If there was one word that summed up 2016, it was uncertainty. The year turned out to be a juxtaposition of Dickensian proportions from an environmental perspective, with sustainability professionals experiencing the best of times and the worst of times all in the space of 12 months.

On the one hand, green businesses welcomed the fantastic news that the Paris Agreement was signed, sealed and delivered within the year, providing a solid foundation upon which the world can now accelerate the green industrial revolution. This complimented an array of bold corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments and significant advancements in low-carbon technologies and innovations such as energy storage and demand response.

But then came Brexit. And then came Donald Trump. For many, the spring of hope had quickly descended into the winter of despair, and the green economy was left in the dark with far more questions than answers.

So, what will the word of 2017 be? Perseverance? Unity? Progression? There are, of course, reasons to be concerned about the future of global green policy. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that this year will in fact prove to be a turning point for the low-carbon movement and that, whatever the outcome of those aforementioned political earthquakes, businesses will step up and deliver more green pledges, initiatives, collaborations and innovations than ever before.

To that end, edie has listed below 17 key trends and developments to watch out for in 2017 – all of which should have a positive impact on the green economy. Happy New Year!

Seventeen big reasons to be excited about 2017

1) A new standard for sustainable procurement is being published (March)

“Procurement makes up a substantial budget of any organisation, so wouldn’t the world be a better place if it was done in a sustainable way?”

That is the question that the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has sought to answer with its ISO 20400 Sustainable Procurement standard, which is now in the final stages of development.

Set to be published in March, ISO 20400 will provide guidelines for organisations wanting to integrate sustainability into their procurement processes. It will effectively compliment the ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility standard by enabling organisations to contribute to sustainable development efforts by minimising their impact on the environment, tackling human rights issues and contributing to society and the economy.

2) The UK Government is banning microbeads (by October)

Microbeads are very small pieces of plastic in products such as facial scrubs and makeup. Conservationists have long warned that they can affect fish growth and persevere in the guts of mussels and fish that mistake them for food.

It was therefore welcome news when the UK Government last year announced that these tiny pieces of plastic will be banned from sale in the country by the end of 2017 – following in the footsteps of the US, which is banning them from mid-2017. 

Supermarket beauty products such as those from Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have already had the plastic dropped, and major companies such as Unilever – which owns Dove and other brands – have also phased them out. Procter and Gamble has confirmed that all shipments of its UK products are 100% microbead-free as of December 2016, while a number of other FMCG brands and retailers have pledged to phase microbeads out by the end of 2017.

This year will also likely see a flurry of other major corporate commitments to deliver more sustainable and ethical products. For example, the UK’s two largest supermarket chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, both recently announced a commitment to end the sale of own-brand cotton buds with plastic stems – which are the most common litter from toilets flushed on to the country’s beaches – at some point later this year.

3) Water retail competition is being introduced in England (April)

Water retail competition refers to a government-led strategy that allows non-domestic water users to switch suppliers of water retail services, effectively opening the water and wastewater (sewerage) retail market to new companies and encouraging greater innovation within the water sector.

In England, a proposed reformation of the retail market for non-domestic water customers has been accepted and is due to commence on 1 April 2017. In practice, this means that all businesses, charities and public-sector organisations across the country, no matter their size or level of water consumption, will be able to choose their provider of water and wastewater retail services.

Much of the structure and processes of England’s newly competitive water retail market will replicate those seen in Scotland, where the 2008 introduction of non-domestic retail competition has broadly been a success. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – which is working with Ofwat to oversee the delivery of water retail competition in England – expects to deliver around £200m in benefits for the UK economy through the competition.

Stay tuned to edie for a free in-depth edie explains guide on water retail competition, to be released later this week.

4) Self-driving cars are coming to London (early 2017)

Autonomous vehicles could help to significantly reduce the risk of car accidents and free up congestion; allowing traffic to move more smoothly, reducing traffic jams and, by extension, cutting emissions and associated pollution. But the journey to self-driving cars is filled with philosophical and technological potholes, with some arguing that the concept would never get off the ground.

