Conference Recaps: GLOBE Forum 2018
For many cinephiles, the Oscars represents the climax of the film season – its best and brightest gathered together to celebrate. For hockey fans, that would be the Stanley Cup playoffs. And for sustainable business leaders, the GLOBE Forum. Every two years, GLOBE brings together leaders from all over the world – from Helsinki, Finland to Adelaide, Australia – and from all sectors – start-up garages to government departments.
This year’s theme was “Disrupting Business as Usual”. But after attending the three-day long conference, I would argue a better name would be “Disrupted Business” – sustainable business is inching closer than ever towards becoming “business as usual”. Prototypes have been deployed, experiments have been completed and labs established. What’s important now is learning from these pioneering examples and scaling it up. This blog recaps several key themes and insights from the conference. Please note that the recap is not reflective of SauderS3i’s views – they are a summary of notes taken by the author.
Our Poly-Fuel Future
In order to scale technologies, we should be examining how projects can collaborate, instead of competing with each other. Let me give a concrete example. One session examined the future of our energy systems. When we hear “clean energy”, our minds immediately conjure up images of solar panels and wind turbines. Interestingly, this session barely discussed those technologies – instead, biofuels, nuclear and LNG were the focus. The panel drove home one message: there will be no single “winner” in the clean energy sector – our future energy sources will come from a portfolio of sources. This mix of energy depends on how different projects can work with each other. For example, nuclear energy - despite its public safety concerns - has the advantage of being able to operate under any weather conditions and integrates well with the electric grid – it can provide a consistent baseload supply of energy. Grids are used to having a consistent supply from several plants (and not thousands of solar panels!). By providing grid stability, thus preventing blackouts or brownouts as Australia has experienced, nuclear energy can provide an easier pathway for intermittent sources like solar and wind to be integrated into our energy supply. To be clear, this is not to say nuclear should be the sole source of energy. Rather, the panelists suggest that instead of arguing which energy source is better, we should be looking at how energy technologies can make each other better.
The role of finance was discussed throughout GLOBE. It is no secret that cleantech has been a risky sector for private investors. Yet, if sustainable business is to become the norm, they must also become profitable for its financiers. In a panel called “Scaling Cleantech through Innovative Financing”, the speakers argued that the supply of capital is not the problem – there is enough money looking to be invested. The problem is the pipeline of projects: the risk-return profile of the pipeline is not attractive enough for many capital providers. For example, Canadian infrastructure investors will not be interested in projects with a size below $300 million, why? Risk is low as projects are often subsidized. As a result, returns are low – meaning in order to make money, investors will rely on the size of the investment. For example, a 3% return on $100M is far greater than 3% on $1M. Many projects, however, are below $30M in size. Thus, there is a need for intermediaries and infrastructure banks that can aggregate enough of these small projects, package them, and achieve a size large enough for institutional investors. Achieving mainstream for sustainable business is not dependent only on technology advancements, but also on financial innovation.
High Technology Applications
Speaking of technological advancements, several trending topics made its way into the conference: blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things. These technologies are quickly gaining momentum in the sustainability sector.
Ocean Plastic: Consider this thought-experiment, if you’re on an island and there’s gold bars all over the beach, would you pick them up if the banks and stores on this island do not accept gold bars? Probably not. The Plastic Bank aims to clean up the plastic on beaches and oceans around the world by assigning value to plastic. They operate in Haiti, where people turn in plastic in return for services such as phone charging and goods like clean cooking oil. The plastic – branded as “social plastic” – is then sold to corporations for their consumer product packaging. The Plastic Bank uses the blockchain to verify the plastic used to make the products are actually recycled from The Plastic Bank operations.
Wastewater: Water systems use a process called “aeration” to blow bubbles filled with microorganisms into wastewater to consume (and remove) any waste material attached to the water. Currently, these aeration systems do not know how much they should be blowing into the water – extremely dirty water and fairly clean water are treated in the same manner. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to understand the quality of the wastewater, and tell the aeration system to tailor their outputs. As a result, this would reduce energy use of aeration systems.
Just a little over a year ago, I remember staring in disbelief as the words “climate change” were removed from the White House website. One year later, the feeling of surprise persists, but not out of a fear for the fate of the Earth, but out of encouragement that the 10,000 GLOBE delegates and their projects aren’t deterred from tackling the challenge of our lifetimes.