue streams,” it said.

To engage customers, they decided to crystallize their strategy into distinct Plan A Attributes, “and we decided that every M&S product has to have a Plan A story to tell by 2020,” says Barry.

What is a Plan A Attribute?

“In most cases, a Plan A attribute will be a well-recognized external environmental and social standard such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified wood or Fairtrade certified cotton,” the 2011 annual report said. “Where external standards don’t exist we work with others to develop our own approach which is credible and robust.”

The annual reports hint at rigorous internal debates over what is and is not a Plan A Attribute, and each attribute is clearly defined and documented. Even before settling on a list of Attributes, however, the company agreed make sure that half of all products sold had one by 2015. By 2012, they had identified 55 attributes – 40 for M&S food and household products and 15 for M&S clothing and home products. By 2013, that number had risen to 70, and by 2014 – one year ahead of schedule – 56 percent of all products sold had at least one attribute.

Peruse their shelves today, and you’ll find familiar standards like Fairtrade as well as in-house standards like Forever Fish, but Barry says the company has a long way to go.

“Metaphorically, we are but 25% sustainable,” he says. “At least 75% of the journey lies ahead.”

And that journey, he says, can’t progress in a meaningful way unless we fix the entire ecosystem within which M&S operates. After all, the company’s $23 billion in revenue amounts to a rounding error in the $100 trillion global economy.

“Tiny little M&S is not going to make the world’s palm oil production sustainable on its own,” says Barry. “It needs to work with Unilever, with Coke, with Pepsi, with Walmart and all the others to make sure we can move the industry together.”

All of those companies have joined multilateral sustainability groups like the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), where M&S plays a leadership role.

A “System Change”

“We have to be part of a system change, and that system change is, in part, because all of the retailers that we work with at the Consumer Goods Forum and Sustainable Brands line up and specify the same high standard of expectation of their supply chains,” Barry says

Such cooperation does seem to be generating results, according to a report called “Tracking Corporate Commitments to Deforestation-Free Supply Chains, 2017”, which the Forest Trends Supply-Change published in March.

The initiative looked at 35 collective efforts and found that at least 95% of the companies participating in such groups had pledged to reduce their impact on forests.

Meanwhile, Plan A continues to evolve. Earlier this month, current CEO Steve Rowe unveiled the plan through 2025, and it includes a plan to support 1,000 communities and benefit 10 million people – making M&S one of more than 100 companies to explicitly

 

Jun 16, 2017

It's been almost a year since a Swiss engineer/businessman named André Borschberg and a Swiss psychiatrist/balloonist named Bertrand Piccard completed the first-ever around the world flight in a solar-powered airplane -- the Solar Impulse 2, a machine that could, theoretically, fly forever without every pausing to refuel.

But this wasn't just an adventure. It was a mission to show that we can meet the climate challenge, and it's a mission that Bertrand Piccard is still continuing. 

I ran into him in late May at the Innovate4Climate Summit in Barcelona, where he launched something called the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, which aims to identify and fund 1000 profitable climate-change solutions by the end of 2018.

I'll be adding a complete article from Ecosystem Marketplace to the show notes for Episode 16 at Bionic-Planet.com, so be sure to check back next week. Also, if you want to visit the Alliance's site directly, go to alliance.solarimpulse.com.

Jun 8, 2017

More than 1.5 billion cows are spread across the planet, each with four stomachs.  That's six billion stomachs emitting methane -- a powerful greenhouse gas that captures about eighty times more heat -- or contributes about eighty times as much to climate change -- as carbon dioxide does, at least in the short term.


Now a new product called Mootral -- like "Neutral" but with a Mooo instead of a Nooo -- aims to slash those emissions by killing off the bad bacteria in the stomachs of cows and other "ruminants" -- which is what we call four-stomached beasts like cows, goats, and sheep.By killing off the bad bacteria, Mootral makes the animals healthier and slashes the methane in their burps by about 30 percent. Can this new tool help to slow climate change? 

