Some reason for optimism on climate change

photo (18)Not since the ill-fated UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 has there been as much optimism as there is now about curbing the risks of climate change. Government negotiators converged this week in Lima, Peru, to lay the foundation for a possible global climate agreement next year in Paris. Veteran reporter Andrew Revkin has a typically excellent and thorough post on the state of play at his Dot Earth blog.

In hopes of learning a bit more myself, I went to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington today to hear Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, discuss the climate negotiations, in conversation with Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

They, too, sounded hopeful.

“The agreement between the US and China is an extremely important milestone,” Kim said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. I’m much more optimistic than I was a year ago.” The bank’s commitment to driving economic development in poor countries, he argued, can be aligned with the goal of moving the world toward a low-carbon economy.

But how? Kim’s presentation was short on specifics and, to be honest, a bit disappointing. He arrived nearly half an hour late, citing security concerns around a visit to the World Bank by Prince William, of all things, and then read a wonky speech, without showing much passion or even a sense of urgency around the climate threat.

To be sure, Kim said all the right things. He called for the regulation of carbon pollution and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. He didn’t put it this way but it’s bonkers to allow people (all of us, not just the fossil fuel industry) to emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere for free, while providing hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies that encourage people to burn more oil, coal and natural gas. That’s a recipe for disaster.

“All countries should commit to put a price on carbon,” Kim said. “It’s a necessary if not sufficient step on the road to zero net emissions.” The Canadian province of British Columbia, he noted, enacted a carbon tax that has grown from $10 CN to $30 CN, and “British Columbia’s GDP has outperformed the rest of Canada’s since implementing the tax.”

Meantime, he said, “removing harmful fossil fuel subsidies is long overdue.” This will harm the poor in some countries by raising fuel prices, he acknowledged, so the elimination of subsidies could be accompanied by  “safety nets and cash transfers” to the poor.

Solving the climate problem will take the world economy into uncharted territory, Kim said. No rich country has ever reduced poverty and created prosperity for its citizens without burning cheap fossil fuels.

In that light,  it’s not surprising that some politicians in the developing world–notably Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi–say they need to focus on development now, and climate at some future date.

(Kim didn’t say so but India can also make the case that it was the US and EU that created the climate problem, and they should clean it up–the issue sometimes described as “climate justice.” See below for a fantastic interactive timeline of climate emissions from major polluting countries from the World Resources Institute.)

“We’re going to do everything we can to help India down a cleaner path,” Kim said, again without saying precisely how. “Four hundred million people living on less than $1 a day. That is also his (Modi’s) responsibility.”

Poor countries like India and Bangladesh, of course, stand to suffer from climate-related storms and drought–a compelling reason for them to act.

As Kim put it: “The science is pretty astounding.” Not to mention frightening.

Here’s the WRI timeline. If you click on “emissions” at the top and then the “loop” button below, you will see how climate emissions provide a window into the rise and fall of the world’s powers in the last 150 years.

The trouble with local food

nicollet-mall-farmers-marketI enjoy shopping at the farmers market in Bethesda, Md., where I live. It’s a pleasant way to pass time on a Sunday morning, and a chance to run into friends and neighbors.  I feel good about supporting farmers who work nearby. Sure, it’s pricey–I was shocked to pay $8 for a sliver of cheese a while back and if I remember correctly, fresh tuna sells for $30 per pound–but the food at the farmers’ market is pricey the way a Venti Starbucks yada-yada-yada is pricey. You’re not buying cheese, tuna or coffee. You’re partaking of an experience.

What you are not doing is saving the planet.

The best thing for the environment is to not to grow food locally but to grow crops in the places where they grow best–places where the soil, rainfall and climate suit whatever is being grown.

So, at least, says Greg Page, the former CEO and current executive chairman of Cargill, the giant food company that grows, processes and ships agricultural and food products around the world. Of course you would expect Page, who is 62 and has worked his entire career at Cargill, to favor a globalized food system. But, as he notes, there’s no particularly good reason to treat food differently from other consumer goods that are produced efficiently and then shipped to where they are needed. We don’t worry about local big-screen TVs or local running shoes or local auto parts.

I interviewed Page last month in Washington, and wrote about him this week at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Long before Greg Page became the executive chairman of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, the company dispatched him to Thailand to build a chicken plant in a rural province north of Bangkok. “It was a chance”, he said, “to start a business from scratch in an overseas location, while having access to the resources of Cargill”. Plus, he noted with a smile, he was “12 hours from headquarters … I loved it”.

