A burger grows in Brooklyn, and musings about meat

Fresh hamburger with fried potatoesThe other day, at Net Impact’s annual conference in Minneapolis, I moderated a panel called the “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” about eating meat in a carbon constrained world. It’s becoming a familiar conversation. Every other day, it seems, Guardian Sustainable Business, where I do most of my writing, runs a story about alternative proteins, like seaweed and insects. Regular readers know that I write a lot about meat, not just for the Guardian but for Fortune, which ran this story about a company called Beyond Meat and for YaleEnvironment360 where I wrote an essay that asked: Should Environmentalists Just Say No to Eating Beef?

So, during the Net Impact panel, I must admit that I was surprised to see a chart from Ian Monroe, the CEO of a startup called Oroeco, that put the climate-change impact of beef in context. This isn’t the exact chart, but the numbers are similar (carbon footprinting is a very inexact science). You will see that the GHG footprint of beef (combined with lamb, it’s 0.9t CO2e) is smaller than driving, or using electricity at home. For those of us who travel a lot, flying generates far more GHG emissions than anything we eat. Beef, to put it simply, is not that big a deal when it comes to #climate change.

American-carbon-footprint

In that context, I wanted to ask Peggy Neu, the president of Meatless Mondays, who also spoke at Net Impact: “Why not carless Mondays?” Or, for that matter, “turn-out-the-lights Mondays”? If the problem at hand is climate change, maybe we are paying a disproportionate attention to beef.

And yet, as Ian Monroe pointed out during the panel, while we can see pathways to low-carbon or zero-carbon transportation electric cars, biofuels) and, at least in theory, we can generate low-carbon electricity using wind, solar and nuclear power, it’s hard to imagine low-carbon or zero-carbon beef. There’s just no getting around the fact that cows, when compared to pigs or chickens or fish, are inefficient converters of feed to protein, and so they generate a bigger environmental footprint. What’s more, globally, meat consumption is growing, as emerging middle class people in China and India eat more beef.

And, of course, animal agriculture has negative impacts that go beyond carbon pollution. It consumes lots of water. Livestock, particularly pigs and chickens, are often treated badly. I recently visited southwestern Minnesota (hello Mankato!) and I can tell you that the odor from pig farms, when the manure is not well-managed, can be unpleasant.

All this is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about Modern Meadow, a venture-funded start-up company that one day hopes to grow beef in a lab. You won’t see anything from Modern Meadow in a supermarket anytime soon, although its lab-grown leather could reach the market in a few years.

But at least some investors believe that alternatives to conventional beef could someday become real businesses. Here’s how my story begins:

Most of us embrace modern technology. We constantly upgrade our phones, connect with each other through Facebook, pay our bills online, demand the most advanced medical treatments available when we get sick and drive cars that have more computing power than the system that guided Apollo astronauts to the moon.

But, for many of us, food is another matter. We want our food to be pure, free of artificial additives, dangerous pesticides and natural – a term that, incidentally, is all but meaningless. Genetically-modified foods arouse anxiety. We want, in the words of influential journalist Michael Pollan, to avoid eating anything that our “great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.

And according to a Pew Research survey, only 20% of Americans would eat meat grown in a lab.

That’s a problem for Andras Forgacs. He’s the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based startup that intends to use tissue engineering – also known as cell culturing or biofabrication – to create livestock products that require fewer inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals than conventional animal agriculture.

What’s more, Forgacs says, his company’s products will also require no animal slaughter.

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.

The circular economy at Disney World

Harvest Power Orlando - Energy Garden copy

Alas, you won’t be able to take a tour of this new “attraction” next time you visit Disney World. But inside those giants vats, through a process called anaerobic digestion, something cool is happening — food waste, used oils, fats, grease and treated human sewage are being turned into electricity and compost.

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

But this facility, which is owned and operated by a company called Harvest Power, is a potential solution to the problem of food waste, which is a bigger problem that you might think. Food that winds up in landfills is not only a waste of money, and a source of methane pollution, but the water and energy required to grow that food (and the greenhouse gas emissions created in the process) are also wasted. Addressing the problem of food waste requires taking steps up and down the supply chain, from the farm to the table, if you will, but anaerobic digestion will likely be part of the solution.

Last week, I wrote about Harvest Power for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Millions of people a year visit Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park. These days, some of the food that they don’t eat – as well as some of the food they do – ends up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.