Here is the Mootral web site: www.mootral.com

Topics: climate change, mootral, cows, methane, carbon offsetting

May 30, 2017

With the United Kingdom on the brink of leaving the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS), the United States locked in the inertia of a Donald Trump presidency, and populism stoking fears of slackening commitment to meeting the climate challenge, support for carbon markets is coming from two once-unlikely sources: namely, risk-adverse corporate boards and China, according to the International Emission Trading Association’s (IETA) annual Greenhouse-Gas Market Sentiment survey, which was released last week at the Innovate4Climate conference in Barcelona one day after Ecosystem Marketplace’s latest survey of voluntary carbon market practitioners, Unlocking Potential: State of Voluntary Carbon Markets 2017.

The Ecosystem Marketplace report identified transactions for roughly 63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) last year, including the 1 billionth metric ton transacted since the first State of Voluntary Carbon Markets Report in 2006. That represents a 24 percent drop from 2015, in part because two large participants failed to respond to the survey.

The total value was $191.3 million, and the report comes as governments around the world begin scaling up mandatory cap-and-trade programs to accelerate emission-reductions under the Paris Climate Agreement. In the past, governments have used voluntary carbon programs to incubate mandatory trading systems like the one currently underway in California. There are currently no plans for such incubation efforts, but the Dutch government recently became the latest government to formally endorse voluntary markets as a way to test new strategies and promote emission-reductions at home. At the same time, some voluntary offset types could be recognized under the aviation industry’s global cap-and-trade program, which kicks in after 2020.

The Need for a PR Offensive

The IETA report, which is built on a survey of 135 IETA members from across the globe and conducted by PwC, led to calls for a major “PR offensive” to counter populist rhetoric and anti-science propaganda, which reporter Jane Meyer ties to Koch Brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, and the DeVos and Coors families in her book “Dark Money“.

“The high of seeing the Paris Agreement enter into force last year was tempered by an increase in populist political movements that have pushed climate change down the agenda,” says IETA President and CEO Dirk Forrister. “While the changing political headwinds are cause for concern, we are encouraged by those that are stepping up to lead on climate action. Nationalism and isolationism won’t solve this global problem.”

Still, 77% of respondents said that climate change is a board-level priority, and 90% said board-level engagement has either increased or stayed the same in the past year.

On the voluntary carbon front, the majority of offsets sold came from programs that save endangered forests using mechanisms collectively known as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus other land-use initiatives) and wind projects. Landfill methane projects followed as another top project type.

A disturbing 54.4 MtCO2e of offsets went unsold.

In addition to the above podcast, Hamrick will appear in two webinars we’re hosting on June 6th and 7th. For more resources and to download the free report, visit this page.

May 11, 2017

One hundred and forty-four countries have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, and 143 of them say they'll stay-in-it – even if Donald Trump pulls the United States out. But staying in and delivering what you stayed in to do are two different things. One way to track progress is to track laws, and a newly-updated database tracks over 1200 of them.

11 May 2017 | The United States may be backsliding on climate under President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, but the country still has 8 federal laws related to climate change and 6 climate policies; and hundreds of lawsuits are going on, including 54 under the Clean Air Act alone.

Those numbers come from two databases: “Climate Change Laws of the World”, housed at the London School of Economics, and “US Climate Change Litigation”, housed at Colombia University.

Together, they track more than 1,200 climate change or climate change-relevant laws worldwide – up from a mere 60 in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol came into force. The LSE has spent the last few months combing through the data, and published their findings on May 9.

Laws as Proxy for Progress

Countries won't officially take stock of their progress under the Paris Agreement until 2023, when they sit down and see who did what and how everyone can do more, but at this point we don't even know exactly what activities countries will be taking stock of. 

That “stocktaking” is one of the things negotiators are negotiating this week and next in Bonn, Germany, but for now we just have proxies – like renewable-energy growth, rates of deforestation, and of course legal frameworks.

May 8, 2017

Climate negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany, the next two weeks to move the Paris Climate Agreement forward – even as Republicans in the United States seem intent on moving it backward. Most countries say they want the US to stay in the agreement, but there’s reason to believe it will be better off without us.

8 May 2017 | The dark-haired man looked haggard and world-weary as he leaned towards the microphone.

“We ask for your leadership,” he told US Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, with cameras running and the world watching.

“We seek your leadership,” he continued. “But if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way!”

