16 from 2016: the crucial sustainability stories of the year

With the year drawing gradually to a close, edie examines the major highlights that defined the global environmental and sustainability agenda in the past 12 months.

For good and for bad, 2016 will undoubtedly be a year that lasts long in the memory for green crusaders. The year draws to a close amid the backdrop of several major political upheavals, the ratification of a historic deal on climate change, and the ever-increasing rise of innovative technological climate solutions, all of which will have seismic impacts on the global transformation towards a low-carbon economy in future years.

Over the past 12 months, the world has witnessed a sea change of political activity barely conceivable at the start of the year. The UK’s decision to leave the EU in June sparked an immediate panic over the UK’s environment agenda. In the weeks that followed, the uncertainty escalated further with the arrival of a new Prime Minister, the replacement of DECC with a new business-orientated department and a ministerial merry-go-round which led to a swathe of fresh faces in the green ministries.

Sandwiched between the year’s major political events came the ratification of the Paris Agreement, which provided a huge moral boost for the national, and international, green economy. The support from companies of both the deal and the COP22 conference that followed proved that responsible businesses across the world stand ready, willing and able to deliver bold climate action.

But alas, the progress of sustainable action this year appears to be a case of two steps forward and one step back. The stunning ascendancy of brazen climate-denier Donald Trump to the steps of the Whitehouse in November was met with widespread indignation across the environmental scene. If his pre-election promises of reinvigorating the coal-industry and pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement are anything to go by, the green agenda could be set for a long, arduous slog over the next four years.

Nevertheless, with the long-term implications of developments on both sides of the Atlantic yet to be defined, we can take comfort in the growing list of technological innovations demonstrating the vast potential that the low-carbon economy has to offer. For instance, the year saw energy storage and demand response evolve from relatively abstract low-carbon concepts into crucial catalysts in the global transition to clean energy.

As we bid farewell to an action-packed year full of unexpected twists and turns, we take a look at the 16 sustainability stories that have shaped the past 12 months for the green economy.

The 16 best sustainability stories in 2016

1) The UK’s ever-changing energy mix: 2015 in charts

At the end of March, edie provided a concise snapshot of the UK’s energy figures for 2015. Despite a raft of green policy changes leaving future clean deployment levels hanging in the balance, the statistics painted a positive picture for the UK’s low-carbon economy. The decrease in burning coal and corresponding fall in the UK’s annual CO2 emissions, and rising share of renewables in the country’s energy generation, provided a trend that would accelerate throughout the year. This was edie’s most read story in 2016.

2) DECC abolished as part of major ministerial overhaul

The untimely demise of DECC was met with consternation from senior politicians and environmental groups, with concerns raised that climate change could be slipping down the agenda under the new government. Many triumphs were achieved during its brief lifespan as a Government ministry – UK carbon emissions tumbled and investment into renewable and low-carbon generation reached new peaks, albeit before tailing off slightly in the past couple of years.

But despite initial fears and anxieties, the subsequent formation of the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) can be seen as positive move for climate policy. Many commentators are of the opinion that the new ministerial team, especially Secretary Greg Clark, are “serious players” when it comes to understanding the significance of the green economy, while others are adamant that bringing energy and climate change issues into the business sphere could help align business strategies to low-carbon operations.

3) London set for ‘clean energy revolution’ as Sadiq Khan wins Mayoral election

After months of intense campaigning to become the next Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan was swept into City Hall in May after defeating the Conservative Party’s Zac Goldsmith by a clear majority. His election was viewed positively among environmental circles, as Boris Johnson’s successor had previously outlined his ambition to ignite a “clean energy revolution” in the capital, with the ultimate aim of running London on 100% green energy by 2050. Khan has not disappointed in his first nine months in office, announcing a variety of proposals to clean up the air of a city which breached its annual pollution limits for 2016 in just one week.  

Khan has also been directly involved in legal action alongside environmental law firm ClientEarth, which last month won its High Court case against the UK Government over the failure of ministers to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country. Speaking to edie recently, the London Mayor said that businesses are front and centre of ambitious plans to create “the greenest city in the world”.

4) Costa replaces coffee cup recycling logo with ‘Tidy Man’ in war on waste pledge

Celebrity chef-turned-eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall reignited his ‘War on Waste’ TV series this year, with attention shifting from food waste to coffee cup recycling; setting his sights on coffee shop chains for the rising numbers of single-use paper cups being discarded rather than recycled.

