Who lobbies for the outdoors?

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Increasingly, I’m struck by the power of conservative business lobbies in Washington, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. They speak effectively on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and often claim to speak for all of business when it comes to the issue of climate change — even though broad sectors of the US economy, notably agriculture and tourism (not to mention coastal real estate), are threatened by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Last week in the Guardian, I looked at what’s called the outdoor economy — a sector that is big and growing.The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation, which includes hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and motorcycling, supports 6.1m jobs in the US. That’s more than fossil fuels, some say, although the numbers are disputed.

What’s inarguable is that the oil, gas and coal industries carry a lot more clout in DC than does the outdoor industry. Here’s how my story begins:

Two small California ski resorts, Dodge Ridge and Badger Pass, shut down in January as temperatures climbed to near-record highs and weeks passed without snow. With the Sierras suffering a historic drought, it’s hard to say for certain if they’ll reopen.

The ski-industry closings are a small but representative setback for what a new report calls the outdoor economy — that is, “the stream of economic output that results from the protection and sustainable use of America’s lands and waters when they are preserved in a largely undeveloped state”.

Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic force. It accounts for “more direct jobs than oil, natural gas and mining combined”, according to the report published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, in January.

But in the political arena, those businesses that depend upon nature are decided underdogs when they battle adversaries, such as the fossil fuel industry, which would like to see more exploration for oil and gas on federal lands.

If you’ve ever visited one of the big national parks out west, you can see why the outdoor industry is outgunned (pardon the expression) in your nation’s capital. Typically, the hotels, motels, restaurants, fishing outfitters and the like on the perimeter of the  parks are small businesses. They can’t hire lobbyists or make meaningful campaign contributions.

One company that has done a fine job of promoting the outdoors is The North Face. They ran a great Internet and TV ad campaign last year, encouraging more people to spend time in beautiful places. As more Americans spend more time outdoors, it seems likely that they will want to see this nation’s most beautiful places protected. Admittedly, that’s a slow and indirect way to build a constituency for climate action.

Take two minutes and enjoy this North Face commercial, set to the music of Woody Guthrie, performed by My Morning Jacket. And is it just me or did Jeep steal this idea for its Super Bowl ad?

You can read the rest of my story here.

Impact investing with The Nature Conservancy

B88tMs3IIAEAUpPImpact investing is said to be a growth business. Loosely defined, impact investing is the practice of putting money into a business or nonprofit, with the expectation of generating social or environmental change, along with a financial return. It’s somewhere between a purely mercenary investment and a donation.

Last week in The Guardian, I wrote about a unit of The Nature Conservancy called NatureVest that was set up last year to attract impact investments. Here’s how my story begins:

Even for the Nature Conservancy, which attracts more money than any other US environmental nonprofit – revenues were $1.1bn last year – buying 165,000 acres of land in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley for $134m is, quite literally, a very big deal.

To raise the money in a timely manner and to negotiate the acquisition, which closed last week, the conservancy relied on NatureVest. Launched last spring, NatureVest is a division of the conservancy that functions much like a bank, albeit a bank whose purpose is to protect nature.

NatureVest raises money from institutions and high-net-worth individuals who care about the environment but want to get their investment back, perhaps with a modest return. It then invests that money in conservation projects – land acquisitions, sustainable ranching, green infrastructure or eco-tourism – that can generate money so it can pay back its investors.

This strikes me as a smart idea, if not a new idea. Ten years ago, I wrote Social Investing That Hits Home, a brief story for FORTUNE about community development financial institutions, including the Calvert Foundation, my neighbor in Bethesda, MD, that practice what would now be called impact investing. But there’s momentum behind the concept now. Impact Alpha, a website that tracks impact investing, run by a former Wall Street Journal reporter David Bank, has a database of more than 2,000 “impact deals.”

Impact investing should have special appeal to foundations because they should, in theory, want to align their investment portfolios with their programming goals. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for a foundation that gives environmental grants to invest in coal companies, for example.