The year was 2007, and the young man was Kevin Conrad, who represents Papua New Guinea in UN climate talks. The place was Bali, Indonesia, where George W Bush’s US negotiating team had been gunking up talks with silly games and doublespeak. The words perfectly captured the exasperation in the room, and delegates roared in rare applause. Bush’s team backed down.

But ten years on, it’s déjà vu all over again, except this time the world isn’t haggling over how to fix the climate mess. Instead, negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany this week and next to begin implementing the bottom-up fix that the world has already agreed on – a fix the United States was instrumental in creating: namely, the Paris Climate Agreement, which is a flexible framework that gives every country the leeway to meet the climate challenge as it sees fit.

It does require the creation of science-based rules for measuring and monitoring emissions, and the world’s media should be focused on the substantive efforts to develop a detailed rulebook for handling international cooperation on emission-reductions. Instead, however, the Trump Show has stolen the spotlight, and media is preoccupied with the question of whether Trump will or will not pull out of the landmark accord.

Most reports focus on the tragedy of him leaving, but some insiders fear the opposite: namely, that he’ll stay in and sabotage progress.

Gus Silva-Chavez is one of those. A longtime NGO observer, Silva-Chavez now runs the Forest Trends REDDX initiative, which tracks carbon finance – finance that depends on accurate measurements of greenhouse-gas emissions and reductions, as well as rigorous tracking of international carbon transfers.

It’s complicated stuff, but 99 percent of the work has already been done. Silva-Chavez, however, fears the Trump team will either complicate it even more or try to “streamline” it, which would undermine the environmental integrity of the system.

“They could go in and say, ‘The UN is not going to tell the US what to do,’” he says in an interview to appear on today’s episode of the Bionic Planet podcast. “They could say, ‘We don’t need an extensive, detailed rulebook. All we need are the basics, and we’re not going to agree to anything more.’”

That, he says, could slow the talks without formally appearing to do so, just as Republican strategists undermined civil rights while formally protecting “freedom”. Also, he adds, while the US stands alone now, any opposition could provide cover for other countries to also bail or stall.

“Right now, on the record, every country is saying the right thing: that they’ll toe the line,” he says. “But that could change if the US breaks its word.”

If that sounds far-fetched, we need just look back to the bad old days of the second Bush administration, which handed negotiations over to a previously unknown and famously unqualified congressional staffer named Harlan Watson.

The Triumvirate of Obstruction

Watson was a human wrench tossed into the gears of global diplomacy by ExxonMobil for the sole purpose of grinding those gears to a halt. For that task, we was actually well-suited, and his name elicits such visceral feelings of disgust among those who were there that it probably warrants a trigger warning. The parallels to today are frightening: ExxonMobil inserted Watson into the Bush administration via a fax “which Exxon Mobil spokesman Russ Roberts said was sent by the company but not written by any of its employees,” as Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin put it – foreshadowing the daily doublespeak that Sean Spicer now spews at every White House presser.

Watson, along with Dobriansky and energy industry lawyer James Connoughton, formed an unholy Triumvirate of Obstruction that neutered the US on the world stage, and as an example, you can look to Bali: after months of stalling and flip-flopping, Watson said the US would only sign an agreement without targets or numbers because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one direction.”

After another collective groan from delegates, it was former US Vice-President Al Gore’s turn to speak.

“My own country, the United States, is mainly responsible for obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now….One year and 40 days from today, there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States.”

He argued that even a watered-down agreement was better than nothing, so delegates passed an agreement that met all of Watson’s criteria, but Dobriansky still rejected it, prompting Conrad’s famous, exasperated retort and Dobriansky’s about-face.

As we all know now, Barack Obama won the next election, and his team incrementally helped shepherd the talks that resulted in the Paris Agreement – an incredibly flexible approach to fixing the climate mess that encourages a race to the top instead of binding targets.

Optimists like former Dutch negotiator Jos Cozijnsen point out that, from a rational perspective, the United States has no reason to either leave or torpedo the agreement.

“It’s not rational… and this is not Kyoto,” says Cozijnsen, who now advises environmental NGOs, referencing the Kyoto Protocol. “You can’t block anything anymore, and there is no reason for the US to do so.”

The Trump team, however, isn’t rational, either; and while they can’t formally block, they can gunk things up. Or they can get out of the way.

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