Peak meat: Can Al Gore, Jay Z, Oprah and Rick Warren all be wrong?

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Hungry? Does this photo make you eager for dinner? Not me. I almost never cook red meat at home anymore, and I don’t miss it. I feel mildly unAmerican, having given up red meat and the NFL, but so it goes.

Turns out I’m not alone. Al Gore has gone further–he’s now a vegan. The evangelical pastor Rick Warren (who I profiled in Fortune in 2005) is advising his flock to eat less meat in a new faith-based diet book called The Daniel Plan. Jay Z and Beyonce have sworn off all animal products for three weeks.

The decline of meat is the topic of my column this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

What will be hot on restaurant menus in 2014? The National Restaurant Association, which surveyed more than 1,400 chefs, says the top three trends for next year will be locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and environmental sustainability. That’s welcome news for people who care about the health of the planet, but the chefs may have missed an even bigger change coming to the US diet – the decline of meat.

Today, Americans consume more meat – approximately 270lbs per capita – than carnivores elsewhere (except Luxembourg). But meat consumption in the US has been declining for nearly a decade, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. About 12% of US adults strongly agree and 19% somewhat agree that “they are eating many meatless/vegetarian meals,” says David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts. Beyond the data, there are signs all around us that meat is falling out of favor, for health, environmental, ethical and economic reasons.

The decline of meat creates opportunities for an array of competitors in the protein business. They include the developers of sustainable aquaculture, producers of vegetarian analogs like Beyond Meat andBeyond Eggs, and consumer products firms whose vegetarian products like Boca and Gardein have moved from natural foods channels to mainstream retailers like Target, Safeway and Kroger. Fast-casual chain Chipotle recently launched Sofritas, a tofu sandwich, under the headline,Vegans and Carnivores Unite, while Subway is rolling out a vegetarian falafel sandwich. On its website, Starbucks says: “If you’ve ever heard someone dismiss vegetables as “rabbit food,” you should introduce them to our Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl.”

The decline of meat is welcome news. Industrially-produced meat is bad for the environment. Eating too much red meat is bad for your heart. I’m personally troubled by the way chickens, pigs and cows are treated on factory farms. Of course, it is theoretically possible to raise and slaughter animals in ways that are good for the planet and your health, as I’ve written before. I’m not a vegetarian (yet) and I can’t imagine becoming a vegan because I’m fond of cheese, butter and eggs. But I’m thinking more and more about what to cook and eat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals: “One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates.”

Hat tip to Josh Balk of the Humane Society of America, who gave me the idea for my story.

Recylebank: It’s not just trash to cash

Recyclebank is on a roll.

The New York-based company that rewards people for recycling their household garbage last week announced a $20 million strategic investment from Waste Management, the nation’s largest trash hauler.

As part of the investment, Waste Management said it expects to provide access to Recyclebank’s green rewards program to its nearly 20 million customers in North America.

Currently, Recyclebank has about three million members, so this is a big deal.

Jonathan Hsu

But there’s more to the story, as I learned last week when I interviewed Jonathan Hsu, Recyclebank’s CEO, at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco.

Recyclebank has bigger ambitions than turning trash to cash. It’s seeking to become a Internet marketing platform that will reward people for engaging in more environmentally friendly behavior. Its members will be able to earn rewards points by using energy more efficiently at home, reducing water usage, by buying greener products, even by walking to work instead of driving.

This makes Recyclebank a very interesting company to watch, because it is betting big on the green consumer–a risky but promising strategy. [click to continue...]

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate change.

And to stop pushing for comprehensive “climate policy.”

That’s what New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, did last week when he gave $50 million to the Sierra Club to fight coal plants. Coal plants should be shuttered, he said, because they endanger public health, pollute the air, deposit mercury in lakes and contribute to asthma. “This is not about the future,” he said, “This is about today.” [See my blogpost, Mike Bloomberg takes on coal.]

Now here comes a group of international scholars and analysts, known as the Hartwell Group, with a new report called Climate Pragmatism, [PDF, download]  which argues that the best way to enact policies around climate change is to talk less about climate and more about curbing air pollution and promoting clean energy innovation.

Telling people to study climate science and make sacrifices–in effect, what Al Gore has tried valiantly to do–hasn’t worked and won’t, the report says.

Nor will the argument that we need to “save the planet” for future generations.

The report says:

The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in time–benefits who attributes, magnitude, timing and distribution are not knowable with certainty.

By contrast:

The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree that it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical and environmental benefits to economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resistance to climate impacts.

I called Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, to talk about the report. [click to continue...]