How? Food waste – including table scraps, used cooking oils and grease – is collected from selected restaurants in the Disney World complex, as well as area hotels and food processors, and sent to a system of giant tanks at a facility near the park. There, the food waste is mixed with biosolids – the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after sewage is treated – and fed to microorganisms that produce biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas is combusted in generators to make electricity, and the remaining solids can be processed into fertilizer.

The circular economy at Disney World may not be as pretty as Cinderella’s Castle, but this process for turning organic waste into energy, which is known asanaerobic digestion, could turn out to be the best way to extract value from food scraps and treated sewage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.

“We’re able to turn all of the waste stream into productive products,” saysKathleen Ligocki, the chief executive of Harvest Power, a venture capital-funded clean-tech company that built the Florida facility. “This is our goal – pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

I met Kathleen Ligocki recently at a clean tech event in DC. Impressive lady–she’s had a long and successful career in the auto industry, then joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner before taking over as CEO of Harvest Power early this year. The company is a bit disjointed and unfocused; it was put together through the acquisition of composting operations around the country. Her job is to scale up the operation, and eventually take the company public. You can read the rest of the story here.

A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 

Great.

The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. 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.

A lean startup seeks to “green” travel

United_Airlines_Boeing_767-322ERI’m writing this blogpost in London’s Heathrow Airport, on my way home after a brief visit to the UK.  I had a great trip, visiting colleagues at The Guardian and relatives in Manchester, today is not a good day for my personal carbon footprint. According to this carbon footprint calculator, my share of the emissions on the flight back to Washington, D.C., will be about 0.52 metric tons. That’s roughly the equivalent of driving 2,100 miles (four months of driving, for me) in my 2008 Honda Civic hybrid. So my efforts to occasionally ride my bike or take Metro instead of driving are trivial, to say the least, when compared to my air travel. I shudder to think of the carbon impact of a family vacation to Europe.

The point is, air travel is a carbon-intensive activity and there’s not much any of us can do about,  other than to travel less. (Taking a ship to London wasn’t an option. And none of the airlines use low-carbon fuels at scale because they’re too expensive.) That’s one reason why I was intrigued to hear about TripZero, a startup that aims to offset the carbon footprint of travel, at no cost to the traveler.

I met TripZero’s founder, Eric Zimmerman, early last year, and we reconnected when he launched the website recently. Here’s my story about TripZero, which ran the other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, begins:

About seven years ago, a publishing executive named Eric Zimmerman heard a speech by Eric Corry Freed, the author of a book called Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies. Freed talked about the responsibility that business has to protect the environment, and the stories we will tell our children about what we did. “Have you ever sat in the audience and felt someone was talking just to you?” Zimmerman asks. “That was one of those moments.”

Zimmerman was moved. He did a deep energy retrofit on his home in Carlisle, Massachusetts. He put solar panels on his roof. He stopped outsourcing his company’s printing to China, and he helped to create an industry brand called Green Edition that sets standards for sustainability in book publishing.

It wasn’t enough. About a year ago, Zimmerman, 48, left his job to start a company called TripZero that offsets the carbon emissions generated when people travel by plane, train, car or bus – at no cost to the traveler.

A lean startup – “The company is me,” Zimmerman says – TripZero is tackling one of the most intractable problems in corporate sustainability: the carbon footprint of travel and tourism.

For now, TripZero is a modest enterprise. Essentially, it functions as a travel agency. If you book hotels on its website, it collects a commission from the hotel owner and uses a portion of the commission to buy verified carbon offsets. It’s a clever idea, and it should appeal not only to eco-minded travelers but to NGOs and small businesses when they book travel. You can read the rest of my story here.

2-TripZero Homepage Boat

A murmur, not a message

800px-US_Capitol_SouthOne reason why it has been so hard for President Obama and environmentalists to persuade Congress to enact climate-change legislation is strong opposition from much of corporate America. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which is seen as the voice of business, all, when it comes down to it,  oppose a carbon tax or an economy-wide scheme to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

They’ve got some sound reasons for doing so: Climate regulation by the US, if it is not followed by regulation in China and India and the rest of the world, will do little to curb global warming, but it will disadvantage the US economy and cost consumers money by raising energy prices. The thing is, China and India and the rest of the world are unlikely to price carbon unless the US leads the way. And right now it’s “free” for fossil fuel companies and utilities and the rest of us to pollute the air with CO2, and so we do so with impunity.

