Michael Meehan, the new chief executive of the Global Reporting Initiative, speaks to Tom Revell about the future of corporate sustainability reporting and the challenges of uniting the market.
In July the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the world leader in the reporting of corporate sustainability, welcomed Michael Meehan as its new chief executive, ushering in a new era during a pivotal time for the market.
GRI, an international not-for-profit, offers a comprehensive, pioneering and free-to-use Sustainability Reporting Framework. These guidelines set out principles and processes that organisations – from businesses to NGOs – can use to report their economic, environmental, and social performance and impacts.
The framework holds an organisation’s hand through the planning, writing and communicating of a report, helping them tell the relevant stakeholders about the good – or not so good – work they are doing around sustainability.
More than 5,000 organisations, from all corners of the world, now use these guidelines to measure the impacts of their operations. More than 19,000 people are trained in GRI reporting. GRI’s framework was not only the first of its kind; it is now the mostly widely used.
“It is amazing how large GRI has become,” Meehan says.
Leading such an organization is a big task, but Meehan is a true sustainability veteran. He has spent many years working in the space, having built and managed several successful companies in a variety of sectors, while also advising companies, investors and government bodies.
He speaks often about the size of the challenge his new role presents, but does not seem phased by it. Despite having seen it all, Meehan comes across as genuinely excited by what is around the corner.
“It is an excellent time. Corporates are beginning to pick up a lot of interest in sustainability,” he says.
“The sector is at that point where there’s better clarity, more information, and better access to that information, than ever before.”
Since GRI’s founding, the concept of sustainability 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 – most them with the help of GRI.
Meehan suggests the uptake of reporting is partly due to the simple availability of frameworks and tools like GRI’s, but also due to investor pressure and the intensifying spotlight cast on corporate behaviour.
“Over the years, it has not been that most corporations don’t want to provide the data. It has not been that they don’t want to communicate what they’re doing around sustainability and human rights – of course they do.”
“The difficulty has been finding enough shareholder or investor demand for them to say it is worth investing in. And that’s the change that you see.”
Though commentators have predicted new eras of sustainability before, Meehan is convinced this is no false dawn.
“We’ve seen this happen a few times in the sustainability space, but this time it seems like its really going to stick.
In Apple’s 2014 annual stockholders meeting, a representative of a climate change sceptic group confronted chief executive Tim Cook. He demanded that the Apple boss say whether the tech giant’s sustainability initiatives increased or decreased the company’s bottom line.
Speaking in front of a roomful of investors and journalists, Justin Danhof also urged Cook to prioritise the firm’s profits over its environmental impact. An angry Cook told Danhof that if he didn’t like it, he should “get out of this stock”.
Meehan says this is a conversation that could not have taken place even two or three years ago.
“The reason Tim Cook could say that is that he’s got the information at hand, and he knows that most of that information is available to the public,” he says.
“These issues are now accessible to people, whereas before it was more of a black box. I honestly think GRI has had a big hand in that.”
Danhof is of course not alone. Some industries have also proved to be more resistant to sustainability reporting than others, though Meehan does not pass judgement.
“It is not about which industries or which companies are doing well, and which ones are not,” he says.
“We’re not here to say ‘you’re a good reporter’ or ‘you’re a bad reporter’, because organisations do this for all kinds of different reasons. There are some that report this information because their shareholders want them to. There are others that resist doing it because their shareholders don’t want them to.
“Our job is all-inclusive. We want everybody to report more.”
The choice of words is key here. GRI does not want organisations to write more reports, but embrace the reporting process.
“Paper reports – that’s what we all think of when we think of sustainability reporting. But that’s not what sustainability reporting is.
“Reports were the only method of communication for a long time. That’s no longer the case. We exist to help organisations collaborate to get all this information together and communicate it better.”
GRI sees sustainability reporting not as a way of writing a hefty document, but as an important process in itself, a process that builds an organisation’s capacity to connect with stakeholders and respond to their inputs and concerns.
This process can also involve reaching out to stakeholders through social media, engagement activities, corporate events, newsletters and many other ways. All these 21st century forms of communication are covered, along with new forms that have perhaps not yet been thought of.
“The future of reporting will focus less on reports and more on data, information, dissemination and innovation based on that information,” Meehan adds.
Another priority of G4 – GRI’s latest set of guidelines – is improving the quality of information organisations disclose. Sustainability reporting is useless at best and greenwash at worst if the information offered is merely superficial.
“It’s not enough for organisations to just produce a sustainability report,” adds Tuulia Syvanen, chief of staff at GRI.
“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.”
But these are not necessarily tasks the initiative must take on alone. Though GRI dominates the reporting market, there are alternatives. Most fill niche roles, and Meehan sees almost all of them as collaborators, rather than competitors.
“All of these things are exceptionally good ideas and absolutely necessary. They are complimentary to what we do,” he says.
GRI’s biggest challenge in the immediate term, Meehan says, is communicating this to the marketplace, which, he admits, is “confused”. He talks about the importance of directing organisations to the right frameworks for the right situations, and presenting a consistent message to these clients.
As “a central convener,” GRI is uniquely positioned to unite and lead the market, while also pushing innovation and diversifying methods of reporting.
“That means that the role that GRI has as a keeper of the keys – this central role that GRI has played – is even more important now than it ever has been.”
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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