So when Swedish car manufacturer Volvo Cars last year revealed that it would be trialling an ambitious autonomous driving (AD) system in the UK in 2017 – the “largest and most extensive AD testing programme on Britain’s streets” – governments and industry alike took note; realising that the fourth industrial revolution is now just around the corner.  

The trial forms part of Volvo’s overarching commitment to ensure that “no person is killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020”. The carmaker’s UK-based test – called ‘Drive me London’ – will commence in 2017 with a limited number of semi-autonomous driving cars and expand in 2018 to include as many as 100 AD cars.

And Volvo is not the only company to throw its hat into the driverless vehicle ring. Ford, Google, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Uber, among others, have all also reportedly declared that they will get fully autonomous cars and trucks on the road in the near future.

5) BEIS is announcing its emissions reduction plan (expected in February)

Despite the sudden political turbulence caused by Brexit, the UK Government provided a much-needed confidence boost for the green economy in June by approving the Fifth Carbon Budget, heeding advice to limit annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032.

But how, exactly, are we going to get there? With MPs previously warning that the UK will miss crucial 2020 renewable heat and transport targets without “major policy improvements”, an emissions reduction plan is vital if the UK is to hit national, and international, climate targets.

Specific details of the new plan from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remain under wraps, but it should broadly provide enough detail to attract the affordable private sector investment that is needed in technologies such as ultra-low emission vehicles, energy efficiency, low carbon heat and offshore wind to meet the UK’s target of cutting emissions by 57% by 2030.

In October, edie sat in on the first session of the new BEIS Committee, in which the Permanent Secretary for BEIS Alex Chisholm revealed that he expects an emissions reduction plan to be published by the end of February 2017. Chisholm also claimed that BEIS would “learn the lessons of the past” in regards to financing the low-carbon transition. Watch this space.

6) Defra is announcing its 25-year environment plan (“in 2017”)

Urgent questions about how Britain’s environment will be maintained and improved post-Brexit will hopefully be answered this year through Defra’s new 25-year plan for the environment, which was delayed last year because of the results of the referendum.

Defra is working with the Natural Capital Committee to develop the plan, which the Department says will “unleash the economic potential of food and farming, nature and the countryside, champion the environment and provide security against floods, animal and plant diseases and other hazards”.

Appearing before the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in Westminster towards the end of last year, Resource Minister Theresa Coffey confirmed the delay of the new plan, simply stating that a framework was expected “shortly”.

7) Tesla will continue to inspire us with pioneering green innovations (ongoing)

Elon Musk’s Tesla started 2016 as an electric carmaker venturing into energy storage. It begins 2017 as a pioneering automaker, an energy company, the builder of a massive battery factory in Nevada, and a solar company through its merger with SolarCity.

First off, the company’s mass-market Model 3 is set for release in late 2017. The car will start at around £24,000 and have a range of at least 215 miles per charge, as Musk’s firm focuses its business strategy specifically on bringing electric vehicles (EVs) into the mass market by lowering costs.

Then there’s Tesla’s upgraded Powerpack energy storage module. In a blog post, the company revealed that Powerwall 2 – which will be available “at some point in 2017” – will offer up to 14 kWh of solar storage at a cost of around $5,500.

And then there’s the arrival of Tesla’s fascinating solar roof. Musk revealed the solar roof tiles at Universal Studios in Los Angeles at the end of last year, and while little detail was given in regards to price and performance, the Tesla chief claimed that the glass tiles were introduced to be more attractive to consumers looking to add solar technology to their home. The rollout of the solar roof tiles is expected to commence in the summer.

8) A new circular economy standard is being introduced (May)

You probably don’t need reminding that the circular economy represents a huge economic and environmental opportunity for business. But the development of a new standard focussed entirely on the concept of the circular economy and resource management is a crucial next step in the move towards a resource-efficient world.

The new BS 8001 standard will provide organisations with an understanding of the circular economy’s growing business relevance; including specific guidance on how to implement circular economy principles to create direct and indirect value as a result of process, product/service or business model innovations.