Today, Cargill Meats Thailand imports soymeal from Brazil and Argentina to feed chickens, which are raised, slaughtered, processed, cooked and frozen into a wide range of products, most destined for restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, Europe, Canada and Hong Kong. Chicken parts that don’t appeal to western appetites — feet, heads and the like — are consumed locally or exported to nearby Asian markets.

To locavores who want to look their farmer in the eye, to the advocates of food sovereignty, and to those who argue that ‘cooking solves everything’, this is a nightmarish way to produce food. But to Greg Page, who has spent 41 years at Cargill and is now its executive chairman, global trade in food and agriculture is not only good for producers and consumers — it’s also a key element of a sustainable food system.

“Trade facilitates sustainability,” Page said when we met recently at Cargill’s Washington, D.C., office. “The world was not endowed with good soil and good rainfall equally. You want to move production to the right soil and the right climate, where it belongs.”

Of course, as Page knows, it’s not quite that simple. All other things being equal (and they rarely are), buying locally makes environmental sense, keeps food fresher and reduces waste. We may want to restrict agricultural imports from certain places because of food-safety concerns. And, as some of the commenters on my Guardian story say, the globalization of agriculture raises issues about land and water use and trade’s impact on poor farmers who can’t compete with large-scale agriculture.

But I’m trying to make a simpler point here–that local does not equal sustainable. Trade can be a glorious thing, Fair Trade is even better, and agriculture is no exception.

You can read the rest of my story here.

How green are green bonds?

corp-bondSome $34 billion in bonds labeled as green have been sold so far in 2014, three times as much as last year. Some experts predicting that as much as $100 billion of green bonds will be sold in 2015. These bonds — issued by governments, companies and international financial institutions like the World Bank — will help to finance solar and wind energy, hybrid cars, efficient buildings, cleaner waterways.

This sounds like unalloyed good news–and it may be. It’s just hard to know.

Today, the YaleEnvironment360 website posted my story about green bonds, headlined with a question: Can Green Bonds Bankroll A Clean Energy Revolution? Again, the answer is maybe. That unsatisfying, perhaps, but that’s the way it is.

That’s because, for the moment, a green bond is any bond that an issuer decides to label as green. Big banks and NGOs are working to set stricter standards, but they will take a while to arrive. So, for example, corn ethanol, nuclear power and methane capture while fracking could all be deemed green.

The bigger question, though, is whether green bonds are financing projects that, without them, would not get done. Again, that’s hard to say. But if all we are getting with green bonds are labels on bonds that would have been issued anyway, we’re wasting our time.

That said, there’s potential here–at heart, the potential to attract new money to finance low-carbon infrastructure. So the boom is green bonds is worth watching.

Here’s how my story begins:

Looked at from one angle, climate change is an infrastructure problem. To limit global warming to 2 degrees C and avoid the worst effects of climate change, about $44 trillion will need to be invested in low-carbon projects like wind farms, solar panels, nuclear power, carbon capture, and smart buildings by 2050, the International Energy Agency estimates. That’s more than $1 trillion a year — roughly a four-fold jump from current investment levels.

Where’s the money going to come from? Maybe from green bonds, say bankers and environmentalists alike. Green bonds, which are also known as climate bonds, are fixed-income investments that are designed to finance environmentally friendly projects. Pioneered by international development banks — the European Investment Bank issued the first climate bond in 2007, followed a year later by the World Bank — they are today issued by state and local governments (Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and the cities of Stockholm and Spokane, Washington, among others) and by big companies (Bank of America, Unilever, and the French utility GDF Suez).

Uses of the bond proceeds are varied. The World Bank sold green bonds to raise funds for geothermal energy in Indonesia and free compact fluorescent bulbs for the poor in Mexico. Massachusetts raised money to clean up a superfund site. Energy company EDF’s green bond financedwind farms in France, and Toyota used the proceeds from a green bond to make loans to American consumers who buy hybrid cars.

The story goes on to explain why “green bonds may not be all they’re cracked up to be.” You can read the rest here.

Aluminum, and the circular economy

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Aluminum is an amazing material, as I’ve written before (here and here). It’s infinitely recyclable, lightweight and strong.

Ford is making more of America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup, out of aluminum. Other automakers, too, are designing more aluminum into their cars.

