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Navigating the "Vast Sea of Unknowns" of Water Risk

This piece was co-written with Dr. Larry Brilliant, president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

This piece also appeared in McClatchy News and the Huffington Post.

We know less about one of world's most pressing challenges today than we did 10 years ago. It's no secret that water - or the lack thereof - will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. And yet, the United Nations World Water Report, in 2009, stated that when it comes to water, "less is known with each passing decade."

The World Economic Forum recently named the water supply crises as one of the top risks facing the planet - edging out issues like terrorism and systemic financial failure. Water risks permeate almost every aspect of global society. We got a taste last year with crops scorched by drought, shipping lanes threatened and energy plants shut down by low water levels, and coastlines devastated by flooding. Exacerbated by climate change and population growth, such crises will become more common and costly. Yet, the world largely lacks the data we need to monitor, understand, and respond to these water challenges. We are flying blind when it comes to global water issues.

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In the Face of Growing Risks, Every Day Is a World Water Day

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first World Water Day, an international celebration designed to draw attention to the importance of freshwater resources. However, for a large and growing proportion of the world’s population, every day is a World Water Day. Difficult, complex water challenges including drought, groundwater depletion, pollution, and clean drinking water availability are growing in urgency and seriousness all around the world. Some even argue that we should boycott World Water Day – that our water problems are too serious to try and confine to a single day.

Although it’s true that we must keep water in mind during the other 364 days of the year, World Water Day can be useful. It helps raise awareness and serves as an annual reminder of the water problems we must collectively solve. Plus, picking a single theme – this year’s is cooperation – helps break down a very complex topic into more accessible, comprehensible pieces.

In keeping with the theme of helping make complex issues more approachable and understandable, WRI is marking this year’s World Water Day by launching the first in a new series of videos we’re calling “What’s the Big Idea?” These brief videos will feature WRI staff members explaining some of the complex, global challenges we are working to understand and solve. Our first “What’s the Big Idea?” video explains the concept of water risk and the array of challenges it poses. We also highlight a potential solution: WRI’s Aqueduct mapping tool, which helps companies, investors, governments, and others better understand and manage their water risks.

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Factoring Sustainability into Financial Decision-Making

This is Part Three of a five-part blog series, Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability. Each installment explores solutions to help businesses overcome barriers that prevent them from integrating environmental sustainability into their everyday operations. Look for these posts every Thursday.

This post also appears on Greenbiz.com.

A large, multi-national company likely spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on new projects. How these projects are designed, constructed, and operated clearly impacts costs in the short-term, but also poses huge implications for a company’s “sustainability footprint” in the long-term.

A major challenge is that most corporate sustainability experts within a business are not involved in capital budget requests at the outset. A company’s financial leaders make investment decisions with upfront costs and projected revenues in the front of their minds. They are far less likely to take into account a project’s potential environmental risks and benefits. Not coordinating financial and sustainability decisions can lead to projects that are cost-efficient to build today, but may not hold up to sustainability pressures over their lifetime. For example, a company might invest in a factory that is inexpensive to build, but then realize that it’s in a location that locks them into buying only fossil fuel-based energy sources.

The lack of integration between financial and sustainability-related decision-making is a main barrier to scaling truly impactful corporate environmental sustainability. But as WRI found in its new working paper, Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability: Stories from Industry, there are companies who are starting to show us ways of overcoming this challenge.

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What's the Big Idea? Measuring and Mapping Water Risk

Water scarcity is one of the defining issues of the 21st century. In its Global Risks 2013 report, the World Economic Forum identified water supply crises as one of the highest impact and most likely risks facing the planet.

Finding the Money: How Businesses Can Fund Environmental Sustainability Projects

This post also appears on Greenbiz.com

This is Part Two of a five-part blog series, Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability. Each installment explores solutions to help businesses overcome barriers that prevent them from integrating environmental sustainability into their everyday operations. Look for these posts every Thursday for the next four weeks.

As companies tackle environmental sustainability initiatives—such as developing a climate change strategy—early steps involve getting the CEO on board and committing to public goals. But the process doesn’t stop there. In fact, that’s only the beginning. Companies also need to find the money to implement projects and make good on the promised goals—all while delivering financial results.

Finding the Money: A Case Study from Johnson & Johnson

Finding the funds for environmental sustainability initiatives can be a tall order, especially since many companies’ sustainability decisions are made separately from its financial ones. Johnson & Johnson experienced this conundrum firsthand. Back in 2004, the company had a public greenhouse gas reduction target, but was not on track to reach it. Although the emission-reduction projects it identified could save energy and operating costs, managers were having difficulty getting approval for the capital they needed. Core business priorities like new product development were competing with the money the company had earmarked for its sustainability efforts.