What’s wrong with Obama’s green team?

It’s hard not to be impressed by the people working for the Obama administration on the environment. For the most part, they’re smart, well-intentioned, dedicated. Let’s hope they can deliver meaningful results soon on the issue that matters most: climate change.

Today, I’m at the Society of Environmental Journalists convention in Madison, Wisconsin. It has attracted a parade of administration officials: Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, marine biologist Jane Lubchenko, who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Gina McCarthy, an EPA administrator in charge of air quality, and others. Al Gore keynoted, and we heard from economists, scientists and a CEO or two during a very full day.

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The boss and Vilsack

The Obama people came to sell cap-and-trade, hard. One version of a carbon regulation bill has passed the House, another’s pending in the Senate and the UN meetings in Copenhagen where a global agreement is supposed to be negotiated to replace the Kyoto treaty is just two months away.

Chances are, though, that, the U.S. won’t have legislation by then, which will make it difficult to get a global accord.

That’s because, for all the brainpower and commitment of Obama’s green team, the president has made climate change, at best, his No. 4 priority, behind the economy, health care and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Republicans haven’t helped on the climate issue, either.

To be sure, Obama & Co. have spent a  fortune subsidizing clean energy through the economic stimulus bill. But that won’t be as much help as a cap-and-trade bill with strong targets. [click to continue...]

An inconvenient mess

In more than 30 years (!) as a reporter, I’ve covered government and business and spent a fair bit of time thinking about which is more likely to move us closer to a sustainable, just and compassionate world. Of course, it will take both—the power of markets tempered by the hand of government. But over the years, and despite the catastrophic economic events of the past year, my faith in the ability of business to solve big problems has grown while my belief that government–yes, even a Barack Obama-led government–is going to get us where we want to go has waned. There are a lot of reasons for this, having to do with the role of incentives and accountability and bureaucracy, but we’ll leave those for another day.

I’m thinking about the effectiveness of government today for two reasons. First, I’m struck more and more by how forcefully and confidently the Obama administration is moving to reshape the automobile and energy industries, let alone the financial markets. (See an earlier post, Beware of Obama’s Battery Gold Rush, which is getting some nice traction around the net.) Second, I dug into my past as a media-industry reporter to write a column about cable TV regulation for Slate’s The Big Money that is running under the headline, An Inconvenient Mess: How Al Gore and Kevin Martin screwed up cable regulation.

Now, cable regulation is an arcane topic, and so the column is a little dense. Before you read it, let me pose a question: Why on earth is the government regulating cable TV? I will grant you that the cable companies need local government permission to tear up the streets to lay their wires, and that the original franchising process for cable may have done some good by requiring cable operators to set aside channels for municipal and educational purposes. (Although, honestly, when was the last time you watched a local school board meeting or community college lecture on cable?) But today, you can get hundreds of channels of TV  from lots of places —your cable operator, satellite companies, telcos and to an ever-growing extent, over the Internet. Or, if you prefer, you can choose the ever-popular “none of the above.” Cable is, after all, not a necessity. It competes not only with all those other TV providers but with the movies, newspapers, magazines, books, live entertainment, your local tavern, running, sleeping and the like.

And yet the FCC not only retains the power, in some locales, to regulate cable rates, it also has a say over what channels your cable operator must carry, and whether they may discriminate against channels they don’t own, which is why lawyers for a number of programmers (including The National Football League, which is not exactly an underdog in need of government protection) have taken their omplaints about distribution to the FCC. The legal arguments quickly get into questions about the value and pricing of content—exactly the kinds of questions that markets are good at settling.

You can certainly  argue that there was a time when cable operators behaved like obnoxious monopolists and deserved to be regulated. They may still be obnoxious (although some people I like actually work for cable companies) but they are clearly no longer monopolists. Yet the government won’t let go.

Here’s how the column begins:

In the early days of cable, long before anyone dreamed of a 24-hour food channel, Real World Season 22, or Glenn Beck, a startup network showing nothing but music videos struggled to get carried by cable systems—that is, the companies that own the wires leading into people’s homes. Frustrated, the owners of this new channel created a now-classic advertising campaign urging teenagers to call their cable operators and declare: I Want My MTV!

Ever since—this was the early 1980s—the media companies that own networks (Viacom (VIA), Disney (DIS), CBS (CBS)) have fought with the companies that own cable systems (Comcast (CMCSA), Time Warner (TWC), Cox Communications) over distribution. Even today, when the average cable system offers about 120 channels—and many carry 500 or more—programmers complain that they can’t get their fare onto the cable menu.

