Is geoengineering ready for prime time?

2010 has been a bad year for climate, and an even worse year for climate policy. But for that very reason, it’s been a good year for geoengineering—the notion that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate and cool the earth.

Official Washington is starting to take geoengineering seriously: The Government Accountability Office and a bipartisan task force of experts convened by the New America Foundation will soon report on geoengineering. Bill Gates has invested in geoengineering research. Environmental groups–notably Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund–have engaged in the conversation. On a parochial note, at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference last spring, Stewart Brand talked about why geoengineering is important, to a rapt audience that included Bill Ford and Lee Scott.

David Keith

David Keith, a leading scholar of geoengineering who administers Gates’ $4.6 million grant with  with Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, also spoke at Brainstorm Green. So I was pleased to have a chance to reconnect with him at the excellent annual conference run by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the University of Montana in Missoula.  I expected him to be pleased by the momentum gathering behind  geoengineering lately, but I was wrong.

“I think things are moving too fast,” David told me. “Research programs can be killed by spending too much money too fast.” Besides, he said, people need time to wrap their head around geoenginnering. (Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post recently described it as playing God with the weather. ) “This is a topic—the first time people hear about it, they have wild ideas,” he said.

As I’ve written before – see this, this and this – geoengineering raises a host of thorny ethical, political and governance issues. Who gets to control the earth’s thermostat? Who decides if and when to deploy geoengineering techniques? Which should be used?

At SEJ, David was on a panel with Dane Scott, director of the center for ethics at the University of Montana, and journalist Eli Kintisch, author of a recent book about geoengineering called Hack the Planet. They all seemed to agree that the technology to cool the earth now exists—either by reflecting sunlight back into the sky, an approach known as solar radiation management, or by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. (Keith has a for-profit startup called Carbon Engineering designed to do just that.) They also agreed that the moral ethical issues surrounding geoengineering are daunting. [click to continue…]

Fred Krupp: Seemingly indestructible

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Fred Krupp is like a Timex watch.

timex-ws4

He takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Those of you old enough to remember the commercials when Timex tortured its seemingly indestructible watches, using high divers, water skiers, dishwashers, jackhammers, and the propeller of an outboard motor, know what I mean.

Except that the instruments of torture that Fred has endured as he has labored, literally for decades, to get climate change legislation through Congress include coal-state Senators, Republican obstructionists, Washington trade associations, a largely indifferent press corps  and left-wing green groups that accuse the Environmental Defense Fund, which he leads, of selling out to big business.

If nothing else, you’ve got to admire his persistence.

It can’t be easy to calmly discuss the need for cap-and-trade legislation and the challenge of getting 60 votes in the Senate while oil is fouling the Gulf of Mexico, global temperatures are rising and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are reaching dangerous levels.

Yet that’s Fred–calm, rational, pragmatic and seemingly undeterred by the fact that there appears to be only an outside chance that climate-change legislation will be passed this year, that next year looks a whole lot worse and that the congressional clock is ticking down.

Today, EDF invited reporters to the Washington offices of the Glover Park Group to hear Fred and Steve Cochran, the group’s chief lobbyist, make a last-ditch plea for a scaled-back bill, one with an emissions cap that initially covers only the utility industry.

They conceded for the first time publicly that EDF won’t get the economy-wide cap that it really wants and also, for the first time, gently criticized  President Obama and urged him to back up his climate-change rhetoric with action. [click to continue…]

The Gulf disaster, and you can hum along

So much has been written about the disaster in the Gulf that I’ve felt no need until now to add my two cents. But I’ll ask you to check out this video from the Environmental Defense Fund which uses music and images to get to the heart of the issue. Better, I might add, than our president did last night.

Please, let’s not allow this crisis to pass without taking action to cap carbon emissions and promote clean energy. This is about our legacy.

Here are a few words about the video from David Yarnold, the executive director of Environmental Defense Fund:

