Renewable exec on ‘relentless consumption’ driving the climate crisis: 'It seems as if people are behaving in a way that we would never tell our children to behave’



Trevor Neilson, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of WasteFuel, sounds a bit frustrated with people’s behavior when it comes to the environment. 

“It is relentless consumption 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says in conversation with deputy editorial director Ellie Austin at Fortune’s Global Forum in Abu Dhabi. “It seems as if people are behaving in a way that we would never tell our children to behave.”

Every year, the world produces over 2.01 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste, and Neilson’s company is seeking to make something useful out of this crisis, by transforming waste into renewable fuels. This has brought him in contact with his major investors, BP and Maersk, but also climate activists, who he calls an “interesting bunch.” He recalls how Roger Hallam, the founder of Extinction Rebellion, “told me he didn’t trust me because I was a capitalist. And I couldn’t run from that, because I had a long career as a capitalist.” 

But as he looked around the room in Abu Dhabi, Neilson said the United Arab Emirates should stand out as a key example for anyone worried about the future. “Anybody that thinks that this isn’t possible, look at the history of the UAE and what it accomplished in 50 years,” Neilson said to a full room in Abu Dhabi. “And imagine, with the same level of commitment, the same level of entrepreneurship and engineering talent and dedication to something, where we could be in 50 years.”

Watch the video interview above or see the full transcript below.

Ellie Austin:
The world is suffering from an ever-growing solid waste problem. According to the World Bank, more than 2 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste is produced globally every year. By 2050, that figure will increase by 70% to 3.4 billion metric tons a year. The increase is driven by factors such as population growth, urbanization, economic development, changes in consumption patterns and our lifestyles. Mismanaged waste contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and it can also increase the spread of disease. 

In our Climate Innovation spotlight today, we’re delighted to be joined by the chairman and CEO of WasteFuel, a company that’s working to address the climate crisis by converting waste into low-carbon fuel. He’s also the chair of APCO’s worldwide climate and biodiversity team. 

So we have heard about the huge amounts of waste produced globally each year. Let’s start at quite a basic level, can you explain to us what the goal of WasteFuel is and the technology it uses to achieve that goal?

Trevor Neilson:
The basic situation is that the world is choking on the waste that we’ve produced. You cited some of the numbers, and a way to think about it is that by 2050, we’re going to have more plastics in the ocean than fish.

If you imagine the amount of waste that’s produced in the world, it would be enough to fill all of Manhattan two miles high. We are choking on the waste we’ve produced and so with WasteFuel, we started with the thesis that our waste could be our fuel, and that this crisis could be an opportunity. So basically, in the municipal waste stream, somewhere between 30% and 40% of that waste is organic in nature. So we take those organics, we separate them from the rest of the waste stream, and we basically create a gas which we then turn into methanol, which is then sold into the market. BP is our largest investor and Maersk is also a big investor of ours. And we made a bet that the global shipping market was going to methanol as a transition fuel, that shipping would not really use [liquefied natural gas], it wouldn’t use hydrogen, no offense to the hydrogen people, it wouldn’t use ammonia, no offense to the ammonia people. But instead it would go to biomethanol, because biomethanol is pretty easy to produce compared to those, and also easy to move around the world. 

Ellie Austin:
How does biomethanol compare to other energy sources in terms of its emissions? 

Trevor Neilson:
On a life-cycle analysis, which is the way you need to look at these things, the biomethanol that WasteFuel produces will burn at about a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide to fossil. Now, that’s because of how it’s produced on the molecular level. This is the same molecule that’s burned if you’re deriving it from oil and gas.

Ellie Austin:
And what’s the carbon footprint of the process itself of taking waste and turning it to energy? Because that sounds quite resource-intensive?

Trevor Neilson:
Yeah, we use a gasification process that requires some electricity. So if we can get that from renewable sources, we’re happy to do that. But really, this is nature doing what nature does. We’ve entered into a technology partnership with BP that gives us access to some proprietary enzymes that they own, so not to bring you back to high school biology, but these are bugs that catalyze an organic process that creates a gas, which we then capture and turn into a liquid liquid fuel. So it’s not that complicated.