Now, though, instead of seeking to arouse the masses with “I Want My MTV”-style campaigns, disgruntled programmers hire lawyers to take their complaints to Washington—most recently, to a windowless conference room at the Federal Communications Commission, where dozens of high-priced attorneys have been arguing about which channels should be carried by what cable systems and at what prices.

You can read the rest here.
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Al Gore: always on message

I admire Al Gore. I really do. His dedication to the climate issue is admirable. His brainpower is formidable. He seems to be a decent man. I enjoyed spending time with him when Adam Lashinsky and I wrote about his new gig as a venture capitalist last year n FORTUNE.

So why am I usually disappointed when I hear him speak? I think it’s because, even now, he’s always on message. He lectures. It’s getting to the point where I can finish his sentences. Maybe I’m going to too many conferences.

At the Wall Street Journal’s eco:nomics conference, Gore said:

“We as a civilization have been slow to recognize the enormity of the climate crisis. It is a genuine planetary emergency.”

“This roller coaster is going to crash, and we are in the front car.”

“We are getting closer and closer to some trip wires that could set off processes that are irretrievable.”

“The Arctic is heating up more rapidly than any other part of the world.”

“We have enough solar energy hitting the surface of the earth in 45 minutes equal to the entire energy consumption, for a year, of the world.”

All true. All things we’ve heard from him before. Gore’s a really smart guy. Surely he’s learning all the time. You’d never know that to hear him talk.

About the only spontaneous moment during Gore’s appearance came when he was confronted by climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg.

“Would you be willing to have a debate with me? “ Lomborg asked?

Gore’s face seemed to redden a bit.

“I want to be polite with you,” he said. Then he got back on message, saying we should be long past the time when we are debating the reality of climate change, or the need to respond to it.

“This process has already started,” he said. “The Maldives had a new line item in their budget this year. It was: Fund to buy a new country.”

Clean energy: curing all our woes

Bill Clinton. Al Gore. Harry Reid. Nancy Pelosi. Steven Chu. Robert Kennedy Jr. Boone Pickens. Carl Pope. John Sweeney. Andy Stern. Van Jones. George Pataki. John Podesta.

They all agreed.

Clean energy will revive our economy, create new jobs, curb climate change and help end our dependence on imported oil. So they said today at a Washington forum organized by the National Clean Energy Project, a project of the influential think tank, the Center for American Progress.

Speakers droned on for nearly three hours. Had they stayed longer, they would have told us that clean energy would cure baldness and whiten teeth, too.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, but it’s hard to see the point of getting all this brainpower together, along with the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Owens Corning and American Electric Power, for a conversation that never got down to the nitty-gritty.

Clean energy is many things, but it’s no panacea. And the real question isn’t whether we want to replace polluting fossil fuels with solar, wind and geothermal energy. The difficult challenges revolve around how we should we do it, how much it will cost, and how to overcome the many obstacles to the so-called clean energy revolution. If it were easy, it would have been done by now.

Those question were all but ignored–surprisingly, since the big names on the program, Clinton and Gore, have been around for a long time. They supported clean energy and opposed global warming in the 1990s but had little to show for it when they left office. “We didn’t have the votes, before,” Clinton said, when asked why. In fairness, Clinton and Gore since then have done great work raising public consciousness around climate.

Maybe their evangelism is—finally—paying off. Certainly the Obama administration’s $787-billion economic stimulus bill allocates lots of money for clean energy, the grid and energy efficiency, Now, despite the dismal economy, momentum seems to be building for the next step—a federal energy bill to promote renewable energy and drive the modernization of the electricity grid.

“We’re going to do an energy bill soon,” Reid said, and it will include a national renewable portfolio standard and policy changes to bring a so-called smart grid a step closer. Only after that, he said, will Congress take up climate legislation.

Clinton and Gore agreed that clean energy had brought together a broader coalition than ever before.

“This [clean energy] coalition has intensified, and held its position in the wake of falling prices for coal and oil,” Clinton said. In the past, he said, “Every time oil dropped, people said give me my Hummer back. That’s not what they’re saying now.”

The country faces three crises, Gore said—the climate crisis, the economic crisis and national security challenges—and “the common thread running through all of them is our ridiculous overdependence on dirty, dangerous carbon-based fuels.”

Only occasionally did the forum get much more detailed than that. No Republicans from Congress were invited to challenge the conventional wisdom, and the business leaders stuck to generalities. Here are a few highlights:

Enhanced federal power will be need to drive the buildout of a national grid. George Pataki, the former New York governor, said: “You try to run a wire through somebody’s community, and that gets as contentious as you can get. Nobody’s going to be for it…What we need is a federal permitting process—not one that’s authoritarian, but one in partnership with the states.”