This exclusive interview with Costa’s energy and environment Ollie Rosevear highlighted the moves being taken by the retail industry to ramp up efforts against coffee cup waste, with the announcement that Costa Coffee is to remove the recycling symbol from all of its paper cups and is now trialling in-store recycling systems at 50 of its UK stores.

Rosevear, who was speaking to edie for a special edition of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, went on to reveal that Costa is now looking to take the challenge head on, by rolling out recycling systems within its own stores to reduce the number of cups that are incorrectly disposed of.

5) Sainsbury’s boss clashes with Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall over food waste management

The war on waste saga remained a hot topic throughout the year, as Fearnley-Whittingstall consistently reiterated his plea for the nation’s supermarkets to display “real initiative” in their efforts to cut down on waste.

In this lively debate at the London Evening Standard Food Forum, an intense sparring match between Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe saw the latter fend off a fresh wave of criticism about the “ridiculous system” of exacting cosmetic standards of the fruit and veg sold by Britain’s supermarkets.  

Since then, Fearnley-Whittingstall and fellow campaigner Tristram Stuart have taken the fight to the political arena, calling on the UK Government to implement several food waste policies such as labelling reforms, national reduction targets and the strengthened role of an independent adjudicator between supermarkets and suppliers.

6) Green makeover: The Body Shop enters new era of sustainable business with bold CSR strategy

This strong business story of The Body Shop’s launch of an ambitious new CSR strategy epitomised the level of commitment that leading businesses made during 2016. The beauty products seller announced it had established a new sustainability framework entitled ‘Enrich Not Exploit’, incorporating 14 specific, measurable CSR targets for 2020, forming part of an overarching goal to be the world’s “most ethical and truly sustainable” global business.

The Body Shop’s extensive sustainability drive has continued at a rapid pace since that announcement; the retailer recently extended its Bio-Bridges programme which aims to regenerate 75 million square metres of forest by 2020; and also announced it had raised more than £325,000 to fund innovative social and environmental projects through a collaboration with one of the world’s most renowned street artists.

7) Virgin Media hails ‘biggest carbon reduction ever’ following major efficiency drive

Another standout example of corporate sustainability success. The report of emissions falling by 6.1% between 2014 and 2015 as a part of the firm’s ‘Digital for Good’ sustainability programme provides an example of the results forward-thinking companies are now gaining from environmental efforts.

Unsurprisingly, the company has been keen to share this great progress and has turned to technology to accompany the various infographics, videos and social media promotions in order to share its story online.

8) EU Referendum results: Red alert for the green economy as Britain votes to LEAVE the EU

In the early hours of 24 June, edie provided the announcement that Britain would no longer continue the fight against climate change as part of the European Union (EU), with the referendum delivering a shock win for the Leave campaign in what was seen as a significant blow to our environment and the green economy. Before the referendum, a clean sweep of poll results indicated that the majority of sustainability professionals were in favour of voting to remain, with edie readers concerned that future periods of uncertainty could ultimately “erode” the UK’s environmental polices.

While we are yet to understand the full impacts Brexit will have on Britain’s environment, energy and climate change, resources and built environment sectors, politicians and green campaigners have been forceful in their beliefs that the UK Government must act now to ensure mechanisms are in place that replace and strengthen environmental protections upon withdrawal.

9) Does Donald Trump’s Presidential triumph spell the end of America’s climate progress?

It’s been six weeks since the world woke up to the news that Donald Trump had pulled off one of the biggest electoral shocks in US history, beating Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the 45th US President. President-elect Trump built his campaign on a plethora of controversial policy pledges – including vows to cancel the newly-ratified Paris Agreement and “save the coal industry”.

In amongst an apparent shift of attitudes on a plethora of policy topics since his election, Trump’s climate-denying rhetoric has appeared to soften somewhat, recently stressing that he remained “open-minded” on the US’s membership of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, with more than 360 US-based firms and a host of states reaffirming their commitments to combatting climate change in the days and weeks following the election, it seems that Trump would be swimming against an increasingly strong tide if he was to integrate his ‘America First Action Plan‘.