Ellie Austin:
And geographically in the world, where are you doing this at the moment? Where are you sourcing this waste from?

Trevor Neilson:
We have projects in places where there’s a lot of waste, perhaps not surprisingly. In the Philippines, for example, we’ve got a great project with Prime Infrastructure, which is the leading infrastructure developer. We have a partnership here in the UAE, with Averda, one of the leading waste management companies. We have projects in Uruguay, a project that’s happening in the United States. Pretty much anywhere where we can access large volumes of waste is where we want to be.

Ellie Austin:
And you mentioned that you have a partnership with BP and also that you target the shipping industry specifically. Which are the industries do you see WasteFuel expanding into and why over the coming year?

Trevor Neilson:
Well, we’re just going to focus on shipping and the reason for that is that there’s a huge disconnect between supply and demand. So there are about 250 new ships that have been ordered that are going to run on methanol. Those ships basically have none of the supply that they need so WasteFuel can keep itself busy only In the global shipping market if it wanted to. The flip side is that methanol, including biomethanol, is an important feedstock for other project products, formaldehyde, for example. 

But for now we’re really focused on shipping and doing that in partnership with BP. And you mentioned the project with Averda, which is, I believe, the first commercial waste to renewable energy plant in the Middle East. 

Ellie Austin:
Can you talk us through the status of that project? And maybe one of the biggest challenges that you’re facing with it at the moment? 

Trevor Neilson:
Yeah, I mean, we’re working through the details of it, the Dubai Industrial City. The truth is, we’re almost there. We’re dealing with things now like electricity prices, and sewer prices, and sort of the boring minutia of these projects. But we believe that we’ll be the first in the world or among the first in the world. We have other projects here in the region, as well. And, you know, I think it’s a place that the UAE can be very proud that it’s leading, like on a lot of these other issues. 

Ellie Austin:
Playing devil’s advocate, I guess you could say that if we find a solution to our huge waste problem, and turning it into energy, that could disincentivize us from trying to cut down on waste in our households or recycling. What’s your response to that? And how does what you’re doing coexist alongside the recycling movement? 

Trevor Neilson:
We are working with the organic fraction of the waste that’s not being recycled. So you know, whether human beings can decrease their consumption, that is a different matter, I think. I mean, it is wild levels of consumption that are driving the emergency that we’re in. It is relentless consumption 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And I think that in a certain way, whether it relates to carbon dioxide or relates to the plastics that are in the ocean, or many other issues, humans are going to, at some point, understand that infinite consumption on a planet that by its very nature is finite, doesn’t work. And I actually think that basic reality, call it a mathematical reality or just common sense, needs to be brought into the conversation a little bit. 

It seems as if people are behaving in a way that we would never tell our children to behave. You know, I’ve got three kids, and I would  never say, “Sure, you can buy whatever you want on Amazon. Your allowance is this, but you can buy whatever you want on Amazon.” In effect, that’s how we’re acting on these issues. A lot of people are trying to work on it. 

You know, you mentioned the APCO climate and biodiversity practice that has been set up by the founder of APCO, Margery Kraus, who’s a mentor to me here in the audience, set up to help companies trying to deal with this and create strategies to recognize that, you know, infinite waste on a finite planet does not work out very well. I should also point out that Bill McDonough is here somewhere, the father of circularity, the author of Cradle to Cradle, a hero to me, we wouldn’t exist without Bill and his work. So there are exciting things happening. But I think we also have to just check ourselves a little bit and say, you know, are we behaving in a way that would make sense if we were explaining it to our kids? And I think sadly, the answer to that is no.

Ellie Austin:
I want to change tack a bit. So in addition to WasteFuel, you do many things, Trevor, and one of them is that you founded the climate emergency fund CF, which is a nonprofit that supports climate activists, including groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and Just Stop Oil. Now, I believe you’re no longer actively working with the organization, and you’ve been quite critical over the past year about some of the aggressive activist tactics that those groups are using, calling them counterproductive. In your eyes, what does productive climate activism look like in this day and age, given that we are in this crisis?

Trevor Neilson:
You know, the climate activists are an interesting bunch. And the first time that I met Roger Hallam, the founder of Extinction Rebellion, he told me he didn’t trust me because I was a capitalist. And I couldn’t run from that, because I had a long career as a capitalist. 