Thankfully, the chamber, NAM and the Journal don’t speak for all of business. That’s why a business coalition known as BICEP (it stands for Business for Climate and Energy Policy) needs to grow in numbers and in political clout. BICEP favors climate regulation, and its members include such well-known companies as eBay, Gap, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nike and Starbucks. But BICEP, pardon the bad pun, doesn’t carry much weight in your nation’s capital, and it’s fairly easy to understand why.

For the US fossil fuel industry, most of which opposes carbon regulation, the climate issue is a matter of the utmost importance. Environmentalists  who worry about the climate crisis increasingly argue that much of the world’s reserves of coal and oil must be left in the ground, unless and until  engineers come up with practical and cost-effective way to capture CO2 from power plants or from the air.  If that argument that we need to burn dramatically less coal and oil prevails, the stock-market value of the fossil fuel industry would collapse. This is the so-called carbon bubble, and it is an existential threat to the fossil fuel companies.

By contrast, climate change is an important issue Mars, Nike, Starbucks and the other companies in BICEP,  but it’s by no means their biggest issue. They are to be commended for stepping out, but so far they have not thrown the full weight of their Washington operations (or, for that matter, their marketing departments)  behind their position.

That was evident last week when BICEP organized a lobbying day on Capitol Hill. I covered the event for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here is how my story begins:

It is not often that big business comes to Washington to seek regulation. But a group of companies including IKEA, Jones Lang LaSalle, Mars, Sprint, and VF Corp did so this week, asking Congress to take steps to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Executives organized by the business coalition BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), testified before a Senate and House task force on climate change, telling lawmakers about their own corporate commitments to reduce carbon pollution. Then they fanned out across the Capitol to lobby on behalf of a clean-energy financing bill.

They did so on the first anniversary of the release of the Climate Declaration, a corporate call-to-action that has been signed by more than 750 companies. It was a reminder to legislators that the US Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry and the Wall Street Journal editorial page do not speak for all of corporate America when they oppose government action to regulate carbon pollution.

“Business is not a monolith,” said Anne Kelley, who coordinates BICEP’s lobbying efforts. “That’s been the message of BICEP since the beginning.”

But if BICEP has shown that hundreds of companies favor political action on climate, its efforts so far have been drowned out in Washington by those of the US Chamber and its allies, a US Senator told the group.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a strong advocate of climate action who convened the hearing, said BICEP’s voice is “a murmur and not a message”, and he urged companies to spend more of their political and reputational capital on the climate issue.

Whitehouse, as the story goes on to explain, urges the BICEP companies to be more forceful. Until more companies understand that the threat of climate change, and the costs of adapting to extreme weather such as heat waves and drought, is a core issue for them, the debate in Washington will be dominated by the likes of the US chamber. And that’s a problem for all of us.

Recycling CO2, and the oil sands

650px-Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2_Crop1Capturing the CO2 emissions from coal or natural gas plants is a climate solution–but one that has sharply divided environmentalists.

Mike Brune and his colleagues at the Sierra Club want the US and the world to go entirely Beyond Coal, as do other activist groups like Greenpeace and 350.org. Others, including David Hawkins of NRDC (see this press release) and the folks at the Clean Air Task Force, argue that it’s unrealistic to expect countries like China and India to leave their coal reserves in the ground. They say investing in carbon capture from power plants are essential.

By all accounts, carbon capture and storage (CCS)  is costly and complicated. One way to bring down those costs would be to recycle the CO2 captured from coal and natural gas plants, and turn into useful products–fuels, chemicals, animal feed, building materials, whatever. CO2 recycling is an exciting idea–as I explain in this story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business.

I reported the story at Globe 2104, a conference on business and the environment held last week in Vancouver, one of North America’s greenest cities and, not incidentally, perhaps its most beautiful big city. I had the chance to moderate one panel at Globe, and speak on another, and in between I went to a panel on carbon recycling, where I learned that there’s growing support for the idea in Alberta, home to Canada’s fossil fuel industry, including the now notorious oil sands development.

Here’s how my story begins:

We recycle paper, plastic, aluminum and glass. So why not carbon?

Taking carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and making it into something useful could help solve the climate crisis, if it could be done on a large scale. But capturing carbon emissions from power plants and turning them into fuels, feed, chemicals or building materials has so far proven to be an expensive and difficult proposition.

