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.

A modest defense of the hamburger

imgresIf you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a hybrid car like a Prius?

The easiest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve argued, is to eat less meat. Because the emissions generated by the production of  beef, pork and chicken (in that order) exceeds those of plant-based protein, going meatless for a day or two each week makes a difference.

But curbing meat consumption won’t make nearly as much of a difference as driving a more efficient cars, some experts says–although comparing the climate impacts of Big Mac, a lentil stew, a Ford 150 truck and a Prius  is a devilishly complicated business.

Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, recently pointed me to an interesting new publication that explores this issue, and others. Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (available as a PDF here) report on a series of workshops held last year by the well-respected Institute of  Medicine that brought together environmental scientists, nutrition experts, government officials and business people to look at the effects of diet on the planet and on human health.

One of the experts, Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at   the University of California at Davis, who is chair of an FAO group studying the environmental impact of livestock, offered a defense of beef. He tried to  put in perspective the claims of activists who urge consumers to eat less meat for environmental reasons.

The report says:

In Mitloehner’s opinion, although scientists would agree that food choices are an important environmental emission source, they would also agree that food choices pale in comparison to transportation choices or energy production and use choices.

To illustrate his point, Mitloehner cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 33 percent of all GHG emissions are associated with production and use of energy and 27 percent are associated with use of transportation (EPA, 2013). Compare those figures to GHG emissions in the United States from the entire livestock sector, all species, based on life-cycle assessment9 at 3.4 percent (EPA, 2012). According to Mitloehner’s calculations, of that 3.4 percent, approximately 1.8 percent comes from the beef sector. Thus, GHG emissions from livestock in developed countries are dwarfed by carbon footprint contributions from other, larger sectors (e.g., transportation, energy, industry). The same is true of other developed countries.

Mitloehner questioned the impact of “Meatless Mondays” or “Beefless Mondays.” If 300-plus million people were to go beefless on Mondays, that would cut the 1.4 percent figure by a factor of 7 (number of days in the week), which would amount to a 0.2 percent reduction in the total greenhouse gas footprint. Mitloehner said, “While this is not nothing … it will not even compare to what we see from the transportation sector.”

Mitloehner may be right. He is especially critical of a 2006 FAO report that estimated that livestock contributes 18 percent of all GHG emissions, and those emissions were greater than those from the transportation sector. This number has been quoted widely but, he said, the comparison was inappropriate because livestock emissions were analyzed using a full lifecycle assessment, and then compared to transportation emissions that included only tailpipe emissions.

A very different view was put forth by Emily Cassidy of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues including Jon Foley has worked to quantify the environmental impacts of diet. The report says:

Americans consume a lot of meat, more than 110 kilograms per person per year, even though the nutritionally recommended amount is only about 23 kilograms per person per year (FAO, 2013). If meat consumption were to be reduced by 75 percent, to 30 kilograms per person per year, with the lost weight being compensated by fruits and vegetables, cereals, and other foods, what would happen to the environmental footprint of the U.S. diet?

Cassidy’s calculations suggest that such a reduction would significantlychange the environmental impacts associated with the U.S. food system. Specifically, a 75 percent reduction in meat consumption would result in a 27 percent reduction in land use, a 31 percent reduction in water use, and a 46 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

It’s complicated, no? One problem is that using global or even national averages when talking about the carbon impacts runs roughshod over important differences in farming and ranching practices, the electricity mix, shipping and a gazillion other variations. Did the corn that was grown and fed to the cow that was turned into a Big Mac require irrigation? Was the electricity fed to the Prius generated by a coal-fired power plant or by hydropower? Which has a greater carbon impact, salmon from Alaska or chicken from the Delaware shore? Climate change is a global problem, but all emissions are local, as Ory Zik has noted in developing his startup company Energy Points, which uses Big Data to analyze environmental tradeoffs.

So…if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a the Prius? The answer is, it depends. It sure looks as if switching to a Prius will have a bigger impact, but of course it’s easier to skip a few meals with meat than to buy a new car. What’s more, the health and environmental impacts of meat production in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) go well beyond climate, including the need to dispose of animal waste, potential water pollution, pesticide and fertilizer overuse to produce feed, antibiotic use and resistance, air quality and animal welfare issues.

Happily, it’s not an either or. You can cut meat consumption and drive a more efficient car.

Meantime, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill are working together to limit the environmental impact of beef production through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is all to the good.

That said, it would be so much simpler and more sensible to put a tax on carbon emissions and use price signals to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. Pricing carbon emissions into the costs of goods and services–electricity, gasoline, food and everything else–would unleash the power of markets and drive producers and consumers to smarter and greener choices.