From a comfortable distance the BP oil disaster is depressing and horrific. But up close, it’s worse.
Two days in the Gulf of Mexico left me enraged – and deeply resolved. Both the widespread damage and the inadequacy of the response effort exceeded my worst fears. I’d spent a full day on the Gulf and we ended up soaked in oily water and seared by the journey.
By Tuesday night, I was home. My throat burned and my head was foggy and dizzy as I showed my pictures and video to my wife, Fran, and my 13-year-old daughter, Nicole, on the TV in the family room.
Images of the gooey peanut-butter colored oil and the blackened wetlands flashed by. Pictures of dolphins diving into our oily wake and brown pelicans futilely trying to pick oil off their backs popped on the screen. And, out of nowhere, Nicole put on the music from the season finale of Glee.
With all these horrific images on the screen, she had turned on the show’s final song of the year, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The song, a slow, sweet, ukulele and guitar-driven version, couldn’t have added a deeper sense of tragic irony.
I choked up. And then that resolve kicked in: I wanted anyone/everyone to see what our addiction to oil had done to the Gulf and to contrast that with the sense of hope and possibility that “Somewhere” exudes.
Long story short, last weekend, Peter Rice, Chairman of Fox Networks Entertainment, gave Environmental Defense Fund the green light to use the song. The pictures you’ll see were shot by two incredibly talented EDF staffers, Yuki Kokubo and Patrick Brown – and a few are mine.
The inspiration was Nicole’s. This is for her, and for all of our kids – and theirs to come.

Walmart: Still the green giant

051026_MB_GreenWalmart_exWalmart and GE are the superpowers of corporate sustainability. They have enormous impact (WMT) and influence (GE). Recently, I hosted a dinner about sustainability for Motorola where an executive named Bill Olson described how the company developed its Eco-Moto W233 Renew carbon neutral, energy efficient, environmentally friendly phone. To do so, Motorola needed a company that would sell it recycled plastic for the phone. That was GE. It also needed a retailer to enthusiastically sell the phones. That was Walmart. In fact, as Bill recalled, WMT exec told him that giant retailer would before long be selling nothing but “green” phones.

The point is, WMT and GE are changing business, often in unseen ways. So it’s worth keeping up with their efforts to meet their own ambitious sustainability goals. Where are they succeeding? Where are they falling short? How strong is their commitment?

WMT’s 2010 Global Sustainability Report, which was released recently, provides a snapshot of the retailer’s work. The 47-page report (available here) is, if nothing else, a reminder of the scope  and depth of WMT’s efforts—the company is buying renewable power, reducing packaging, reducing waste, making its fleet more efficient, and selling more sustainable products, and not just here in the U.S.

Here are some highlights:

Bentonville Buddies: Mike Duke and Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp

Bentonville Buddies: Mike Duke and Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp

When CEO Mike Duke took over last year from Lee Scott, there were questions about his commitment to the sustainability efforts. He now appears to be a believer. In the introduction to the report, he writes that  WMT has been able to “broaden and accelerate” its commitment to sustainability even during the recession. And he says:

Sustainability continues to make Walmart a better company by reducing waste, lowering costs, driving innovation, increasing productivity and helping us fulfill our mission of saving people money so they can live better.

That’s about as good a summary of the business case for sustainability as you’ll find. [click to continue…]

Two cheers for Wal-Mart’s CO2 pledge

WMT-EDFUntil now, Walmart’s bold sustainability efforts were marred by a glaring omission.

The $405-billion a year retailer has worked hard since 2005 to save energy, reduce waste and sell more sustainable products.

But it resisted pressures to reduce or hold steady its own greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, its carbon emissions have grown, as the middle graphic below shows. (There’s a cleaner version in WMT’s responsibility report, here.) When it comes to global warming, Walmart would appear to be doing more harm now than it was three or five years ago.

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Today, Walmart made its first major commitment to reduce greenhouse gases–although, in typical WMT fashion, rather than set a tough goal that might affect its own growth curve, the company plans to turn up the pressure on its thousands of suppliers to reduce their emissions. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering inevitable?

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering.

Some people believe that it is all but certain.

Geoengineering, as you probably know, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet to counter global warming. It can take a number of forms, as the graphic below shows, some perhaps still to be discovered. Long a taboo subject, geoengineering is being talked about openly these days by scientists, environmentalists and policy thinkers.

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The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on geoengineering in June. Influential books including SuperFreakonomics and Whole Earth Discipline, by longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand, argue that it’s time to take geoengineering seriously. A congressional subcommittee held its second hearing on geoengineering just last week.

Among those testifying was Keith, who directs the energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary and, interestingly, also leads a team of engineers who are developing a technology to capture CO2 from ambient air. I heard him speak a week ago during a six-hour workshop on geoengineering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit known for its pragmatism. EDF invited me to attend, on the condition that I seek permission from the scientists before quoting them. [click to continue…]

The power of small changes

When Chris McKenna, who manages a fleet of trucks for Poland Spring, learned that the company’s drivers were racking up as much as 1,400 hours a month of idle time, he saw an opportunity to make a difference. Running truck engines in winter kept the cabs warm — the company is based in Maine — but it cost Poland Spring money and polluted the air.

