Climate Crisis

Climate Crisis

World leaders attending the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) proclaimed the need for urgent action. However, progress to address climate change has been elusive. Moving forward, sustainability practices will need to be built into every project and process if the world is to arrest the most damaging effects of global warming.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the impact humans have on the environment and the effect environmental degradation has on human well-being and on the world economy. The U.S. and EU have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, China has pledged to do the same by 2060 and India by 2070. Most renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels, thanks to investments over the past decade. And projects have been initiated to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; the AFR100 megaproject in Africa, for example, aims to reforest 247 million acres across 10 countries by 2030. 

Even with such actions, the situation is getting worse.  

After a temporary lull in emissions due to the “Great Lockdown,” there is “no sign we are growing back greener,” according to the World Meteorological Organization, which found rising concentrations of major greenhouse gases in 2020 and the first half of 2021.  

To help turn the tide, businesses must take on more responsibility. One-fifth of the world’s largest companies have set net-zero targets. Many more need to do the same and they'll need to join forces with government, academia and other organizations. Greater investment in sustainability projects is imperative, particularly in industries that produce the most emissions, such as energy production and transportation. Billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide still need to be removed from the atmosphere each year through reforestation and other means — a process that's barely begun.  

Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions chart

Global Megatrends 2022

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The benefit that project managers bring to sustainability efforts is creating the most optimum way of getting the work done.

Co-founder and CEO, Nexus Power


These efforts are complex and challenging to implement. PMI research shows that almost 40% of organizations reported major barriers to improving social impact, with just 33% of projects delivering improvements for the environment. This is primarily due to lack of financial resources and organizational commitment. Such commitment is only likely to come about if the C-suite is engaged and explicitly recognizes that improving planetary resilience improves business resilience. Encouraging this mindset and connecting projects with purpose can increase retention and improve productivity, paving the way for real action.   

The role of chief sustainability officer (CSO), which has seen a dramatic rise in the past decade, can help to achieve this. Nishita Baliarsingh, co-founder and CEO of Nexus Power in India, however, cautions that this isn't a panacea — efforts need to take place at an individual level, and it will take time to change people's mindsets. Embedding sustainability practices into every function, process and decision across the value chain will require cross-enterprise collaboration.  

Project managers will need to integrate emissions targets into key performance indicators, build emissions management into ways of working and engage with all stakeholders about sustainability practices. In addition to financial resources and organizational commitment, obtaining the right skills is an essential asset for enabling change.  

Crucially, organizations must also be able to assess their energy footprint, costs and impact, otherwise there will be no transparency and accountability and no means to track progress. But knowing what to measure and how to measure it has not yet been standardized. There are many ratings and certification providers, various frameworks for nonfinancial accounting and debate about what metrics to use. Digitalization efforts will also need to ramp up to truly understand the level of resource usage and waste within each business process through data and analytics.  

Using what's available, however, is a better alternative than doing nothing, and project professionals will need to work closely with sustainability teams to identify best practices and create a path forward. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), supported by PMI, provide a blueprint. Goal 12, for example, urges more sustainable consumption and production patterns by recycling electronic waste and single-use plastics, actions that can be taken on both the individual and corporate level.   

Building Sustainable Products: Interview With Nishita Baliarsingh

Nishita Baliarsingh is CEO and co-founder, with her sister, Nikita, of India-based startup Nexus Power. A PMI Future 50 honoree, she is working on producing a biodegradable electric vehicle battery from agricultural waste.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are seeing massive interest, but charging times, battery safety and the environmental impacts of lithium-ion batteries are concerns. Nishita Baliarsingh and her twin sister, Nikita, had a bold idea: to create a high-performance, biodegradable battery from crop waste that tackles emissions from the burning of crop residue, while also providing farmers with extra income. 

“The concept of sustainability is not clearly understood,” explains Baliarsingh. “Many consider it to be ‘saving the planet,’ but really, it’s optimum utilization of resources. You’ve got to look at the entire chain from raw material through production to the sales channel when you're trying to build a product that is sustainable.” 

Progress toward sustainability started at the individual level with small gestures like carrying reusable bags and refillable jars to reduce packaging. Baliarsingh says, “we have seen a lot of change in the last 10 years and should expect to see much more in the next 10.” She cites recent moves by Tata Group, one of India’s best-known companies, as evidence that large companies are moving from a purely profit-optimized model. “They have significantly improved their carbon footprint and they're moving to a carbon-neutral space. In the next 10 years they could go carbon negative. So it's not like effectiveness is not visible,” she stresses. 

“Technology will be one of the major game changers in terms of sustainability. The pandemic has really opened doors to a lot of things that earlier we didn’t even think could have been done virtually, such as videoconferencing.” 

Baliarsingh says the need for project managers to drive sustainability efforts is high. “Project managers will be required everywhere. Everything that we do today is called a project — whether it's a one-day project, 10 days or six months—you would need project managers to make sure that the entire process is streamlined. The benefit that project managers bring to sustainability efforts is creating the most optimum way of getting the work done.” 

Hear from our 2022 interviewees

Building sustainability into projects

Nishita Baliarsingh, Co-founder and CEO, Nexus Power, India explains how we can all do our part to incorporate sustainability into our products and projects.
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