On the other hand, isn’t all investment a form of impact investment? For better or worse, all of our investments have impact. A shareholder in, say, Apple is backing a company that delivers a great deal of social good (pleasure, efficiency, etc.) without sacrificing return.

The term “impact investing” reminds me a little of “social entrepreneur.” As opposed to what? An anti-social entrepreneur? Just asking.

You can read my story about NatureVest here.

 

A rank ’em and spank ’em study on packaging

A Dunkin Donuts--with throwaway cups--opens in Beijing

A Dunkin Donuts–with throwaway cups–opens in Beijing

Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.

With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.

Here’s how my story begins:

Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.

The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”

The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.

Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.

As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.

The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.

An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.

Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.

I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.

A modest proposal for big green NGOs

da9cdecb-7922-49b2-b8a2-3ff0969881e4-1020x612Here’s an idea for big environmental NGOs that work with corporate partners: Kindly recommend to those partners that they raise their voices in Washington in support of the EPA’s proposed coal plant rules.

The coal plant rules are the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change policy. Yet they are being strongly opposed by mainstream Washington business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

The big corporate partners of the green groups could make a difference. They could support the rules on their own–few have done so–and, just as important, speak up inside the halls of the chamber and NAM, asking them to halt their opposition to the rules.

No climate issue matters more, Mindy Lubber of Ceres told me, for a story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business, which we’ll get to in a moment.

In a report on corporate engagement [PDF], WWF lists more than a dozen “corporate engagements with an annual budget greater than US$250,000.” Partners include Avon Products, Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Co., Domtar, Ecolab, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air, Sodexo and Toyota.

The Nature Conservancy says on its website that “the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission” and publishes a long list of partners, including 3M, Alaska Airlines, AT&T, Avon, Bank of America, BHP Billiton, Boeing, BP, Bunge, Cargill, Caterpillar, CH2MHill, Coca-Cola, CSX Transportation, Delta, Disney, Dow Chemical, EcoLab, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Harley Davidson, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Kimpton Hotels, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Monsanto, Mosaic, Patagonia, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto, SABMiller, Shell, Target, TDBank, Uber and Xerox.

The Environmental Defense Fund, for its part, works with AT&T, Caterpillar, DuPont,  KKR, McDonald’s, Ocean Spray, Starbucks and Walmart, among others.

I could go on but you get the point. Now contrast those lists with the challenges faced by Mindy Lubber and Ceres, as they try to line up companies to back the EPA rules. That’s why my story is about, and here is how it begins:

As the US political fight over climate change moves from Washington DC to 50 state capitals, companies that are serious about sustainability need to support theEPA’s proposed rules to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

So, at least, says Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a nonprofit that brings together companies, investors and public-interest groups to advocate for sustainability.

“Companies have the strength and power – the footprint to make a huge difference,” Lubber told me at a lunch earlier this month. Ceres celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the proposed power plant rules, which are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. Power plants account for nearly 40% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

What Ceres has found, Mindy told me, is that it’s hard to get big companies to support  the EPA and the president, and overcome their habitual, instinctive resistance to government regulation.

Last month, as I wrote in the Guardian, Ceres released a statement supporting the rules that was signed by more than 200 companies but most were small or midsized. Big firms to sign on included Ikea, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nestle, Nike, Novelis, VF and Unilever. They are to be commended.

Ceres’s list would carry a lot more weight if other NGOS like WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense persuaded  most or all their corporate partners to sign on.

Until they do, conservative trade associations like the US Chamber, NAM, the National Mining Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which have joined together to oppose the EPA rules, will speak for business in Washington. I’ve never understood why so many companies that profess to care about the environment — and, in my view, actually do care about the environment — have allowed that to happen.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Brainstorm Green: What’s next?

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.

On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus,  J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.

In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.

About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.

Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet.  It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.

The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.

These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.

Sustainable business, from the bottom up

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For the most part, corporate sustainability programs drive change from the top down. If Apple wants to improve safety at the factories where its products are made, or Walmart wants to reduce fertilizer runoff in agriculture, or McDonald’s pledges to buy beef raised in environmentally friendly ways, those companies set targets and goals, they deploy a mix of carrots and sticks to bring their suppliers along, those suppliers push further down the chain and, if all goes well, workers, farmers and maybe the planet are all a little better off.