BS 8001 was created in response to stakeholder feedback – including the UK Government and a number of businesses attempting to shift towards a circular mode of operation, such as Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Skanska. The draft of BS 8001 is available for public comment until 15 January and final publication is expected in May.

9) Britain’s tidal energy projects are becoming a reality (ongoing)

Could 2017 finally be the year when tidal energy projects put steel in water and get up and running in the UK?

Well it has technically already happened. At the end of 2016, the developer of the MeyGen tidal stream project in northern Scotland reported that it had reached a significant milestone, with the first installed turbine operating at full power. Atlantis has since unveiled plans to start the construction of the second phase of its MeyGen project this year.

But it may still be too soon to be getting excited about more tidal energy developments in the UK this year. The building of a £1bn tidal energy lagoon in Swansea Bay was set to begin in early 2016, but was then delayed by a year due to ongoing negotiations over the level of UK government funding for the project. But it appears that work on the project won’t actually begin in 2017 as wording on the official project website has recently changed from “our aim is to start construction works on site in 2017” to “our aim is to start on site in 2018”.

When built, Swansea Bay would produce enough renewable power for 155,000 homes – the equivalent of 90% of Swansea Bay’s annual domestic electricity use – for 120 years. So it may well be worth the wait.

10) The Government will produce a new air quality plan (by July)

The UK Government has been forced to deliver an effective plan to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis by July this year, after a high court judge last year rejected a longer timetable as “far too leisurely”.

In a damning indictment of Defra’s “woeful approach” to reduce air pollution levels – which have consistently broken EU legal limits since 2010 – the judge agreed with environmental lawyers ClientEarth that policymakers had failed to take adequate air quality policy measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible”.

The ClientEarth case received the backing of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who recently spoke exclusively to edie about the issue, stressing the importance of the environmental lawyers’ trial in holding the Government to account over poor national air quality levels.

Whether or not the UK’s new air quality strategy will be ambitious enough to crack down on the invisible killer is another question entirely.

11) Sadiq Khan’s emissions surcharge is coming into force (October)

In 2016, London took just one week to breach annual air pollution limits. And that abysmal record may well be broken again this year.

So it was welcome news when Mayor Sadiq Khan kicked-off phase two of a public consultation on his air quality plans to establish an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London in 2019 – a year ahead of schedule – and introduce an emissions surcharge, known as the T-charge, for older, polluting vehicles in October.

The £10 T-charge in central London is one of the toughest crackdowns on the most polluting vehicles by any major city around the world. The announcement is one of the first steps towards Khan creating his new ‘London Plan’, which is being developed and published for further consultation later in the year – and business, Khan says, will be at the heart of it.

Policymakers are ringing the changes outside of London too. The EU is continuing to tighten emissions regulations so much so that, from September, diesel vehicles that emit more than double the lab limit for NOx on the road will be banned from sale.

12) Demand response and energy storage will go from strength to strength (ongoing)

As the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) last year reported, the UK has been losing £9.5bn worth of electricity due to wastage, inefficiency and transmission costs before the energy even reaches end-users.

Demand response – which remotely controls electricity use – and energy storage systems together form an ideal solution to this issue; cutting unnecessary energy consumption, utilising idle distributed generation capacity, and allowing decentralised energy systems to be connected to the grid, with reliability.

If 2016 was anything to go by, the demand response and energy storage markets are both on the precipice of a megashift. The battery market, in particular, has seen breath-taking levels of growth from utilities over the past 12 months, while non-utilities are increasingly realising that lithium-ion or flow storage systems can act as the perfect accompaniment to on-site renewable energy installations.

13) The Internet of Things will support the smart building revolution (ongoing)

If 2016 was the year that the Internet of Things (IoT) was fully heard and understood by the masses, 2017 will be the year of mass deployment and monetisation of IoT systems. A quick glance at the technologies and innovations on display at the CES 2017 consumer electronics show, running throughout this week, reveals the sheer amount of IoT devices being released to drive sustainable behaviour change and green building improvements. (Stay tuned to edie for a full CES 2017 round-up later in the week).