Reid went a step further. When, during a news conference after the event (see below), he was told that the leader of an association of state regulators had expressed doubt about whether Washington could grab the power to site big tranmission lines, Reid replied bluntly: “He represents state regulators. Whatever we pass at the federal level trumps all that.”

If clean energy means costly energy, poor people will suffer. So said Lee Scott, the outgoing CEO of Wal-Mart: “Remember that if it costs them $5 a week more, they’re not going to buy medication or they’re not going buy something for their children.”

But Scott also urged government leaders to follow Wal-Mart’s lead and set big goals when it comes to sustainability, even if the path forward isn’t unknown. “We had a crystal clear vision of where we wanted to go, but we did not have a crystal clear vision of the route we wanted to get there,” he said.

Turns out that one place the route led was to the chicken fryers. Wal-Mart is about to roll out a few trucks that will run on “the brown grease, the oils that we fry the chicken in, in the deli,” Scott said.

“You’ll be able to eat fried chicken and save the environment,” he added. “We’re going to work on marketing that.”

Energy storage will be needed to drive renewables. Secretary Chu said the technology to build a smart grid is mostly available, but that breakthroughs in storage will be needed before renewable energy can become a bigger part of the electricity mix.

“We have to remember that renewable energy resources like wind and solar are transient. They go up and down,” Chu said. “We don’t have large scale power storage yet. We should start to invest heavily in pump-hydro storage. There’s a possibility of putting in compressed-air storage.”

The winds of change are everywhere. Denise Bode, the new CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said that 8300 megawatts of new wind power capacity were added last year, that the U.S. now has 70 facilities that manufacture turbines and other products for the wind industry, and that the industry added 35,000 jobs last year. Impressive stuff.

Even more telling is the fact that she joined the wind energy association last fall after a stint as CEO of the American Clean Skies Foundation, a natural gas industry group, and seven years as president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). When oil lobbyists because wind lobbyists, maybe we really are on the verge of change.

Paralysis in Poznan?

Poznan, a lovely old city of about half a million people in western Poland, is a odd place to hold a giant UN conference on global warming. For one thing, it’s really cold. (That’s an ice sculpture, in case you were wondering, and it’s in no danger of melting anytime soon.) Much of Poland, meanwhile, was all but destroyed by World War II, then oppressed by the Soviets for most of the rest of the 20th century, before the economy began to boom in the late 1990s. What ideas comes to mind you think of the Poles? No, not sausage. Resilience, courage, the Warsaw uprising, Solidarity, Lech Walesa and all that.

But the earth isn’t especially resilient, I don’t believe, at least it won’t be if global GHG emissions and average temperatures keep rising at their current rates. That’s why what is happening, or actually not happening, in Poznan is something of a worry. The global financial meltdown threatens to slow what momentum exists towards a post-Kyoto treaty to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-dependent nations like Poland and Germany are resisting aggressive new climate goals inside the EU, which has been the global leader around climate issues. Everyone’s waiting to see what comes out of the U.S.

The trouble is, the timing of this confab  is out of synch with U.S. politics. The American delegation is led by Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs. (We’re scheduled to meet tomorrow.) But, of course, climate policy going forward will be driven by President-elect Obama and his environment/energy team, which is just being put together. Al Gore is on his way here (did you know that the Nobel Goreate has a blog?) after a meeting with the president-elect in Chicago, but he won’t be speaking officially for the new administration. See this story by Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post for more on the transition issue.

Still, it’s exciting to be at my first big UN climate conference. (Wish I had gone last year, when it was in Bali.) I’m told that there are between 9,000 and 11,000 people here from more than 90 countries, all concerned about climate change. Lots of biz people: I just ran into Abyd Karmali, Merrill Lynch’s carbon finance guru, in the hall, and he says business is good. (Credit Suisse, by contrast, just shuttered its carbon trading desk, which was led by a brilliant and personable ex-brain surgeon named Paul Ezekiel.) There’s an enormous exhibit hall of clean technology that I’m going to explore later. I’m speaking tomorrow at a reception sponsored by the Masdar Initiative, which is building a zero-carbon, zero-emissions city in Abu Dhabi and investing in clean tech around the world. All the BINGOs (big NGOs) are here, making noise. And there’s actual hard work going on around such important questions as how to use carbon regulation to preserve forests, how to adapt to climate change (as opposed to mitigate it), what affect climate change will have on global food supplies, etc. So I’ll report back when I can.