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Sustainability Talks

Technology and Climate Change

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All moms love hearing from their grown children – and I have Bill Gates to thank for a recent call from my millennial son. He had heard Bill Gates being interviewed about his new book on climate change and was impressed – impressed enough to reach out and grill me about sustainability, the field to which I’ve dedicated my career. He wanted to know, in detail, what my company is doing to reduce its impact on the environment.

He’s not the only one asking questions. The temperature of the conversation around climate change is increasing faster than the temperature itself as events around the world draw attention to the science, the impacts, and the need to mitigate climate change. Mr. Gates’ new book is one in a flurry of releases by many experts over the past year that highlight the need for urgency, and action, to reduce global warming.

In “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” (2021), Gates takes a different approach from that we heard from Dr. Jonathan Foley of Project Drawdown at WM’s Sustainability Forum. While Dr. Foley emphasizes the tools that we have now that can be deployed to reach The Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, Gates suggests success depends on significant investments in new technologies.  

We need both. We need all the tools in our toolbox, and more, if we are to successfully reach the point of “drawdown” that Dr. Foley defines as the point when our emissions begin to fall.  We can, and we must, change our behavior if we are to reduce our emissions.  However, achieving “Net Zero” emissions by 2050 (where we are in equilibrium with the carbon emissions we put into the air and those we pull out), is where the need for technology really kicks in.

Several years ago, a senior leader at WM assured me that technology would provide the solution to our future ability to reduce GHG emissions. While I wanted to believe this prediction, I wasn’t convinced. But I’m coming around!

Over the past year my team has reflected on our track record in order to help project our future emissions reduction targets. Through this exercise, we found that WM has made great progress. Technology has already played a significant role in reducing our GHG emissions by 40% over the past decade alone, primarily through the implementation of various technology solutions.

Technology improvements have resulted in systems investments at landfills to capture methane and use it beneficially for renewable electricity and renewable fuel. Technology advances have resulted in a transition of our trucking fleet to natural gas trucks. And technology has created equipment that can clean landfill gas for use as clean renewable natural gas for our trucks. Add all of this to the computer technology on our trucks that maximizes efficient routing to reduce fuel use, and you have real impact.

By looking back and seeing the incredible impact that technology has had on our operations, it is much easier to look ahead and believe that technology can—and will – move us toward the reductions that the Paris Climate Agreement demands of us. Through partnerships with NASA and other private investors, we are using satellite imagery to identify areas to focus on for further emissions. Computers connect all aspects of our operations to tell us where we can make improvements. These are just a few of the innovations being piloted now.  As I look back on the progress made over the past decade, I can only imagine the progress that is in store for us in the next 10 years.

What we once thought was impossible is becoming very real, very quickly.  This is excellent news for our industry as we look to the future and elevate our role in reducing emissions and helping customers achieve their climate goals.

As I finished Mr. Gates’ book, I felt his optimism – as well as his pragmatism. Certainly, his meticulous research helped him understand the challenges as well as the opportunities of tackling climate change. Our path ahead is not an easy one, nor is it an inexpensive one. It will likely involve many twists and turns, and the implementation of some difficult policies impacting our industry. But we would have said the same thing 10 and 20 years ago; yet we’ve adapted and thrived. I am optimistic that our industry will provide one of the many success stories that our planet needs for a sustainable future.

As I finished the conversation with my son, who is also a WM shareholder, I was pleased to convey what we are doing to reduce our GHG emissions. Through the services we provide to our customers, as well as through technology investments, we are making changes that will benefit his generation, and his children’s. So let’s keep looking to what the future holds, exploring and applying the best technologies and the best innovative thinking to our climate challenge. Let’s also continue having the conversations that bring us together.

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