Lately, though, a burst of financial and technical support for recycling carbon emissions has come from an unexpected source: the Canadian oil sands industry.

Reviled by environmentalists, pilloried by Canadian rock legend Neil Young and denounced by crusading climate scientist James Hansen, the oil sands industry seems an unlikely partner in the battle against carbon emissions. But its interest in finding a carbon-dioxide solution actually makes sense.

After all, the coal, oil and natural gas industries produce more CO2 than anybody else. And given current legal trends, it’s clear that they don’t expect to be able to dump it into the atmosphere, willy-nilly, for free and forever. Alberta, the western province that is home to the oil sands and is Canada’s closest thing to Texas, enacted a $15-per-ton carbon tax in 2007. Next door, British Columbia charges a $30-per-ton carbon tax.

The story goes on to talk about plans for a global prize competition around recycling CO2, backed by Prize Capital, a small California company that provides early-stage capital to startups and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based coal-burning power generator that has financed research into carbon recycling.

I’ve since heard about a couple more companies that are working on CO2 recycling, which I’ll report on in the coming weeks.

What’s more, if scientists can figure out to economically capture CO2 from power plants, the next step could be capturing CO2 directly out of the air. That, as regular readers of this blog know, was the subject of my 2012 Kindle Single e-book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, available from Amazon at $1.99, and a bargain at the price, if I do say so myself.

 

Natural capital: Breakthrough or buzzword?

forests-why-matter_63516847We depend on nature. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, the serenity of the wilderness: They make life possible. Not to mention more pleasant. Fine. That’s not news.

Lately, though, environmentalists and a handful of companies and consultants have tried to assign a dollar value to the products and services provided by nature. This idea is what’s called “natural capital,” at least as I understand it. I took a look at the idea in a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business.

The story has already generated reaction, positive and negative. (Sometimes from people in the same organization.) Before you read it, I want to clarify what I meant to say–something a reporter shouldn’t have to do, but it may be helpful in this case. I didn’t mean to diss the entire notion of natural capital. It strikes me as potentially a useful idea, particularly when applied at a modest scale, and with some humility. Specifically, some companies and government agencies have found that by “investing in nature,” they can generate favorable returns when compared to other more conventional investments. For example, Coca Cola bottling companies have paid upstream farmers to take better care of their land, as a way of protecting water that the company needs to make beverages. A small nonprofit in Oregon called The Freshwater Trust has found that working with landowners to plant trees along riverbanks can improve water quality more effectively and at a lower cost than installing conventional pollution controls. (Here’s an example, a project the group administered for the City of Medford.) Most famously, Dow Chemical has worked with the Nature Conservancy to develop “green infrastructure” instead of “gray infrastructure” at a big facility in Texas. Maybe because I can get my head around them, these projects make sense to me.

What’s harder for me to understand are the more ambitious and complicated efforts to account for natural capital on a corporate or even a global scale. The calculations get complicated, in a hurry. (PUMA and its parent company, Kering, have spent years trying to measure their impact.) The numbers become less reliable when we start talking about billions or even trillions of dollars. Most important, the object of the exercise is…..what, exactly? Some people argue that valuing natural capital helps company identify risks or opportunities in its supply chain, but does an apparel company really need to hire accountants and consultants to understand that growing cotton will be harder in a water-constrained world than it is today? What’s more, as I explain in the story, the idea of “finite” natural resources, on which much of the analysis depends, is itself flawed. Yes, we may run out of this or that, but over time, inventive people are about to devise substitutes for scarce resource as the prices of those resources. This is how markets and innovation work. After,  the  stock of natural capital in the 19th century would have included whale oil for lighting and horses for transportation; they were, perhaps, finite, but they became irrelevant.

In any event, here’s how my story begins:

The corporate sustainability movement needs many things – scale, acceleration, a sense of urgency, science-based targets and goals – but one thing it surely does not need is another buzzword. Yet that is what “natural capital” is at risk of becoming.

At the GreenBiz Forum last month in Arizona, which attracted nearly 600 sustainability professionals, talk of natural capital was everywhere. The Nature Conservancy and the Corporate Eco Forum unveiled the Natural Capital Business Hub, which aims to “help companies uncover opportunities to enhance their bottom lines by integrating the value of natural capital into their strategy, operations, accounting and reporting.” Companies identified as Natural Capital Leaders – including Kimberly Clark, Freeport McMoran and Adobe – were praised.