Managers, therefore, decided to re-think the way the company allocates internal capital. Johnson & Johnson started putting aside $40 million each year for “win-win” projects—greenhouse gas (GHG)-reduction initiatives that also reduce operating expenses, such as solar photovoltaics. Projects like these sometimes require more upfront capital, but benefit from more predictable returns and lower operating costs than conventional energy systems. The strategy reduces the company’s risk exposure over time and lowers its operating budget.

Fast forward to today and this approach has enabled Johnson & Johnson to reduce its GHG emissions by more than 138,000 metric tons through projects that have an average return of 19 percent. This emissions-reduction is equivalent to the electricity use of approximately 21,000 homes. The company met its initial GHG-reduction target in 2010 and renewed its commitment with a new 20 percent absolute reduction target by 2015.

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4 Barriers to Overcome in Achieving Corporate Environmental Sustainability

This post also appears on Greenbiz.com.

This is Part One of a five-part blog series, “Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability.” Each installment will offer solutions for businesses to better integrate environmental sustainability into their everyday operations. Look for these posts every Thursday for the next four weeks.

Implementing corporate environmental sustainability strategies is increasingly becoming standard practice. For example, more than 300 of the S&P 500 report their greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories each year to the Carbon Disclosure Project, and companies from the Fortune 100 and S&P Global 100 are investing billions of dollars to reach renewable energy procurement targets. Some companies are going further and taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of their products, services, and supply chains.

Despite this encouraging progress, a confluence of global environmental challenges is putting more pressure on corporate environmental sustainability strategies to get to scale quickly. Not enough global businesses have integrated environmental sustainability into their long-term decision making. And, as it stands today, existing practices are not enough to protect the natural resources that society and businesses depend on.

WRI examines this gap between existing corporate sustainability practices and the environmental protection needed for the 21st century in our new report, Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability: Stories from Industry. We interviewed sustainability managers from AkzoNobel, Alcoa, Citi, Greif, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Natura, and Siemens to better understand why strategies that are good for both business and the planet are not getting to scale.

We identified four barriers in these discussions, as well as ways companies can overcome them:

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The New Language of Sustainability: Risk and Resilience

On February 20, WRI President Andrew Steer participated in event with GreenBiz CEO Joel Makower at the annual GreenBiz summit in New York City. This post builds off that discussion.

Sustainability has become a major business buzzword in recent years. For many, though, it’s still viewed as a philanthropic initiative, disconnected from a company’s core goals, or even a burden that competes with other strategic priorities. That must change.

Fortunately, more leaders are recognizing sustainability risks. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, leaders in business, government, academia, and civil society named climate change and water supply as two of the top five global risks facing companies today—and with good reason.

Extreme weather and climate impacts are becoming increasingly common and carrying a significant economic toll. According to the insurance group Munich Re, the number of weather-related loss events over the past three decades has quintupled in North America, quadrupled in Asia, and increased in Africa, Europe, and South America. In the United States alone, 11 events crossed the $1 billion mark in losses in 2012. Hurricane Sandy cost U.S. taxpayers more than $60 billion, striking at the heart of a heavily populated business and financial zone. And, drought in the United States is expected to cost 1 percent of the annual GDP, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in the country’s history.

Likewise, water risks are increasingly on companies’ radars. More than 1.2 billion people are already facing water scarcity. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will likely experience water stress. According to a 2012 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, the associated costs of water events for some companies reached $200 million, up 38 percent from the previous year.

So, how can companies link these risks to corporate strategy? How can they push the management of sustainability issues into the center of businesses’ strategic decision-making?

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Aligning Profit and Environmental Sustainability

Stories from Industry

While powerful forces like population growth, resource scarcity, and economic austerity are creating the need for transformative changes in business practices, the question remains: Why aren’t “win-win” results for companies and the environment getting to scale? This paper explores that...

Asia Pulp & Paper's Anti-Deforestation Pledge: Sign of a Changing Industry?

Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest paper companies, announced earlier this month that it will no longer cut down natural forests in Indonesia and will demand similar commitments from its suppliers. The announcement was received with guarded optimism by Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, World Wildlife Fund, and other NGOs who have waged a persistent campaign to change APP’s forest policies.

Indeed, APP’s new policy—which includes sourcing all material from plantation-grown trees, ceasing clearing of carbon-rich peatland, and engaging more with local communities—is significant, both for the business world and forest conservation. APP and its suppliers manage more than 2.5 million hectares of land in Indonesia and produce more than 15 million tons of pulp, paper, and packaging globally every year. Strong action by APP could indicate that the industry is heading for a more sustainable future.

The question is whether APP will follow this positive announcement with action. The company does not have a strong track record, having defaulted on past commitments to end deforestation.

But APP has something else going for it this time around. A rapidly evolving world of improving corporate practices and powerful technology could provide the right enabling environment for APP’s commitment—and others like it—to succeed.

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