Whatever one thinks of this theory of change–my view is that it works quite well–it does little for the billions of people who are untouched by global supply chains. In my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, I write about a project called Fish Forever that is designed to help fishermen and women who work beyond the reach of global supply chains.

I heard about Fish Forever from Brett Jenks, the chief executive of a conservation group called Rare, which is based in Arlington, VA.

Interestingly, Fish Forever is a collaboration of Rare with the Environmental Defense Fund and the sustainable fisheries group at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It’s uncommon but welcome to see NGOs working together this way.

Here’s a bit more about the program, from my story:

Fish Forever is launching this year in five countries – Belize, Brazil, Indonesia, Mozambique and the Philippines. It targets fishers with a single boat or two, as well as those who fish from shore. In developing countries, these mostly poor, small-scale fishers account for half of all fish caught, the vast majority of which is consumed domestically….

Each Fish Forever partner brings expertise to the partnership. Environmental Defense has been a pioneer in rebuilding fisheries through what is often called rights-based management. Rare specializes in mobilizing communities in poor countries on behalf of conservation. And the scientists at UCSB are experts in monitoring and measuring the health of fisheries.

Here’s how the program works: with the backing of state or national governments, local fishers get exclusive fishing rights to a community fishing areas – a bay or stretch of coast. The community then has good reason to adopt conservation practices because it will reap the benefits if they work.

Typically, those practices include the establishment of a marine preserve, also known as no-take zone, located inside the community fishing area, or nearby. These no-take zones give fish in the area the opportunity to recover and regenerate themselves. Local fishers enforce the no-take zones themselves.

The idea is to create incentives for the community to think long-term about the value of their natural asset, and take steps to protect it.A sense of ownership leads to stewardship. As a wise man once said, no one washes a rental car.

Rare isn’t a high-profile NGO but it has attracted support from some big names. Michael Bloomberg, Hank and Wendy Paulson and Jeremy Grantham are all donors. Which leads me to conclude that Brett Jenks and his group must be doing something right.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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.

Fish story: The potential of aquaponics

UrbanOrganics_RackWithPools_LowRes

During my trip to Minneapolis for last month’s Net Impact conference, I found time to visit a fascinating little startup called Urban Organics (above) in nearby St. Paul. Located in an abandoned brewery (where Hamm’s used to brew beer), Urban Organics now raises tilapia and basil, practicing aquaponics.

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

Backyard hobbyists, university researchers, nonprofits, restaurants and even inmates at a federal prison in Indiana are growing food using aquaponics, a technology for raising fish and plants together in a recirculating system. So far, though, no one has been able to build a large-scale, commercial aquaponics business.

In an abandoned brewery in St Paul, Minnesota, a startup company called Urban Organics is trying to change that. Since last spring, Urban Organics has been raising tilapia, basil and lettuce, with the help of a much-bigger neighbor – a $7bn industrial company called Pentair that believes that aquaponics is on the verge of becoming a viable form of farming.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). Fish – in this case, about 3,200 tilapia – are raised in big tanks made of high-density polyethylene. Their wastewater flows out of the tanks, gets cleaned up a bit and is pumped to the growing beds, where it becomes food for the plants. After the plants extract nutrients from the water, it’s filtered again and returned to the fish tanks. While the process is energy-intensive – the plants need artificial light to grow indoors – food can be grown year-round in urban areas, near to markets.

Aquaponics is a cool idea. There’s something appealing about using the waste from the fish to feed the plants. Producing food near to where it is consumed sounds logical; the food will be fresh, and you save money on transport.

But it’s by no means clear that aquaponics will be able grow from a hobby into a scalable business. All those plants need lights, so the electricity costs are significant. The environmental benefits, if any, of aquaponics remain to be seen.

Still, the science and technology are relatively new and the fact that a big company like Pentair has high hopes for aquaponics got my attention. Chicago has its own fast-growing aquaponics startup, called Farmed Here, which sells its greens at Whole Foods.

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.