The typical aluminum beverage can in North America is made of about 68 percent recycled content and, according to the industry, a can that’s recycled becomes a new can in less than 60 days. Some craft brewers are turning to cans.

Nevertheless, somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away and wind up in landfalls in the US, I’m told. Only because we are such a rich country can we afford to waste so much. But why should we?

One company that is aiming to drive aluminum recycling is Atlanta-based Novelis. Novelis is the industry leader when it comes to recycling–the company, unlike its competitors, owns no mines–and it talks a lot about the idea of a circular economy. Last week, I wrote a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about the company and its new product, the evercan, which is made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.

The evercan is, by all accounts, an environmentally superior product to conventional aluminum beverage cans, and arguably a better single-serve beverage package that PET bottles–but so far, no major beverage company has adopted it. My story asks why.

The story is getting some pushback, in the comments as well as privately from readers I respect. They say that no company has the right expect other companies or consumers to buy a “greener” product. Of course, that’s correct. My point is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors all say they want to promote recycling, but none has yet committed to the most recycled beverage container on the market.

Criticism came, as well, because I was hired earlier this month by Novelis to moderate a panel on the circular economy, at the opening of the company’s new aluminum recycling plant in Nachterstedt, Germany. This was disclosed in the Guardian. I knew there was a risk in writing about Novelis under those circumstances but I felt the story was still worth doing. [For a much longer explanation of how I manage conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, see this. The short version: I’m transparent about my paid moderating and speaking work.]

While in Germany, I spent a good deal of time with Novelis and its head of sustainability, John Gardner, and I came away impressed. I’m sure this influenced my approach to the story. But I’m not alone in believing that the company is a sustainability leader. Its include such respected environmental thinkers as Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future, Matt Arnold of JPMorgan Chase and author-academic Stu Hart.

What I learned while reporting the story is that inventing and manufacturing a greener product isn’t enough to drive change. Other business issues–in this case, what appears to be the understandable reluctance of the big beverage companies to depend on a single supplier–can stand in the way. Changing systems is hard.

In any event, you can judge the story for yourself. Here is how it begins:

Imagine an infinitely recyclable product that performs as well as the alternative, costs less to make, and is unquestionably better for the environment. You would bet on its success, wouldn’t you?

Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, has made that bet. Since 2012 the Atlanta, Georgia-based company has invested half a billion dollars in recycling by building, among other things, the world’s biggest aluminum recycling plant. This $260m high-tech marvel officially opened earlier this month in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Novelis uses the facility to produce materials for its “evercan”, a beverage container made of 90% recycled aluminum.

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum is a poster child for shifting from a linear take-make-waste model of industrial production to a circular model in which everything, at the end of its useful life, is made into something else.

On its website Novelis endorses the circular economy, stating that it is moving its “whole business model” toward a closed loop. “We are embracing an entirely new way of thinking and operating, in order to radically transform our company – and, in the process, lead the way in our industry.”

But Novelis is having trouble finding followers. None of the world’s major beverage companies have adopted the evercan. So far, the product has just one customer: Red Hare Brewing Co., a small craft brewer based in Marietta, Georgia.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Hawken’s next big idea

98b56975-55f2-45d2-9e39-19578c3bbc70-620x372I’ve learned a lot over the years from Paul Hawken, and when our paths have crossed, I’ve always enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. He was an early supporter of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green, and I recall a delightful walk along the beach in Laguna Niguel where he told me about the work he’d been doing with Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. Some years later, I spent an afternoon with him at his offices in Sausalito, talking about the shortcomings of the socially responsible investment industry. He also delivered a great talk about the high costs of cheap food a few years back at the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

So when I first got wind of Project Drawdown, Paul’s latest project, I was eager to hear more. We talked by phone the other day, and the idea was unveiled last night at the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans. I wrote about Project Drawdown for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Ten years ago, in a landmark article in Science Magazine, Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote, “Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.” They identified a series of so-called climate stabilization wedges – among them efficient cars and buildings, increasing solar, wind and nuclear power, and reducing deforestation – that if adopted would eventually maintain atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at about 500 parts per million (ppm), a level they said “would prevent most damaging climate change.” At the time, atmospheric concentrations stood at about 375 ppm.

A decade later, annual emissions continue to grow and atmospheric concentrations have topped 395 ppm – and they are rising steadily. The situation appears grim.