So what, exactly, is natural capital? And why should companies care? Will accounting for natural capital drive meaningful change – or will it merely consume time and energy, occupy panelists at sustainability conferences and generate consulting fees?

Defining natural capital is relatively easy. “It’s the products and services that nature provides to business,” explains Libby Bernick, a senior vice president at Trucost, a consultancy that has popularized the idea. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, even scenic landscapes upon which tourism may depend: all these are forms of natural capital.

The problem, as some see it, is that businesses and individuals use natural capital without paying for it. As Pavan Sukdev, a former banker who helped spread the idea, likes to say: “We use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose it because it’s free.” It’s a profound statement. Catchy, too.

But putting a price on nature’s products and services and then using those valuations to actually do something useful – well, that’s when things get fuzzy.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Mike Biddle, libertarian environmentalist

biddle-6307Can a libertarian be an environmentalist?

Mike Biddle would say yes. Like many corporate executives, Biddle is politically conservative. He believes in small government, personal freedom and the power of markets to solve problems. “My Bible is Ayn Rand,” he once said.

But Biddle, who is the founder and longtime CEO of a pioneering plastics reprocessing company called MBA Polymers, would like the US government to regulate his industry—plastic waste. He also accepted government grants to finance the basic research that led to the company’s cutting-edge technology.

Does this make him a hypocrite? Not in my view, and here’s why.

MBA Polymers has built three factories to recycle mixed plastics—one in the UK, one in Austria and one in China. It got started with a pilot plant in Richmond, CA, but shut that down because the company could not get access to a steady supply of plastic waste in the US. Yes, that’s right: Americans generate more waste per capita (“We’re No 1!) than other nations, but most of it winds up either in landfills or shipped to poor countries where it is disassembled under unsafe conditions. Biddle’s company, meanwhile, can  turn mixed plastic waste streams, from discarded electronics and junked automobile, into plastic pellets that are as good a new materials extracted from oil.

When Mike and I met last week, he told me that he’d  like the US government to require companies that manufacture electronics to take responsibility for them at the end of their lives. He’d also like the government to regulate exports of waste. Governments in the EU and Japan have done that, and as a result they have created robust systems for collecting and reprocessing waste that save energy, reduce carbon emissions, reduce the demand for oil and help keep plastics out of the oceans. Not incidentally, these laws also protect the health of poor people in Asia and Africa who sort through electronic waste under hazardous conditions.

Mike argues that this kind of government regulation promotes fair competition and a market solution to the plastic-waste problem. Recycling generates positive externalities—that is, it does good even for those who aren’t involved—while trashing valuable plastics harms workers and the environment. To be sure, the government is favoring one industry (recycling) over another (waste dumping, here or abroad). But you also could argue that all it is doing is requiring companies (electronics manufacturers) and consumers to be responsible for properly disposing of the products that they make and we use.

As Mike told me when we talked: “”We need care about how we unmake our stuff as much as we do about it’s made.”

It’s a close call, but it strikes me as a proper role for government.

I wrote about Mike Biddle the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

This month, Mike Biddle, the founder and longtime CEO of a pioneering plastics-recycling company called MBA Polymers, stepped down as an executive at the firm, ending more than two decades of unrelenting effort to reduce plastic waste.

Biddle’s story is one of great success, as well as ongoing frustration. He sat down with me last week at the 2014 GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix to talk about MBA Polymers, the potential of the so-called circular economy, and why, despite all we know, the vast majority of plastics discarded in the US still wind up in incinerators, landfills or, worse, the ocean.

Plastics, he says, remains “the last frontier of recycling.”

Biddle, who is 58 and has a PhD in chemical engineering from Case Western and an MBA from Stanford, left a good job at Dow Chemical in 1992 in the hope of solving the difficult puzzle of plastics recycling. During the next seven years, he attracted about $7m in grants and loans from the state of California, the Environmental Protection Agency and a plastics industry trade group.

You can read the rest here. I should add that Mike’s enviromental cred is solid. He went hiking in Nepal for his honeymoon, spents lots of time outdoors with his kids and is devoting some of his time now to a nonprofit to protect oceans. Mike will also be speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference (which I co-chair) in May.