Where I think climate activism has gone off track is that they believe that disruption alone will create change. And I think the evidence suggests the otherwise. I think that you could block every street in London for the next year, you could paint every building orange, you could glue yourself to anything that you could glue yourself to, and as of right now, Labour in the UK is still going to support drilling in the North Sea, because they’re concerned about energy security. 

So what the activists I think have gotten wrong—and I respect them, by the way, because they’re coming from a place of deep concern about the future of this planet, and they’re not wrong about that concern—but we have to move to a new phase where people with the engineering know-how, the commercial know-how, the people that know how to transform our energy system, also see themselves as climate activists. We kind of need to move to a new era in this, and it’s one that requires partnership between people that often don’t like each other very much, and certainly don’t sit at the same table. I think that when that starts happening, you’ll see real progress. 

And I have to say, despite the controversy associated with this COP, you are seeing the UAE lean into this conversation in a unique way that we have never seen from an oil-producing nation, and they’re going to be criticized and they’re not going to be perfect, and people are going to come up with problems, some of which may be real. But you have to hand it to this country for being willing to drive the conversation to a new place. It’s very admirable. It’s never happened before in the history of the world. And I think we all hope and we need something important to come out of it. 

Ellie Austin:
You mentioned infinite consumption, and then also talking about people that we might not expect becoming climate activists and thinking about activism in a different way. What would be your message to the leaders in this room about tangible things that they can do within their organizations, that governments, to really ensure that this issue stays at the top of the agenda and that they’re contributing to change? 

Trevor Neilson:
I had a really interesting and beautiful moment the other day. I live in California, and as I was walking along I heard the call to prayer, and it led me to stop and think a little bit about the Islamic traditions around environmentalism, notions of Khalifa, which is a notion of stewardship. And I don’t need to lecture people in this room about the teachings of the Prophet and the deep guidance within the Koran around environmentalism and stewardship.

I think that the key with this COP is rising above the day-to-day drivers like EBIT or P&L, and stepping back a little bit and thinking about the future. And right now, the signs aren’t good about our future. I mean, with 420 parts per million of co2 in the atmosphere, we are seeing ecosystems collapse, the biosphere is beginning to collapse. And you have plant and animal species that are sort of the first version of that. But the problem with the biosphere collapsing is that we are a part of the biosphere, we are a part of these ecosystems. So I would just hope that leaders, be they CEOs or government leaders, or others that are here at the table thinking generationally about this, you know, thinking about where are we in 50 years, or 100 years and think about what can occur look at where this country was 50 years ago. 

Anybody that thinks that this isn’t possible, look at the history of the UAE and what it accomplished in 50 years. And imagine, with the same level of commitment, the same level of entrepreneurship and engineering talent and dedication to something where we could be in 50 years. Humans are capable of incredible things. And this country is a wonderful example of that. And if we dedicate the same sort of focus to this, I believe we can achieve what we need to achieve. 

Ellie Austin:
My final question is, you mentioned that disruption maybe isn’t the answer to grassroots activism at the moment. If that isn’t the route, you believe we should be going down? How do you bring people into the climate conversation who maybe think it isn’t for them? Or it’s not a priority? How do you make people take note who haven’t done until this point, maybe because of the political side of the aisle they sit on?

Trevor Neilson:
You’ve got to get people out of their reptilian brain. You’ve got to get people out of a scarcity mindset. As a CEO, I think about P&L. I think about my next board meeting, I think about the annoying email I just got from one of my investors—not that any of my investors are annoying, for the record, but occasionally they have requests and things like that you have to deal with, and there’s my, daily mindset of “How do I get through it?” But if you speak to me about my kids, if you speak to me about their future, what sort of world will they live in? If they have children, what will their lives be like? Will they have birds chirping? Will there be animals in the wild? Are animals going to be something that my 7-year-old only knows from children’s books? And he knows that they used to be out there, but they’re not anymore. I don’t want that. I don’t think any of us want that. So if you speak to people in those terms, and if you engage them in a way that gets them thinking long-term rather than short-term, I think powerful things can occur. 





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