It is not, argues pioneering environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken. Climate solutions abound, he said, and today, at the opening plenary of the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, he will unveil Project Drawdown – a new compendium of climate solutions that are designed not just to stabilize, but to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Stabilization at 450, 500, 550 ppm is chaos,” Hawken said. “Our goal should be drawdown.”

Project Drawdown will begin as a lavishly illustrated book and online database, to be released late next year. Its purpose is to re-frame the climate debate, by showing that solving the climate crisis will bring, not sacrifice, but “more security, more prosperity, more jobs, more well-being and better health,” Hawken said.

I’m skeptical of what appears to be easy solutions to the climate crisis because, in my view, if it were easy to become radically more efficient and shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, well, why haven’t we done it already? But some of the solutions in the book, which is still being researched, are growing fast–distributed solar power, LEDs, utility-scale wind farms. Others are creative. Educating girls in the developing world, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as a climate solution, would, it turns out, be of enormous benefit because girls who get more education have fewer children, and fewer children mean fewer emissions.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

28e0e549-367c-467e-9f67-41c34a470b91-620x372Lately, I’ve come to believe that the food industry is moving to become more sustainable with a seriousness that few other industries, particularly energy, can match.

Since Labor Day, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to top execs from Cargill (Greg Page), DuPont (Ellen Kullman), Monsanto (Hugh Grant and Robb Fraley) and Walmart (Doug McMillon) talk about a variety of initiatives to increase crop yields, better manage nitrogen pollution, reduce food waste, improve living standards for small farmers in emerging markets and confront the obesity crisis. These are real, and they are aimed at producing more affordable, nutritious food, without destroying the planet in the process. All these companies could be moving faster and doing more–in particularly, I’d like to see them become more active in the climate-policy arena–but there’s no doubt in my mind that they recognize that climate change is a growing threat to their businesses, and they want to do what they can to respond.

On Monday, Walmart held one of its quarterly sustainability milestone meetings, this one focused on food and ag. I wrote about it in a story that was posted this morning at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Nearly a decade after setting a series of bold sustainability goals, Walmart has struggled to curb its climate pollution and buy more renewable energy. But the company has already changed the way food is grown around the world – curbing agricultural pollution, pushing healthier choices, supporting local growers and promoting transparency. And the world’s largest retailer (fiscal year 2014 revenues: $473bn) is just getting started.

This week, Walmart showcased food and agriculture during its latest sustainability summit, while saying little about energy and emissions. It’s easy to see why. The company remains a long way from being powered by 100% renewable energy, one of its aspirational goals.

Currently, it gets about 24% of its electricity from clean energy, and its fleet mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because wind, solar power and alternative fuels generally cost more than coal, oil and natural gas, and Walmart is all about delivering low prices to customers.

Nor has Walmart been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. While the company has become more efficient, its absolute emissions are rising as Walmart grows its market share to satisfy Wall Street. This year, Walmart plans to open about 115 super centers (surrounded by vast parking lots, in most cases) along with 270 to 300 smaller stores. Tensions between its business model – which depends on selling more stuff to more people everywhere – and its environmental aspirations remain unresolved.

But when it comes to food and agriculture, Walmart has found a sweet spot, a place where its low-cost mantra is nicely aligned with the social and environmental need to deliver safe and affordable food to the world, using less land, less water and fewer chemical inputs to do it.

The story goes on to quote Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s senior vp of sustainability, as saying: “We have very bold aspirations for systemic change. We’re not playing small here. This is a whole company, a whole industry, a whole system effort.” I don’t doubt it.

I met Kathleen last month during Climate Week in New York, and she’s impressive. A former McKinsey consultant, she uprooted her husband and kids from Toronto, where they had lived, to move to Bentonville, Arkansas, mostly because she wants her work to make a difference. She oversees the Walmart Foundation, as well as sustainability programming, so she’s in position to make sure they are supporting one another.

Walmart is in a perfect position to drive change. It has influence over big food brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, MillerCoors and many more–and, as Doug McMillon noted the other day, they are all ready to act. Environmental Defense Fund, with its Bentonville staffers led by Michelle Harvey, is bringing its scientists and activists to the task, particularly around the important (but not very sexy) issue of nitrogen pollution. Other NGOs are stepping up, too.