The interconnectivity of domestic appliances is just one example of a wave of IoT developments we expect to see in 2017. LG has developed an IoT system for fridges which activates a sterilisation process when it senses temperature and/or humidity issues in order to extend food’s shelf life. UK start-up Smarter Applications, meanwhile, has developed Fridgecam – a device which keeps track of what its owners have in stock and when it expires, sending alerts to buy new items when necessary.

A report produced by technology firm Ericsson last year concluded that information and communication technologies could help cut up to 63.5 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And the automotive industry has the power to become a lynchpin of this IoT phenomenon, connecting cars with homes and transforming the way we use and store energy, BT Group’s head of sustainability Niall Dunne said at an event last year.

14) The adoption of science-based targets will continue to gather pace (ongoing)

Science-based targets, which see companies reduce emissions in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below 2C, are seen as a critical step in the low-carbon transition, and are especially relevant following the recent enforcement of the Paris Agreement.

The concept is rapidly rising up the corporate agenda: the Science Based Targets initiative – a partnership between CDP, UN Global Compact, WRI and WWF – recently reported that more than 200 companies, representing an estimated $4.8trn in market value, have now signed up to the scheme, just 18 months after its launch.

And the trend shows no sign of abating this year: according to a recent survey conducted by edie, more than half of sustainability leaders are either beginning to apply or fully embed the methodology within their organisation. Are you among them?

15) The renewable heat sector will continue to grow, despite upcoming reforms (April)

Reforms of the UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) subsidy scheme are expected to come into force in Spring 2017.

Until the end of last year, it was feared that those reforms would be largely punitive, with the Government proposing a 98% reduction in the deployment of non-domestic biomass boilers and an end to support for solar water heating systems. Those changes, the industry said, would be “short-sighted” and “simply didn’t make sense”.

So it was welcome news when the Government last month set out its proposals for the RHI reform, confirming that all currently-supported technologies – including solar thermal – will remain part of the scheme. Tariff reductions are also set to be less drastic than previous proposals, which included reductions of tariffs by up to 45% for parts of the biomass sector. Tariffs for new air-source heat pumps and ground-source heat pumps are increasing to 10 pence per kilowatt-hour (p/kWh) and 19.55p/kWh respectively.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA) said the upcoming reforms “will go some way to grow an effective renewable heat sector in some cases to 2021”.

16) The renewables revolution will continue to win over large corporates (ongoing)

Rapid technological advancements, price parity, broad-based consumer and NGO support, and coal’s inevitable demise has put us at the frontier of a new electricity landscape which is rapidly becoming dominated by renewables. And in 2017, the number of big corporations turning to renewables to power their operations looks set to increase even further.

Nowhere is this more evident than through the Climate Group’s RE100 movement – launched in 2014 as a global, collaborative initiative of influential businesses committed to using 100% renewable electricity – which now has 83 member companies including Apple, Ikea and Unilever.

The sheer pace of the renewables revolution was epitomised late last year when tech giant and RE100 member Google announced that its data centres and the offices for its 60,000 staff will be powered entirely by renewable energy within 2017.

“We are convinced this is good for business, this is not about greenwashing,” said Google’s EU energy lead Marc Oman. “This is about locking in prices for us in the long-term. Increasingly, renewable energy is the lowest cost option. Our founders are convinced climate change is a real, immediate threat, so we have to do our part.”

17) edie will offer sustainability professionals a host of bigger and better events this year!

Lastly, a bit of shameless self-promotion. We’ve been the market-leading information resource driving sustainability in business for nearly 20 years, but we’re not resting on our laurels. This year, edie will offer up a fresh series of destination events for energy, sustainability and resource efficiency professionals.

Notable highlights of 2017 include the new-format Sustainability Leaders Forum (25-26 January) and the associated Sustainability Leaders Awards (25 January), and the edie Live exhibition on 23-24 May. A full list of edie events for 2017 (with more to be added) can be found here.

What are you most excited about in 2017? Tweet us @edie or leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts.

Luke Nicholls


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