As the confetti is swept away and the world gets back to work, will 2014 be a banner year or will we be singing that "old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind" a year from now? Here are a few reasons to think the world will be greener a year from now, both environmentally and economically.
Just before the holidays, I met Mayor Paulo Altomani and his director of sustainable science and technology development, Professor José Galizia Tundisi, of the Brazilian city of Sao Carlos. The fact that a city with about a quarter million people has a senior official with that sustainability moniker says a lot about the goals and policies of the mayor. More impressive, Mayor Altomani has begun showing how installing efficient LED streetlighting, recycling organic wastes for power generation and composting, and recycling things like waste tires can create local business opportunities.
Nor are these just small-scale opportunities. Volkswagen’s engine factory in Sao Carlos is one of the greenest and most cost-efficient in the world. Among many sustainability strategies VW uses to save money and meet environmental goals are using a new process in manufacturing new engines that cuts emissions over 70%; an innovative industrial wastewater process that cuts costs 40%; and the reforestation of 18 hectares of nearby habitat that enhances the value of the facility and makes the city quite literally more green.
Farther north in the Brazilian city of Natal, I met Nevaldo Rocha, the founder of Guararapes Group, and his son Flavio Rocha. This innovative fashion company has vertically integrated its business "from the yarn to the tenth payment" as Flavio told me, buying only yarn and machines to produce some 7 million articles of clothing a month that are sold in their 200 retail stores, which also provide consumer financing. This total control not only allows them to keep costs down and democratize quality fashion to all Brazilians, it has made them innovators of sustainability. I saw how they use every square inch of fabric, re-use process waters, and harvest recyclables from what other companies would take to a landfill. Everything is monitored and measured to ensure maximum value and minimum waste.
Half way around the world in Algeria, the wali (governor) of Oran, Abdelmalek Boudiaf, is planning a zero waste province, where all organic waste, construction debris, and municipal solid waste will be sorted and processed back into new products and commodities. His motives are centered around sustainability, but more important for the region, around creating jobs. To prepare his population for these new opportunities, he is sending a dozen professors from local technical colleges overseas to learn about the most cost-efficient conversion technologies. Already his $70 million state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility uses Austrian equipment, Chinese construction, and a Spanish management team, transitioning these sustainable jobs to Algerians and spreading the technology to other provinces.
And in China, officials are reacting to recent air pollution horror stories with an old joke that says "I shook your hand but I couldn’t see your face." They’re also responding by looking at solutions from companies like Viscon in California, which has perfected a fuel additive that reduces emissions and improves fuel economy by as much as 13%, especially in older diesel trucks and buses. While many additives have been no better than snake oil, Viscon spent a decade getting authentication from the California Air Resources Board and from years of use in Texas, so Chinese officials are hoping it can be one of many solutions needed to tame smog and the related health impacts in their country.
That may be the way to have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2014: look for sustainability solutions in one place that can be transferred to another. Some say freer trade and technology sharing have made the economic world flat, but those same forces can also make the world a lot greener.