10) Carrier bag data reveals varying approaches to CSR among Britain’s supermarkets

The carrier bag tax has been a sustainability success story since the introduction of the 5p charge on 5 October last year, and a great example of Government-led change. This story revealed the difference in approach from the retailers, with some generating higher amounts of money for charity, while others sold fewer ‘single-use’ bags to reduce their overall environmental impact.

The methods appears to be working, with the number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England dropping from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months. Over the next 10 years, the Government hopes to raise more than £730m from the levy, which has already seen carrier bag usage drop by as much as 80%.

11) 10 things you probably didn’t know about the renewables revolution

The renewables revolution has been in full swing in recent times, with nations ramping up capacity and global investment smashing records. As figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) revealed that renewables grew at record pace in 2015, edie dug deep into the data to bring you 10 surprising statistics about the world’s green energy transformation.

Among the interesting round-up includes information that China now has more renewable capacity than the whole of Europe, and welcome news that the UK has leapfrogged Switzerland, Sweden and Norway to make the top five countries in terms of renewable capacity.

12) The Sustainable Business Covered podcast: Episode 12 – From green apprentice to sustainability leader

This year brought about the launch of a new editorial format at edie, in the form of a shiny podcast. Every week, the edie editorial team has been bringing you the latest news, insights and inspiration from the world of sustainable business in audio form. The edie readership has enjoyed an array of discussions, with key analysis and advice provided through exclusive interviews with industry experts.

In this particular episode, we spoke exclusively to a former candidate of the BBC One show The Apprentice, who discussed two of her greatest passions: renewable energy development and business investment. Then, we headed to the edie Leaders Club Breakfast Briefing for a chat with headline speaker Bridget Jackson, head of corporate sustainability at accountancy firm PwC, who provided a fascinating insight into her innovative approach to driving behaviour change.

13) Sugar-powered batteries and solar panel in space: the best green innovations of the week

Another brand-new series of content, as edie rounded-up the latest low-carbon technologies and innovations that could have the power to shake-up existing business models and accelerate the global green industrial revolution. Providing the best innovation stories of the week into one neat and tidy little green package, the series itself served to highlight the huge growth in low-carbon innovation in 2016.

The inaugural episode introduced a host of exciting concepts, including a 3D printer that turns CO2 into a sustainable concrete substitute, and a craft beer made by brewing waste water.

14) Paris Agreement officially enters force: what happens next?

How could we create a list of the 16 best sustainability stories in 2016 without news of the Paris Agreement coming force? The ground-breaking announcement made last month ushered in a new era of climate action, with UN climate chief hailing 4 November 2016 as the day that countries of the world “shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future.”

The fact that more than 55 countries representing more than 55% of global emissions ratified the deal in early October this year was no small feat. It had taken almost two decades to put an official climate deal on the table; it took less than a year for that deal to come into force. The hunger and ambitions of the countries that have ratified – which includes the US, China and the European Union (EU) – itself reflects the pace of change.

15) Nissan revs up for ‘decade of disruption’ with UK’s first vehicle-to-grid energy storage system

2016 represented a big step for energy storage – a year that saw the technology evolve from a relatively abstract low-carbon concept into a crucial catalyst in the global transition to clean energy.

This is highlighted perfectly here with the news that Japanese carmaker and leading electric vehicle (EV) producer Nissan is “turning science fiction into science fact” with a ground-breaking new scheme that will allow consumers to sell energy stored by Nissan Leaf cars back to the National Grid.

The story represented a market growth for a technology, which, if fully integrated, could save £2.4bn in electricity costs by 2030. Only last week, edie rounded up some of the biggest and best energy storage projects across the globe – most of which were installed or agreed in 2016 – which are together demonstrating the vast potential that this low-carbon innovation has to offer for the green economy.

16) Living Grid: British businesses join forces for demand response energy system

In a similar fashion to energy storage, the growth of demand response has been hailed as shift which will strengthen Britain’s energy system and enable businesses to reduce energy bills and improve green credentials.

Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s became a founding partner of the Living Grid, a new collaborative demand-response ‘energy ecosystem’ which aims to create 200MW of flexible power across the UK. Partnerships such as this will help to create more flexible power system, which, according to reports, could create savings for the UK to the tune of £8bn by 2030.

As demand response continues to gain traction among sustainability professionals and energy managers alike, edie recently rounded up some of the biggest and best projects across the UK that are demonstrating the vast economic and environmental potential that this burgeoning technology has to offer. Read our top 10 here.

George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie