Sustainability has undeniably risen up the corporate agenda in recent years, and with it has risen the reporting of organisations’ behaviour and impacts on the wider world. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the world leader in the reporting of corporate sustainability.
The international, network-based, not-profit offers a comprehensive, pioneering and free-to-use Sustainability Reporting Framework. The framework includes guidelines that set out principles and standards that organisations – from businesses to NGOs – can use to report their economic, environmental, and social performance and impacts.
“GRI’s guidelines lay out a step-by-step process which allows any organisation to begin the reporting process,” explains Tuulia Syvanen, chief of staff at GRI.
“There are five stages: preparing a plan to produce the sustainability report, connecting with stakeholders, defining what content to include in the report, monitoring the relevant data and finally compiling all of this info into a sustainability report.”
More than 5,000 organisations, from all corners of the world, now use these guidelines to measure the impacts of their operations. GRI’s framework was not only the first of its kind; it is now the mostly widely used.
Wherever sustainable and responsible investment markets grow, the GRI is never far away. Australia’s recent awakening, for example, has seen the number of organisations down under adopting GRI guidelines double in the past six years.
GRI’s rise began in the US in 1997, when it was founded in Boston, MA, by sustainability advocates Ceres and the Tellus Institute.
Originally existing as a department within Ceres, the GRI first published its guidelines in 2000. Two years later, at the Johannesburg Earth Summit, its second generation of guidelines was inked into the Plan of Implementation signed by all contributing nations.
Its permanence secured, that year the institute set down roots in Amsterdam, where its main offices remain. In 2006 it published its third set of guidelines, called G3. Created with the help of over 3,000 experts from various sectors, G3 set the GRI on course towards the lofty position it holds today.
It expanded into new areas, offering coaching and guidance for sustainability reporting novices, and various certifications. Its truly international team – representing 32 nationalities – is now made up of 68 employees. Behind them now stands a growing network of thousands of individuals from all sectors and backgrounds. As of 2013, GRI moved on to G4.
In this relatively short stretch of time, the business world’s understanding, perception of and approach towards sustainability has changed fundamentally.
The concept has ditched its outsider status and gone mainstream, now sitting in boardrooms around the world. Some 93% of the largest companies in the world now prepare sustainability reports.
In this time, the GRI has remained not only relevant but at the forefront. Of that 93%, 82% refer to GRI guidelines in producing their reports.
“Though we are pleased with how many organisations use our guidelines to produce their sustainability reports, we remain committed to bringing even more organisations onboard,” Syvanen says.
She adds that in particular, GRI wants to see many more small and medium-sized firms begin reporting.
Indeed, while the uptake of corporate sustainability is encouraging, it is not enough. The dire warnings of scientists, frequent environmental disasters and corporate scandals illustrate clearly that more needs to be done.
This is why the GRI’s ultimate ambition is to play a role in making sustainability reporting standard practice worldwide. Working towards this goal, GRI has recently announced that going forward it will have a strong focus on collaboration with other reporting standards organisations
Now that so many large companies are reporting, one of the GRI’s new missions is to improve the quality of the information that is disclosed.
“It’s not enough for organisations to just produce a sustainability report. In order for stakeholders to benefit from sustainability reporting it is essential that organisations produce robust reports that focus on the material impacts of the organisation’s operations,” Syvanen says.
“Enabling organisations to produce higher quality reports is the core principle behind our latest set of guidelines.”
The organisation has also recently welcomed a new chief executive in Michael Meehan, a veteran of several clean-tech businesses and sustainability reporting projects. He replaces Ernst Ligteringen, who departs after 12 years of stewardship, 12 years of keeping GRI at the top.
Corporate sustainability – its priorities, its requirements – will always be changing. It is a rapidly changing world, but GRI looks certain to keep pace.
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Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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