My articles for Yale Climate Connections have focused on steps various sectors might take to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. The first series dealt with personal or individual actions, the second with governmental actions. Each dealt with actions that can be taken independent of any regulatory requirement to do so.
This article focuses on private sector actions that can reduce emissions, again in the absence of a government mandate to do so. The focus here is specifically not on Fortune 500 companies having their own fully stocked internal and highly professional environmental policy staffs. Instead, the focus of this column is on those 25-, 50-, or perhaps even 100-employee businesses that are so critical to the national economy and to their communities, but often lacking the depth of internal staff expertise of the big players.
The rationale for this approach is simple: Every facet of modern society will have to make significant contributions to emission reduction – and soon – if the most serious and consequential effects of climate change are to be avoided. The science evidence to that effect is incontrovertible.
Along with those high-roller CEOs and boards of directors and “blue chip” business owners, small businesses must also come to accept that global warming and the resulting adverse impacts are among the most serious and disruptive problems facing humanity. They too must use their leadership and management skills to reduce their companies’ carbon footprints as much and as quickly and efficiently as possible. Leaders of publicly held companies need to convince major shareholders of the need to forgo short-term profits to ensure long-term sustainability, and small business operators must act on similar responsibilities if they too are to remain sustainable in a quickly changing environment. Some companies may need to slow or modify their own expansion efforts, and others should seriously consider taking their business in entirely different – yet productive and rewarding – directions, particularly those dealing with or relying on fossil fuels.
Business leaders would be wise to work closely with their employees to get their buy-in on efforts to reduce emissions. In fact, employees could be encouraged and rewarded for finding new ways to do their job effectively, while at the same time reducing their employers’ and their own environmental footprints.
Even with the focus here on smaller businesses, the U.S. private sector is enormous and complex, so my comments leave fine details to future posts here and at other outlets.
A few recommendations, organized by various key economic sectors:
The transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. EPA data indicate that light-duty vehicles collectively produce the most emissions (59%), followed by medium- and heavy-duty trucks (23%), aircraft (9%), ships (3%) and trains (2%). This article addresses commercial users and customers and not automakers.
With the emissions data in mind, companies could make a significant contribution by transitioning from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, so long as that electricity itself comes from non-fossil fuel sources whenever possible.
Through their purchasing preferences and selections, business can prompt vehicle manufacturers to market and advertise electric vehicles as if the health of the planet depends on it.
The collective emissions of commercial aircraft, ocean-going ships, and trains are relatively small compared to that of road vehicles (currently estimated at over a billion vehicles worldwide), but those emissions are still significant. Manufacturers should commit to finding ways to effectively power aircraft, ships, and trains without fossil fuels. Hydrogen, produced with renewable energy, seems one potential alternative replacement for fossil fuels used to power aircraft and ships, while better battery storage might be the best choice to help replace or supplement diesel fuel in trains.
Approximately 63% of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas. Small businesses, acting individually and collectively and with the strength of their purchasing power, can provide an impetus for electric utilities to move as quickly as possible to replace this capacity with electricity generated from renewable sources, in most cases, solar and wind.
Small businesses in the manufacturing sector need to help in making products and packaging more easily recycled. The energy used to produce the materials and assemble and ship these products should come from renewable sources whenever possible. Like their larger corporate counterparts, small businesses can lend a shoulder in getting their suppliers to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use cleaner energy resources.
Commercial buildings are responsible for direct and indirect emissions. To reduce direct emissions, building owners can replace fossil fuel-burning heating and cooking systems with all-electric systems; recycle or compost waste, whenever possible; and upgrade and maintain HVAC systems to minimize refrigerant leaks.
To reduce indirect emissions, commercial property owners can purchase electricity generated from renewable energy sources, or, if possible, produce their own electricity with photovoltaic (PV) systems. As just one example, a local dental group in Virginia recently installed a ground-mounted PV array behind its building, generating enough electricity on a yearly basis to cover its needs.
Much more fossil fuel is used to produce a pound of animal protein than a pound of plant protein (ranging from twice as much for chickens to 20 times as much for grain-fed cattle). Also, in addition to the fossil fuels inherent in the production of beef and dairy products, cattle and other domesticated ruminant animals, such as goats and sheep, produce large amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as part of their normal digestive process.
Animal-based agricultural operations could make significant contributions to reducing emissions by transitioning from the production of meat to the increased production of plant-based protein food products. Doing so would result in a reduction in the acres of corn and soybeans grown for animal feed. Many of these acres could be returned to native grasslands or, if in the eastern U.S., to sustainably managed forests.
Also, in the eastern U.S. are thousands of acres of land that are unsuitable for row crops because of poor soils or susceptibility to erosion, and much of this land is currently used for pastures. Trees could be planted on much of this land, greatly increasing its ability to sequester carbon. Trees sequester about 1.5 pounds of CO2 for every one pound of new wood they produce. Governments would need to provide compensation to landowners for the eco-services these changes in land use provide.
The healthy climate road ahead
None of these actions on their own will be sufficient to address the challenges now in the pipeline as a result of an historic and continuing buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Nor can we pretend that small businesses on their own have it within their scope to carry the full burden of responsible stewardship.
That’s not the point. The reality is that the climate challenges justify – make that require – an “all hands on deck” societal response. Small businesses, along with virtually all other sectors of modern society, will need to accept the reality that nothing on its own – and certainly no single set of major transitions – will work to preserve a sustainable climate future. But millions, perhaps billions, of different actions just might. All in.