The long journey to “sustainable travel”

tr-travel-smart-ff-miles-608Global travel is a huge business. A billion tourists traveled the world during 2012, and the industry generated more than $2 trillion in direct global contribution to GDP from business and leisure trips, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

So it’s unfortunate that the travel industry–which depends, more than others, on a healthy planet–is just beginning to get serious about measuring and reducing its environment impact. That, at least, is my conclusion after surveying leading US-based hotel, airline and rental car companies. What’s more, as I’ve thought about the travel business, it’s hard to envision what a truly sustainable travel industry would look like. To dramatically reduce the environmental impact of travel will require the widespread adoption of low carbon fuels, the decarbonization of the electricity sector and radically “greener” buildings, all of which appear to be many years away.

I wrote about the travel industry and sustainability for the current issue of a trade magazine called Global Business Travel Magazine. The industry is clearly moving in the right direction. The question is, at what pace and scale?  In my story on hotels, I wrote:

Every major hotelier—Starwood Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHC, and the rest—has invested in energy and water efficiency, reported its carbon footprint online, reduced waste, organized “green teams” of engaged employees, and embraced social programs ranging from recycling soap and toiletries to teaching employees to recognize and report human sex trafficking. That’s all well and good, but these efforts are not yet comprehensive or comparable in a way that would allow corporate travel buyers and managers (or, for that matter, leisure travelers) to measure one hotel chain against another. Nor are there reliable, broad-based, third-party standards, ratings, or rankings that reward industry leaders and shame laggards, as there are in other business categories, ranging from seafood and forestry to cell phones and appliances.

Essentially, hotel owners and operators have focused on efficiency–a relatively easy win-win because it saves hotel operators money and earns them green credibility. But efficiency can take the industry only so far (pun intended).

My story identifies Marriott as the industry leader but goes on to say that

Marriott—like all of its rivals—is still struggling to balance the goal of sustainability with the need to grow its business. Despite putting a wide range of efficiency measures into place, the company has added rooms in recent years, and as a result its greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 3.19 million metric tons in 2007 to 3.55 million metric tons in 2012—an increase of 11 percent. Scientists say that businesses and individuals have to reduce their absolute carbon emissions dramatically to limit the risks of catastrophic climate impacts.

Can the hotel industry grow while reducing its environmental footprint in absolute terms? It’s hard to see how, at least in the short run. The environmentally responsible thing to do is to travel less. For business travelers, that means meeting via teleconferences and eliminating some trips; many companies are doing that, of course. As for leisure travel, staycations, reading National Geographic or watching the Travel Channel can’t substitute for the real things. And there’s an obvious downside to traveling less: About 101 million people around the world earn a living from the travel biz, according to the WCCT, and some of those jobs will disappear if the industry shrinks.

Airlines are, if anything, in even more of a pickle that hotels. Yes, newer planes are far more efficient than older ones, but the best way to sharply reduce carbon emissions from air travel is by substituting biofuels for petroleum-based fuels. The trouble is, biofuels today are very costly. A carbon tax would encourage airlines and airplane manufacturers to invest more in low-carbon fuels, but the US airline industry has lobbied hard against the EU’s attempts to impose a carbon tax on international air travel because it would raise the cost of plane tickets. Meantime, comfort and efficiency are often at odds. Planes configured to carry more people are good for the planet but not so good for the traveler in the middle seat of row 42.

All of this is a reminder that big environmental problems like climate change simple can’t be solved by individual companies or industries. They require radical system change. This is why it’s so important for responsible businesses to make themselves heard in the public policy arena. The travel industry ought to be a loud voice for a carbon tax and for government support of research into clean technology. That’s the best strategy to bring about a low-carbon economy, and to protect the beautiful places that people like to visit.

You can read my travel industry story here.

My sustainability mood swings

800px-Solar_panels_on_house_roofTwo steps forward, one step back.

The other day, Guardian Sustainable Business published my story about SolarCity, a remarkable success story in the world of sustainable business. Solar City, which provides rooftop solar power systems to homes and business, is growing fast, and its stock is on a tear. The company says it will deliver solar energy to 1 million homes by 2018, and last month it started its own foundation to deliver solar to schools in the poorest parts of the world.

Here’s how my story begins:

For US rooftop solar company SolarCity, rapid growth is bringing new opportunities – as well as a backlash.

