In 2009, when MIT’s Sloan Management Review first surveyed businesses about sustainability efforts, it found most “doing only what is necessary to meet regulatory requirements.” Five years later the survey told a different story: Nearly two-thirds of companies said sustainability was at the top of their agendas, which fewer than half had said earlier. What changed? The CEOs’ sense of green initiatives’ worth, say Patricia and Jack Phillips, authors of The Green Scorecard. “Today, most (if not all) businesses recognize that climate change is a problem,” they write. “Smart companies use their environmental strategy to … build competitive advantage.”
To move toward cleaner energy without sending power plants into premature retirement, companies are making over plants, switching fuels, and boosting efficiency. Some utilities are “repowering” coal plants like this one in Newburgh, New York (above), to run on cleaner natural gas or biomass; nearly 50 units are slated for retrofits in the U.S. alone. “Repowering” is an industry term, but the concept also applies to trucks, buildings, and land. For businesses loath to see valuable assets become obsolete, it’s a no-brainer. California garbage hauler Ratto Group is replacing the guts of 17 diesel trucks with electric systems that will meet state air regulations. “This gives me the ability to keep the vehicles that I currently have,” says COO Lou Ratto, “and keep these things going for as long as I want to.”
Many answers on climate change might lie in a cloud—the virtual one. As part of President Barack Obama’s Climate Data Initiative, tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are lending their computational muscle to crunch data on the environment and help communities plan for an altering landscape. The results—from drought maps to sea-level charts—can help farmers manage crops or officials steer construction projects away from flood zones.
“We are guests on this planet, so conservation is important to help ensure our resources are sustained for generations to come.”
A warming world isn’t likely to change money—but it could affect how people invest it. Banks are now offering “green bonds,” which let investors link their money to environmental causes. Green bonds are similar to regular bonds, but they fund projects that mitigate climate change or help people adapt to it. “We’re telling the investor exactly how the money will be used,” says World Bank sustainability adviser Laura Tlaiye.
Clean-energy proposals qualify, as do innovations in waste management and agricultural efficiency. In Rio de Janeiro $600 million went to improve a traffic-alleviating suburban rail network. Belarus borrowed $90 million to replace natural gas heating with biomass. U.S. banks have created their own green bonds; earlier this year one leading bank raised half a billion dollars to finance cities’ plans for new solar capacity, wind turbines, and energy-efficient street lamps.