What’s more, as I wrote, new farming technologies will help drive efficiency efforts, so the timing is good:

There was talk at the sustainability summit about AdaptN, a web-based tool to manage fertilizer in the corn industry, and Harvest Mark, which traces food from farm to fork. Monsanto, a key partner, last year acquired The Climate Corp, which uses big data to help farmers increase crop yields, manage chemical inputs and increase crop yields.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Should bike sharing be subsidized? Or privatized?

Capital_Bikeshare_station_outside_Eastern_Market_MetroI’m a fan of bike sharing, as regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), and a satisfied, albeit irregular, customer of Capital Bikeshare, the convenient and well-managed public bike-sharing system in Washington, D.C., which now extends into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.

There’s a potential cloud over bike sharing, though, and it is this: So far, at least, no big-city bike sharing system of which I am aware is financially self-supporting.

This doesn’t trouble me. Bike sharing is form of mass transit. If you believe, as I do, that subways and buses deserve taxpayer support, bike sharing does, too. It creates a slew of positive externalities, including reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, reduced traffic congestion, a healthier populace and the mobility that city dwellers without cars need to get to work or school. (You may be wondering, are cars subsidized, too? Perhaps, but not by as much as you would think, some say. But it’s complicated. A few years back in Slate, Dan Gross argued just the opposite, that governments provide massive subsidies to private car owners.)

In any event, we’ve learning from the bike sharing boom that bike sharing is very popular, but that at the current pricing levels — $75 for an annual membership, $15 for a three-day membership in Washington — it can’t pay for itself. New York’s Citibike was touted as a bike sharing system that would pay for itself with user fees and Citi’s marketing dollars, but it is millions of dollars in the red. Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote a good analysis of the economics of the two systems.

A startup bike-sharing company called Zagster offers an alternative: private bike sharing. It provides bike sharing systems to companies, universities (including Yale and Duke), apartment buildings and hotels for their employees, students and guests. Lately, it’s been making headway in Detroit.

I wrote about Zagster this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Of all the big cities in America, Detroit is among the least hospitable to bike sharing. The city is bankrupt. Its residents are poor. And it sprawls over 142 sq miles (367.8 sq km), nearly enough area to fit San Francisco, Boston and New York within its borders. Winters can be harsh, public transit is dismal and it is, after all, the Motor City.

But a nimble little bike-sharing startup called Zagster is making inroads in Motown. Last year, Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans who has invested more than $1.3bn in Detroit, turned to Zagster to start a private bike-sharing network for his employees. The local utility company DTE Energy, as well as the United Way of Southern Michigan and several small companies, followed. This week, General Motors announced that Zagster will make its bikes available to 19,000 employees at the 330-acre GM Tech Center in Warren.

What’s more, Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co, has invested in Zagster through Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in “next-generation mobility”.

Tim Ericson, the 28-year-old co-founder and CEO of Zagster, told me: “We’re creating what is almost becoming a citywide bike sharing program, with no public funds and no use of public space.”

As you might imagine, I have some reservations about Zagster’s model. The more we privatize goods and services — private schools, private parks in the form of country clubs, Google’s private bus from SF to its campus, and the like — the less political support there will be for public schools, parks and transport.

Then again, I can’t envision bike sharing come to Detroit in any other way.

You can read the rest of my story here.

The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.

Is the sharing economy really green?

sharing1So many assumptions underly conventional wisdom about all things green. That biofuels are better for the planet than burning fossil fuels. That bans on plastic bags help the environment. That electric cars reduce CO2 emissions. That eating meat is bad for the climate.

All these things are true, I believe. But what I believe doesn’t matter. The question is, where’s the evidence? On biofuels, plastic bags and electric cars, the environmental impacts depend on where the crops to make biofuels are grown, what replaces plastic bags, the electricity mix that powers the electric car and how the cows that went into your burger were raised.

The point is, the “environment” is an extraordinarily complex system, as is the economy. That’s the underlying message of a story that I wrote last week for the environmental website Ensia headlined Is Sharing Really Green?

Here’s how it begins:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a house I found onAirbnb and made my way around the city using uberX. I’ve written favorably about house sharingcar sharingbike sharingand getting rid of stuff you no longer want via yerdle. At environmental conferences, I’ve listened to evangelists for the sharing economy such as Lisa GanskyRobin Chase and Andy Ruben. Participating in the sharing economy can save money, open people up to new experiences and build a sense of community among strangers.

But I’m not convinced the sharing economy delivers the environmental benefits its proponents claim.