The San Mateo, California-based firm has installed rooftop solar systems on more than 100,000 homes (by my estimate), and signs up a new customer every five minutes. It employs more than 4,200 people, and hires 15 more workers each day. Shares of the company, which sold for $8 at its initial public offering a little more than a year ago, now trade for $59, as of Friday.

And, in a sign of its maturity, SolarCity has just launched the Give Power Foundation, a non-profit that will donate solar power systems to schools in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

It’s unusual for a young company that isn’t yet making profits to start a foundation, but Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s founder and CEO, told me by phone: “We’re now at a scale that it’s something that we really want to do, and we’re just going to bear the costs.”

You can read the rest here. And, of course, SolarCity isn’t the only fast-growing solar firm. Sungevity, SunRun, Sun Edison and others are all growing, too, although all are depending on government subsidies, at least for now. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about where the solar industry is going.

Vegas-style innovation

Vegas-style innovation

Now I’m in Las Vegas, a city built on hopes and dreams (“C’mon, baby, just one more spin of the roulette wheel…”) and I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about the future. To be sure, the city’s big hotel and casino operators — MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Caesar’s and others — are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste. But the Strip is awash in neon every night, the slot machines blare sound and music 24-7, the traffic is horrible (yes, it’s the week of the city’s biggest event, the International Consumer Electronics Show) and the feel of the place is either tacky/ugly/excessive (the $24.99 two-pound hamburger sold in the restaurant in my hotel) or or over-the-top luxurious/excessive. To the right is a banner for a combination strip club and shooting range, enabling patrons to celebrate sexism and violence, under one roof.

I’m guessing my mood to change again in a few hours. I’m going to moderate a panel with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Sasha  Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In a keynote speech at CES on Monday evening, Krzanich announced that all of Intel’s microprocessors are now validated as conflict-free for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. The company has led the electronics industry’s efforts to cut off the lucrative trade in minerals that supported armed groups in the eastern Congo and its neighbors.

The result? As Krzanich and John Prendergast of the Enough Project wrote in a USA Today op-ed:

Rebel groups now generate an estimated 55 to 75% less funding from three of the four conflict minerals, according to Enough Project field research, because it is much more difficult to sell untraceable minerals on the global marketplace.

This is an important story about an industry trying to do the right thing. More to come…

[Disclosure: Intel is paying me to moderate the discussion on conflict minerals at CES.]

The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  “the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue…]

A bank that’s about more than money

628x471Kat Taylor is a piece of work. Last month at the Net Impact conference in San Jose, she began her prepared “remarks” by belting out a jingle for One PacificCoast Bank, the community thrift she founded in 2007 with her husband, Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and climate-change activist. She can’t abide the fact that the big money-center banks like Bank of America and City finance the coal industry, so her bank has issued a credit card that is co-branded with the Sierra Club. She is surely the only member of Harvard University’s Board of Overseers who sports a half dozen tattoos.

When I met Kat at Net Impact, I knew that I wanted to learn more about her and One PacificCoast Bank. So, on a reporting trip to San Francisco, I visited the bank’s headquarters in downtown Oakland. The bank is small, but Kat has big plans for its growth, which I wrote about today at Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Like global billion-dollar corporations, every one of us manages a supply chain. You might be supplied groceries by Whole Foods, clothing by Gap, shoes by Nike, gas by Shell and electronics by Apple. Or not – most of us have dozens of retailers or brands from which to choose.

But when it comes to credit cards, the majority of Americans turn to a small number of big banks: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo, Capital One and US Bancorp.

Kat Taylor, the founder and CEO of One PacificCoast Bank, has set out to change that. One PacificCoast Bank (“Welcome to Beneficial Banking”), based in Oakland, CA, offers a socially and environmentally preferable alternative: a bank with a mission to serve low-income communities and the environment.

And if the idea of switching checking your checking accounts (with their very sticky electronic bill-paying services) or your deposits to a regional bank (without its own nationwide network of ATMs) seems inconvenient, Taylor has a simpler proposition for customers who want to clean up their financial supply chain, just switch your credit card.

“We’re asking people to fund all of their purchasing activity from a bank with which they are aligned,” Taylor said.

But can a little-known bank with just $320m (£199m), in assets take on Wall Street? Certainly not on its own, but Taylor is enlisting some formidable like-minded allies, notably the Sierra Club, in her crusade. As America’s oldest and largest environmental group, with 2.1 million members, the Sierra Club has agreed to issue a credit card with One PacificCoast Bank. The club’s share of the proceeds will help support environmental campaigns, often targeted against polluters who are financed by Wall Street.