To see which of the company’s 65 drivers were racking up the most idle time, McKenna ranked them, based on data from onboard computers. “All we did was talk to them about it, and put a list up in the break room,” he told me. “Human nature, no one wants to be at the bottom of the list.” To sweeten the deal, the 10 drivers with the lowest idling time got a gift card for fuel they could use for their own cars.

The results were dramatic. Idle time dropped from 1,400 hours in February 2007 to 1000 hours in February 2008 to just 380 hours in February 2009. Depending on fuel costs, cutting idle time has saved the company thousands of dollars a year—roughly $20,000 during 2008, for example.

There are two lessons here. First, as I wrote recently about OPower, changing behavior is a powerful and low-cost way to curb climate change. Second, small changes can add up to big impacts, as the Environmental Defense Fund makes clear in this cool video from its Innovation Exchange website.

As EDF notes, fleet vehicles are driven hard, averaging nearly double the mileage, fuel consumption and emissions of personal vehicles. Currently, EDF says there are more 3 million corporate fleet vehicles in the United States emitting 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

I spoke with Chris McKenna last summer while helping EDF write a series of case studies on greening fleets. (The case studies [click to continue…]

The Great Wall embraces Wall Street

Here comes a new carbon finance market, this one with Chinese characteristics.

In the latest sign that China takes the threat of global warming seriously, Chinese business executives with close ties to the government have launched a voluntary market in Beijing to buy and sell carbon credits.

Just don’t call it cap-and-trade, which is the regulatory approach embodied in the climate legislation pending in the U.S. Congress. The “cap” part of cap-and-trade remains anathema in China. As a developing country where billions of people earn less than $3,000 a year, China simply won’t accept mandatory limits on its emissions of greenhouse gases.

David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund

David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund

But the Chinese have enlisted western partners to build a market that will, as they put it, “limit and incentivize.” The theory is that a voluntary market in carbon credits will limit emissions by providing financial incentives to Chinese companies to develop renewable energy, promote energy efficiency and, above all, find environmentally-friendly ways to burn coal. Some of that money would come from outside China and would would come from within.

This could lay the groundwork for a mandatory market in the not-too-distant future.

That, at least, was my takeaway from a Low Carbon Conference held today in New York that brought together leaders of the world’s big stock exchanges, energy industry executives, environmentalists and experts in carbon finance. [Disclosure: I hosted the event for BlueNext, a French company that recently announced a partnership with the China Beijing Environmental Exchange to develop carbon trading in China.] [click to continue…]

Eaton CEO: Hybrid trucks deliver, big-time

Crawling, stop-and-go traffic is an annoyance to most drivers. To Eaton Corp., a $15-billion a year FORTUNE 500 company based in Cleveland, it’s a business opportunity.

That’s because, as anyone who has driven a Toyota Prius knows, the stopping and starting, braking and accelerating required in traffic is ideal for hybrid-electric engines, which capture energy from brakes and turn it into electric power.

President Obama checks out a hybrid truck

President Obama checks out a hybrid truck

So Eaton, which has been developing electrical and hybrid power systems for trucks and buses for more than 20 years, is now building a nice business around selling hybrid power systems for commercial vehicles. On a California trip last spring, President Obama got a sneak peak at a plug-in hybrid electric utility truck with a power system developed by  Eaton.

According to Alexander M. “Sandy” Cutler, Eaton’s chairman and CEO, the hybrid truck industry—while much smaller, and not nearly as visible as the hybrid car business—is finally taking off. [click to continue…]

The World Bank’s coal problem

So much is going on in the world of business and sustainability that no one can keep up with it all. I’ve decided, as a result, to occasionally feature guest posts  from smart people who follow topics I don’t. Today’s post comes from Mindy Lubber of Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors and environmental groups that works to integrate sustainability into capital markets. Mindy has spoken at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, and she’s one of those people who moves easily between the world of advocacy and the realities of corporate America. Her topic today is the folly of financing new coal plants in the developing world.

ceres_logo_color_bigIn Washington, it’s a popular climate conundrum everyone talks about: Even if the U.S. lowers its greenhouse gas emissions, China and India are on track to dwarf the entire Western World’s as they build enormous coal-fired power plants. Politicians regularly say we must get China and India to use less coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, to power their emerging economies.

But who do you think is financing all these new coal plants in the developing world?

Try the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international public financial institutions supported by the world’s wealthiest nations.
[click to continue…]