Because the sharing economy enables more efficient use of underutilized assets — a car that might otherwise sit in a driveway, an extra room in a home, an electric drill or even a wedding dress — conventional wisdom holds that the sharing economy is “green.” With a little help from Google, it’s easy to find headlines like “How Web Sharing Sites Can Save the Planet” and “The Sharing Economy for a Sustainable Future.” Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited, has said the sharing economy “makes a lot of sense financially and environmentally as well.” In her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, entrepreneur and investor Lisa Gansky writes: “Using sophisticated information systems, the Mesh [her term for the sharing economy] also deploys physical assets more efficiently. That boosts the bottom line, with the added advantage of lowering pressure on natural resources.” In an interview with Treehugger, Roo Rogers, co-author with Rachel Botsman of a book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, declared: “In my opinion — having been an environmentalist all my life — collaborative consumption has the potential to have the biggest environmental impact that we could ever have hoped for.”

But where’s the evidence? It’s hard to find.

I probably could have written that the evidence is non-existent, but the sharing economy is so new and so hard to measure that it’s no surprise that the case for its “green” benefits remains unproven.

I hasten to add that there are still good reasons to patronize Airbnb or Zipcar or Rent the Runway or the many other sharing sites that seem to be proliferating. There’s little harm done when we make personal choices based on our assumptions about what’s good for the planet.

But when big companies or, worse, governments set policy without questioning their assumptions, the consequences can be negative on a much broader scale. I’m afraid that happens a lot more often than it should.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Tax avoidance, and corporate responsibility

uncle-sam-pay-your-taxes1Would you consider Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo good corporate citizens? Certainly they position themselves that way, and they deserve credit for their leadership around human rights (Apple, Nike), climate change (GE), water (Coca-Cola), renewable energy (Google, Microsoft) and sustainable agriculture (PepsiCo).

But when it comes to paying corporate income taxes, they have some explaining to do.

That, at least, is the conclusion that I came to after reading an excellent report on tax avoidance titled Offshore Shell Games, and published last month by Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG.

Corporate taxation is all over the news these days as US firms move their headquarters overseas for tax reasons, in a process known as inversion. But aggressive maneuvering to avoid taxes is nothing new, as I wrote today in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

America’s a great country. That’s why people from all over the world — including, lately and tragically, thousands of poor children from Central America — clamor to get in. So why are some of America’s wealthiest companies trying to get out?

It’s simple, really — they don’t want to pay US taxes.

You’ve probably heard about Walgreen’s, your neighborhood pharmacy that is contemplating moving its headquarters to Switzerland to reduce its tax bill. Medtronic, the big medical device company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has plans to move to Ireland, for tax-avoidance purposes. Then there’s Mylan, a maker of generic drugs based near Pittsburgh, Pennsylavia, which intends to incorporate in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is lower. Mylan’s CEO, as it happens, is Heather Bresch — the daughter of US Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat — and she says she has no choice but to go.

Other companies aren’t going so far as to relocate their headquarters, a process known as inversion that often requires them to acquire a company based elsewhere. Instead, to avoid US taxes, they are parking their earnings offshore, often in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that levy no corporate income taxes. That tactic, which like the inversions is legal, is being employed by companies that position themselves as good corporate citizens — among them Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo.

Exploiting loopholes in the tax laws may or may not be legal–the IRS is hopelessly outgunned by big corporate tax departments–but it’s unethical.

The report from Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG, which makes for surprisingly compelling reading, details a number of questionable tax avoidance strategies that allow companies to shift earnings, purely for tax purposes, from high-tax jurisdictions like the US to tax havens. Here are my favorite fun facts from the report:

The report found that subsidiaries of US companies reported earning $94bn in Bermuda, which has a gross domestic product of just $6bn. That doesn’t compute. US firms reported earning another $51bn in the Cayman Islands, where GDP is about $3bn.

This is outrageous, and please don’t tell me that the way to fix the problem is to reduce the admittedly high US corporate income tax rate. The US cannot compete with places where the tax rate is zero.

All of these companies, of course, benefit enormously from government services–public education, police, the rule of law, highways, etc. Those companies that don’t pay their fair share shift the burden to others–small businesses that can’t afford high-priced accountants, companies that don’t have overseas operations and therefore can’t take advantage of the opportunity engage in tax-avoiding shenanigans and, of course, the rest of us.

You can read the rest of my story here.