The idea of affinity credit cards isn’t new, of course. You can get credit cards emblazoned with the logo of your favorite retailer, sports team or university. Working Assets has since the 1980s offered credits cards that support groups including the Rainforest Action Network and Human Rights Watch, but the cards are now issued by Bank of America and donate only 10 cents per transaction (a miserly amount, since other cards give 1 percent of your spending back). By contrast, One PacificCoast Bank is owned by a foundation, and intends to plow 100% of its profits back into groups that support the environment and low-income communities.

After meeting Kat, I was fascinated read in The Times that she and Tom Steyer operate a small cattle ranch, called the TomKat Ranch, which sells beef under the Leftcoast Grassfed brand; it’s aiming to become a model of sustainable agriculture. Steyer was profiled in The New Yorker in September by Ryan Lizza; he’s working with New York Mayor Bloomberg and former California Governor Schwarzenegger to build a bipartisan climate movement. And if you would like to know how this power couple met, read the rest of my story, here.

Photo: Courtesy of sfgate.com

Novelis: Towards a circular economy

novelis_evercanAs regular readers of this blog know, I find the circular economy to be one of the most exciting ideas in corporate sustainability. This is the idea, sometimes called closing the loop, that when we are done with products, they can be recycled and made into something else, with zero waste. It’s inspired by nature, of course, where nothing goes to waste.

To show the way to the circular economy, consider the aluminum can. Aluminum has the wonderful property of being able to be recycled after use, with no degradation in quality (as opposed to say, PET plastic, which tends to break down every time it is recycled.) Recently I heard about a company called Novelis that has made aluminum recycling the core of its business model. A $9.8 billion company based in Atlanta, Novelis has created a new product called the ‘evercan’ which is guaranteed to have at least 90 percent recycled content–a breakthrough that the company hopes to produce and market with a big beverage company.

Novelis is profiled in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Recycling aluminum is a no-brainer – or, at least, it should be.

Producing aluminum beverage cans out of recycled scrap, instead of by mining bauxite and manufacturing new ingots, saves energy, carbon emissions and money. The same is true for the aluminum that goes into cars, planes, electronics and buildings.

If businesses and consumers want to get serious about creating a circular economy – where everything, once used, is made into something else and nothing goes to waste – aluminum is a very good place to start.

Yet the recycling rate for aluminum cans in the US is a mere 55%. That’s below the global average of about 70% and well below rates of better than 90% than Scandinavian countries can boast – or Brazil’s 98% recycling rate.

The low US rate represents an enormous waste of materials and energy – and a big opportunity. Atlanta-based Novelis is aggressively seizing that opportunity.

The $9.8bn firm converts aluminum into flat sheets, most of which is then turned into beverage and food cans. Novelis is already the world’s biggest aluminum recycler, and it aims to do more. Its chief executive, Phil Martens, says the company wants to turn its “whole business model from a traditional linear one to a closed-loop one”.

I’m delighted that Novelis’s CEO, Phil Martens, has agreed to speak at Fortune Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s conference about business and the environment. Next year’s Brainstorm Green will be May 19-21 at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA. I’m once again co-chair of the event. Watch this space for future announcements of speakers and topics.

A libertarian joins The Nature Conservancy

Lynn Scarlett

Lynn Scarlett

Can conservatives be brought back into the conservation movement? That’s the question facing Lynn Scarlett, the new director of public policy at The Nature Conservancy, who joined the environmental NGO after working as president of the Reason Foundation and in the interior department of the Bush II administration.

As I wrote today at the Guardian Sustainable Business, Scarlett is taking on a big and important job:

Fortunately, she’s not alone. Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, leads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which aims to “unleash the power of free enterprise to deliver the fuels of the future”. A group called the Conservation Leadership Council, which is led by Gale Norton and Ed Schafer, who were interior and agriculture secretaries during the George W Bush administration, is “encouraging conservative voices to join the conversation about the environment”.

Furthermore, prominent business leaders, including John Faraci, the CEO of International Paper, and Jim Connaughton, a vice-president at Constellation Energy and a former White House official, also belong to the council.

“There are solutions to environmental problems that are consistent with conservative principles,” Scarlett told me last week at The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The business-friendly NGO works across party lines and has branches in all 50 states (and in 35 countries).

The story goes on to say that no major environmental law has been enacted by Congress without bipartisan support. But, for reasons that have mostly but not entirely to do with the climate-change debate, Republicans and conservatives have broken away from the environmental movement since the 2008 presidential election.

