The climate crisis ushered in a new generation of leaders and innovation. But companies still struggle to deliver on sustainability goals.

  • More executives and activists are working at the intersection of climate change and inequality.
  • The climate crisis is creating new opportunities for startups trying to solve sustainability challenges.
  • But the global energy crisis and slow pace of climate action means the world is still falling short of its goals.
  • 100 People Transforming Business is an annual list highlighting people across industries who are changing the way the world does business. Check out the full list for 2022.

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A global energy crisis, rising inequality, and natural disasters intensified by climate change are shaping the sustainability agenda among C-suite executives and government officials alike.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine helped send oil and gas prices skyrocketing and triggered a global food supply shortage. This has led to windfall profits for major oil companies and exacerbated inflation, which disproportionately hits poorer households. 

The crisis forced a debate, particularly in Europe, over how to become more energy secure at a time when countries have pledged to build out clean power, combat the climate crisis, and support the most vulnerable. Some governments are expanding fossil fuels, but investment in renewables has reached record levels as solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of new energy, according to the International Energy Agency. A new climate law in the US is expected to help further drive down the cost of renewable energy sources.

Yet the move away from oil and gas won't be easy or, most likely, fast enough. That's led activists to target the fossil fuel industry and the institutions that bankroll it. Nonetheless, the shift is creating opportunities for newer companies like BlocPower, Shopify, and Actual HQ that are seeking to solve some of the most complex sustainability problems.

Climate justice paves the way for new leaders 

The unequal fallout from the climate crisis has been on stark display this year after deadly floods leveled a third of Pakistan. The country, compared with more industrialized nations, is responsible for only a small fraction of the world's greenhouse emissions.  And millions of people in the Horn of Africa, who likewise share little responsibility for the global carbon debt, remain on the brink of famine. For others in developed countries, soaring electricity bills are eating into their income.These realities have led to the rise of business leaders, investors, and activists working at the intersection of climate, public health, and racial inequality. 

The advocacy of Nalleli Cobo, a 21-year-old community organizer in South Los Angeles, shut a drilling site that exposed mostly Black and Latino residents to pollution and made them sick. Cobo's work has paved the way for new restrictions on drilling at every level of government in California. 

Donnel Baird founded BlocPower to finance greening existing buildings for low-income residents. The idea was based on his own childhood in New York City, where outdated or broken heating and cooling systems powered by fossil fuels wasted energy and leaked emissions.

"What makes sense to me is pursuing solutions to the climate crisis that also create jobs for low-income people and improve health by reducing pollution," Baird, whose company has raised more than $100 million from investors like Goldman Sachs and Microsoft, told Insider. 

A push for new solutions

Now that sustainability goals are widespread among major companies, executives are searching for new technologies to deliver on those promises. The push is spurring innovation in the auto sector, data analytics to make sense of all the environmental and social data companies want to track, carbon removal, and procuring renewable energy for supply chains. 

Even legacy automakers like Ford — with its new F-150 pickup — are making it cool to own electric vehicles that were once associated with the liberal environmentalists. Actual HQ created a SimCity-live platform that helps organizations evaluate the cost and impact of various sustainability strategies, such as reducing emissions on farms or getting internet access to those who lack it. 

Derek Lyons, Actual's co-founder and chief technology officer, told Insider that businesses are struggling to know where to start and how to make decisions.

"This is about helping imperfect humans with imperfect data navigate through this really complicated set of gates to go from a net-zero goal to actually making progress," he told Insider.

The net-zero race is also fueling demand for carbon offsets, which allow polluters to compensate for their own emissions by paying to avoid or reduce them elsewhere. The global commerce platform Shopify is trying to fan the nascent carbon-removal sector by investing $32 million to date. Companies are likely to continue relying on offsets and climate scientists say carbon removal will be necessary if the world is to stay below catastrophic levels of temperature increases.

Even though countries and companies are making some headway on sustainability goals, the pace isn't nearly fast enough. MSCI, the global ratings agency, reported this month that publicly listed companies have about four years to drastically curb emissions before it's too late to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.