The pandemic has given the impetus to businesses to prepare for the climate crisis.
Brian Chesebro worried no one would have time to talk about sustainability goals during a pandemic. He does, after all, work at a hospital.
Chesebro is an anesthesiologist at Providence Portland Medical Center, where he also serves as Oregon’s medical director of environmental stewardship. Amidst the first onslaught of patients suffering from COVID-19, a virus that has now killed more than 2,500 Oregonians, elective surgeries were postponed and Chesebro had more time to consider the other crisis he is committed to facing.
For Chesebro, among many environmentalists and concerned citizens, COVID-19 is a reminder of, not a distraction from, the fact that sweeping changes will be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of a rapidly changing climate.
Scientists say we have less than a decade for action before extreme droughts, floods, sea-level rise and food shortages are inevitable. Similar to a pandemic, it requires global action across governments and industries.
Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged the urgency of the climate crisis in March 2020 with an executive order targeting a 45% reduction in the state’s greenhouse gases by 2035 and an 80% reduction by 2050. Providence issued its own ambitious goals the following month, pledging to be carbon negative by 2030. (The health-care industry overall has a large carbon footprint, accounting for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.)
Still, with health care workers stretched to their limit, “I didn’t have the heart to come and ask [my colleagues] to do something new,” he recalls. When he did have a chance to meet clinicians to discuss new sustainability goals, however, Chesebro was pleasantly surprised.
“As hesitant as I was to add to people’s plates, they were excited to have this conversation.”
The pandemic has forced many people in a wide range of industries to reevaluate standard operations. There has been tragedy and chaos, frustration and exhaustion, but there have also been opportunities to reconsider business as usual, and how every decision can branch out and have an impact — for better or for worse — on the planet.
While hospitals struggled to accommodate critical patients, restaurants and retail establishments navigated an uncertain future too. Stores were forced to shut their doors; unsold perishables spoiled; certain items became unsellable (luggage, dressy office attire) while others sold out completely (home gym equipment, yeast); and business owners scrambled to pivot and adapt.
Elephants Delicatessen, a 42-year-old, Portland-owned eatery specializing in grab-and-go meals, was, like most restaurants, hit hard by COVID-19. But it was also in a relatively good position for necessary changes. “We’ve always done a lot of takeout,” says Cheyenne Terbrueggen, Elephant Delicatessen’s marketing and communications manager. “We didn’t have to scramble to figure that out.”
Cheyenne Terbrueggen, of Elephants Delicatessen. The company tracks its refrigerant loss as part of its sustainability goals. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan
Sustainability goals are also nothing new for the B-Corp, as they have always been a part of its mission as a company. Just before COVID-19, it had committed to focusing on energy reduction.
Elephant joined the Strategic Energy Management cohort of businesses, organized by Energy Trust of Oregon, to measure energy usage, identify waste and collaborate on strategies for reducing emissions.
As business slowed down, team members had more time to dedicate themselves to that work. Employees from all areas of the company got involved, attending online workshops and collaborating with other small businesses in the cohort. It has since created what Terbrueggen calls “the most comprehensive environmental management plan we’ve ever had” — all laid out amidst a global pandemic.
The plan incorporates 14 areas of focus, including electricity and natural-gas use, food waste, and packaging. Each of those focuses had a unique set of goals. One area that saw significant improvements this past year was refrigerant loss, thanks to equipment upgrades and the decline in customers opening and closing fridges throughout the day.
Working on sustainability goals during a pandemic also revealed limitations. While slower business led to a 40% reduction in electricity use across locations, revenue was down 70%, so that did not align.
Terbrueggen says this shows the importance of optimization and making big changes.
“There were times when we had to choose safety over sustainability,” says Terbrueggen. She doubts the business will ever be able to stop wrapping pastries in plastic now that customers have adapted to the safety measure. “But we’ve still doubled down on sustainability work. It was the goal and we stuck to it.”
Not every business was able to make time for sustainability goals last year.
Lisa Cox and Jenny Engels run the Oregon Applied Sustainability Experience out of Oregon State University. The outfit matches businesses with college students who work on sustainability solutions for industry practices. Organizations are able to gain valuable knowledge at no cost while students are paid and gain work experience.
Unfortunately, multiple businesses slated to participate had to shut down completely in 2020 and were unable to host students.
“It was really difficult to hear about the hardship it caused,” says Cox. “You have folks who are just trying to survive. The focus on sustainability hasn’t gone away, but they’re distracted.”
“On the other hand,” notes Cox, “Providence Portland Medical Center hosted an intern who researched how much linen is used and if the linens were being utilized to the maximum extent possible.” That intern found that every pound of linen requires 1 gallon of water and the energy equivalent of recharging 310 iPhones.
Their suggestions to reduce linen usage by 5% would significantly reduce emissions, wastewater and costs, potentially saving Providence $120,000 a year.
Susan Jowaiszas of Energy Trust of Oregon saw both gains and losses over the past year in the businesses it partners with to improve energy usage. But a lot of what it already does to help businesses reduce energy also reduces costs — which was desperately needed.
“When the pandemic hit, we quickly looked around and said what can we do to help our customers with our programs in a time when they have a lot of other pressures,” says Jowaiszas. “We really wanted to help.”
One way it did was to expand uses for cooperative marketing funds, which would typically be used to market a company’s involvement with Energy Trust, to purchase PPE so employees could continue working safely.
Energy Trust-affiliated businesses were able to properly equip their workers, who completed more than 27,000 projects throughout the year. “They were able to keep those people on the payroll.”
The program also had to adapt its education programs, which would typically be hands-on, in-person trainings on energy efficiency. Those workshops had to be moved to a virtual platform, which is not always ideal for training.
“But we found some benefits there,” says Jowaiszas. “The travel time to those workshops was often a barrier [pre-pandemic].” Eliminating that barrier allowed for increased involvement, and particularly more involvement from businesses in rural locations.
Energy Trust’s New Buildings training and education series saw a 49% increase in participants, from 911 in 2019 to 1,353 in 2020.
It is hard to imagine returning to the world before COVID-19.
When it comes to climate change, going back to the way things were is not possible. Due to the nature of carbon released into the atmosphere, certain future changes related to increased temperatures are already inevitable. But there is still time to mitigate the effects further down the line.
“We need to try to flatten the curve of climate change — just like we did with COVID — so we as a civilization can adapt and prepare,” says Chesebro. “I do find it reassuring that globally as a species, we were able to respond to COVID and rally around a central point.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Providence has seen a big reduction of emissions in administrative buildings because of so many people working from home. Those spaces are now being reevaluated to identify opportunities to hold on to those gains.
Business travel across Providence also decreased 76% between 2019 and 2020. And the impact of patients driving to appointments was greatly reduced by telehealth.
“COVID gets all the credit for [those changes],” says Chesebro. “Now our job is to say: How do we maintain that environmental impact? How do we make sure we don’t backslide?”
Terbrueggen says her organization’s involvement with Energy Trust of Oregon has allowed the company to really understand the scope of its impact on the climate. It has also made it better prepared for whatever comes next.
An electric delivery vehicle is charged at one of Elephants Delicatessen’s Portland locations. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
“It builds resiliency to recover from unexpected challenges,” she says. “Improving our energy efficiency is also reducing our operating costs. In some ways you can’t afford not to.”
Chesebro says climate change is the biggest public health threat of this century.
“I never thought I would be doing this work. But now that I am, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Once you see what’s in front of you, you can’t look away.”
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