Bringing Republicans and conservatives back into a climate movement will be tough. Some in the Tea Party wing are anti-science; they simply reject the notion that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth. Many climate-change solutions are big and complicated, and similar in that sense to Obamacare, which has united Republicans like no other issue. And the big business lobbies that could help bring back conservatives are dominated by fossil fuel interests.

Still, there’s something fundamentally conservative about the idea that people and companies should clean up after themselves and be responsible for the messes they make–even if the mess, in this case, is CO2, the colorless and odorless gas that drives climate change.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Bankers, behaving badly, backing coal

india-coal-power-007The  big Wall Street banks say all the right thing about sustainability and corporate responsibility but investment bankers are, above all, driven by the deal. Turning away business is just not part of their skill set, or mind set.

That’s the best explanation that I can come up with for the fact that Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, along with three India-based banks, are managing a share offering for Coal India, a company with an environmental and human rights record that is, at best, spotty.

Their decision to do so is the topic of my story today at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re an investor seeking to profit from the coal industry and you’re indifferent to the issues of climate change, forest destruction and human rights, Bank of AmericaGoldman SachsCredit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have a deal for you.

The four US and European banks, along with Indian investment banksSBI Capital MarketsJM Financial and Kotak Mahindra Capital Co., are managing a share offering in Coal India, one of the world’s biggest coal-mining companies.

They’re doing so despite Coal India’s dismal environmental record, despite the climate impacts of burning coal, despite allegations that the state-owned firm has run roughshod over tribal communities and despite objections by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as by Indian environmentalists.

They’re also doing so despite their own rhetoric about sustainability and corporate responsibility.

I hope you take the time to read the story. It’s tough, I think, but it’s a reflection of the difficulty that the corporate-responsibility and environmental movements have had gaining traction on Wall Street. Most of the big financial institutions have made “green” commitments, and that’s great, but if they continue to finance fossil fuels on a grand scale, they could wind up doing more harm than good.

None of the banks would talk to me on the record for the story, and I imagine that if they did, they would say, correctly, that burning fossil fuels is perfectly legal in India, and everywhere else, as is dumping emissions into the atmosphere at no cost. That’s a political problem, and not a Wall Street problem, they could argue. True enough. But if the banks believe what they say about climate change and the environment, they should then make their voices heard more forcefully in the climate debate in Washington and elsewhere.

Until they do, their rhetoric about sustainability will remain hollow.

Will solar power disrupt regulated utilities?

Applications_ResidentialOne of the business megatrends of my lifetime has been decentralization. Mainframe computers gave way to laptops and PCs. The AT&T monopoly exploded, and landlines led to a proliferation of cell phones. Airlines were deregulated, creating space for startups like Southwest  and JetBlue. Newspapers have been rattled by the Internet, where anyone and everyone has a voice.

Could distributed power–specifically, rooftop solar–nowbe poised to disrupt regulated utilities?

That’s the topic of my latest contribution to the YaleEnvironment360 website. Some utilities evidently feel threatened, so they are pushing back against subsidies for solar.

Here’s how the story begins:

Issues of electricity regulation typically play out in drab government hearing rooms. That has not been the case this summer in Arizona, where a noisy argument – featuring TV attack ads and dueling websites – has broken out between regulated utilities and the rooftop solar industry.

An Internet web video attacks the California startup companies that sell rooftop solar systems as the “new Solyndras,” which are spending “hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize their wealthy customers.” Meantime, solar companies accuse Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, of wanting to “extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in Arizona to protect its monopoly.”

Similar battles about how rooftop solar should be regulated have flared in California, Colorado, Idaho, and Louisana. And the outcome of these power struggles could have a major impact on the future of solar in the U.S.

The politics of this debate are unusual, as the story goes on to explain. Please read the rest here.

A couple of thoughts. First, it’s important to keep some perspective here. Solar is growing fast but off a very, very small base. It generates less than 1 percent of the electricity in the US. Some coverage of this issue–notably a long story in Business Week with the absurd headline, Why the U.S. Power Grid’s Days are Numbered — conveniently overlooks that context. Regulated utilities are not going away anytime soon and if the grid’s days are, in fact, numbered, it’s a really really big number.

Having said that, a regulatory system that tilts heavily towards solar–by allowing solar customers to sell their excess power back into the grid at inflated rates, for example–will create problems for the utilities, as well as inequities for other customers. While the regulatory debate has become politicized in places like Arizona–the Koch brothers make a cameo appearance at the end of my story–what’s needed is fair treatment for solar customers and the utilities.

What’s fair, you ask? That’s why we have regulators.