Construction and Sustainability

Climate change pushes businesses to take action

March 14, 2014
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Though it was referred to as a 100-year flood, last year’s overflow of the Grand River might be the start of something much more commonplace.

Scientists studying climate change are predicting that every region in the world will see some of its implications.

For the Midwest, that means warmer winters and summers and less frequent but more intense storms, which will increase the risk for flooding.

Last week, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan Chapter held a luncheon that focused on “climate resiliency,” which involves preparing cities and businesses for likely impacts caused by climate change.

According to West Michigan Environmental Action Council, community and business leaders across the United States are rapidly becoming aware of their vulnerabilities to climate change — one of modern societies’ most significant and unpredictable risk management concerns.

At the luncheon, Mayor George Heartwell spoke about how West Michigan can take steps toward greater climate resiliency.

Grand Rapids has been a leader in efforts to combat climate change. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized Heartwell with the Climate Protection Award for Large Cities for the city’s efforts to address climate change according to the mandates set forth by the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Heartwell also was recently appointed to the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

It’s not just the government doing its part to combat climate change. Many Grand Rapids businesses have committed to addressing the issue.

One of the most common approaches businesses are taking is to limit their environmental impact by reducing their carbon footprint and increasing energy- and water-use efficiency. 

“We are trying to reduce our overall environmental impact,” said Doug Tamboer, sustainability manager at Consumers Energy.

Tamboer said Consumers Energy is doing several things in that regard including adopting a balanced energy initiative, which involves diversifying its energy generation portfolio.

The utility also is working to reduce its coal fire units and increase its renewables.

“That is predominantly wind, but we are also working on solar and bio-digestion type sources, and we have our hydroelectric sources that have been in place for a number of years,” he said.

Consumers Energy also is trying to encourage its customers to reduce their environmental impact by offering cash rebates on energy-efficient appliances and on insulation, windows and other options that reduce energy loss.

“When you combine all of these various efforts, by 2025, we are projecting to reduce our overall carbon dioxide emissions by 22 percent,” he said.

Ada-based Amway Corp. has launched several initiatives focused on reducing its environmental impact around the globe.

“From a long-term perspective, something near and dear to me is our corporate response to climate change, and that revolves around setting a greenhouse gas reduction goal and then working to meet that goal,” said Rick VanDellen, sustainability program manager atAmway.

Amway has seen the impacts of climate change first hand. The company was forced to relocate its acerola cherry orchard from Puerto Rico to Brazil.

“Puerto Rico has been buffeted by hurricanes,” VanDellen said. “That makes one of our large ingredients undependable. Those hurricanes ultimately took quite a toll on those orchards — they just could not recover — and so we had to basically sell everything and move to another country.

“We had to establish these orchards on a 6,000-acre farm in Brazil. It was a big expense for us and a big move. This was all climate related.”

Locally, VanDellen said last year’s flooding also impacted the company. “A good portion of our 280-acre site resides in the floodplain of the Grand River,” he said.

Being in more than 100 countries and territories pretty much ensures that any weather incident will impact the company, so it spends significant efforts on risk analysis to try to be prepared.

“We also look to try to move our supply chain as close as we can to our customers,” VanDellen said. “We’ve embarked on a strategic operating model that is more efficient from that perspective so we don’t have these long supply chains that are more easily interrupted. That is proving to be beneficial for us. We’ve been into that now for the last two to three years, and it’s been a very strategic move.”

But it’s not just large companies like Amway and Consumers Energy that need to worry about climate change. Smaller businesses also are vulnerable.

The University of Michigan and the U.S. Green Building Council recently released a report, “Green Building and Climate Resilience: Understanding impacts and preparing for changing conditions,” about how to design cities and buildings for expected climate change impacts across the country.

The report notes the majority of climate change efforts within the building industry currently are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pointed out the need for a greater emphasis on adaptation. The report uses studies from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to inform its adaptation strategies.

The report said many predictions already are being observed, including higher average temperatures, an increase in the number and size of drought-prone areas, higher intensity of storms, rising sea levels and accelerated rates of coastal erosion.

Other expected impacts include increased wildfire risk, invasions of pests and degradation of surface air quality. The report lists eight site level impacts: landscape, water, storm water, energy, indoor environment quality, building materials, increased risk of flood events and expanding pest ranges.

In the Midwest, specifically, inland and Great Lakes water levels are expected to decline due to reductions in winter ice cover and increased evaporation, despite a predicted increase in total rainfall, according to the report.

Due to the larger risk of flooding in the Midwest, site selection needs to be a major consideration when building.

“Consideration of flood risk when siting a project should identify change in the planning of ‘at risk’ areas, and in particular how climate change will affect floodplains for 1-in-10, 1-in-50 and 1-in-100 year events,” reads the report.

An increase in storm intensity means an increased risk for storm damage; therefore, building materials may need to be replaced by those that can better withstand intense wind and wind-driven rain.

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