Andrew Steer: An economist atop WRI

“I’m an economist,” said Andrew Steer. “I’m not an environmentalist by training.”

This is a good thing because, unlike some U.S. environmental leaders, Steer, who is the new president and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI), is willing to deliver some straight talk about economic growth, environmental protection and the costs of clean energy. He’s also committed to WRI’s global, fact-based, business-friendly approach to addressing big environmental problems.

Over lunch the other day, Steer met with a group of reporters for the first time since joining WRI last month. A 60-year-old Brit, he is only the third president of the Washington-based nonprofit, following James “Gus” Speth, a lawyer and academic, and Jonathan Lash, a lawyer and former regulator who is now president of Hampshire College. By contrast, Steer spent most of his career at the World Bank, working in international development and as the bank’s climate change envoy.

While living in Vietnam, Steer saw first-hand how the past two decades have brought material progress along with environmental degradation. Not one of the bank’s 100 Vietnamese employees owned a car when he arrived in Hanoi in 1997, he told us. Today, nearly all do. They are better off, but the city is more polluted and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Per capita income in developing countries is twice what it was. More people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 20 years than in the prior 100 years,” he said. “But the price that we’ve paid, in terms of environmental debt, if you will, has been much too high. We have incurred a massive environmental debt.” [click to continue...]

Jonathan Lash is leaving World Resources Institute

Jonathan Lash, one of America’s most respected environmental leaders, is leaving the World Resources Institute to become president of Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts.

Lash, who is 65, has been president of WRI for 18 years. Only two people have led the Washington-based nonprofit: He succeeded Gus Speth, who ran WRI for 10 years.

WRI is often described as an environmental think tank, and, in fact, it is trusted as an independent, nonpartisan, science-based organization. So when General Electric’s Jeff Immelt announced the company’s EcoMagination initiative back in 2005, Lash was by his side.

But WRI also gets involved in the nitty-gritty of environmental problems around the world. Its work on establishing the value of ecosystems helped the nation of Belize protect its coastlines. Its expertise in public transport has helped build bus networks in India and Brazil. It helped developed the protocol used by U.S. government agencies to manage and reduce their emissions. WRI’s got a dozen people in China. This isn’t glamorous work, but it matters.

In an email to staff, Lash wrote: [click to continue...]

WRI: Beyond the beltway, some bright spots

“It was a tough year for the environment, and a tough year for environmentalists, especially in the U.S.”

So said Jonathan Lash, the CEO of the World Resources Institute, one of Washington’s most respected environmental groups, as he began his annual look at the state of the environment in the new year.

2010 was indeed a dismal year–marked as it was by record warm temperatures, natural disasters linked to climate change, the BP Deepwater oil spill, the Massey mine disaster and, most importantly, the defeat of  climate-change legislation in Congress.

Given today’s political realities, it was hard for Lash to summon much optimism about 2011,  at least when it comes to U.S. policy. But he was able to identify pockets of progress in the business world and elsewhere–particularly in China–that could, over time, drive the decarbonization of the global economy required to curb climate change.

Policy will be needed–specifically a price on carbon, in some form–but if and when governments finally manage to peenalize companies for their emissions,  they will  set off “an avalanche, a shift that will go much faster than policy requires” as businesses compete in a low-carbon world.

[click to continue...]

COP15: Hopehagen–or Flopenhagen?

cop15_logo_b_mSo the verdict is in on the UN climate negotiations that just wrapped in Copenhagen and it’s all but unanimous:

Carl Pope, Sierra Club: The world’s nations have concluded a historic–if incomplete–agreement to begin tackling global warming.  Tonight’s announcement is but a first step and much work remains to be done.

Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council: We have taken a vital first step toward curbing climate change for the sake of our planet, our country and our children…. There’s still more work to be done.

Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund: A lot of hard work remains, but a lot of hard work is finished. The new positive steps taken here…president the U.S Senate and President Obama with a n historic opportunity.

Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute: “Much more is needed, but today marks a foundation for a global effort to fight climate change.

Elliot Diringer, Pew Center for Global Climate Change: The Copenhagen Accord is an important step forward in the international climate effort…it lays the foundation for a system to hold countries accountable. …Much remains to be negotiated.

Hmm..  I thought the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio or the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or the 2007 Bali Roadmap were first steps. Shouldn’t we be taking the second, third or fourth steps by now? Or, if you prefer the foundation metaphor, shouldn’t we hurry up and build the house, before sea levels rise and storms intensify?

This isn’t to suggest that the 15,000 or 20,000 people who descended on Copenhagen during the last two weeks wasted their time. What is being called the Copenhagen Accord sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. It promises billions of dollars of aid for poor countries. It points the way towards a resolution of the fundamental conflict between U.S. and China over their so-called “common but differentiated” responsibilities to deal with global warming. That’s important–when it comes to climate and the global economy, the G-2 of the U.S. and China tower over the rest of the world. The leaders of Europe, Japan and other countries at the summit were largely left to rubber-stamp the deal, as The Washington Post reported.

The trouble is, none of this is good enough. Nations can now set own emission reduction targets. (Earlier versions of a political agreement being discussed in Copenhagen had called for specific reductions by 2020 and 2050.) It does not set a deadline for signing and binding treaty. (Until fairly recently, that deadline was supposed to be now.) Sure, aid is promised to poor countries, but aside from some token amounts, no one can be sure where the money will come from.

This isn’t a strong deal. It isn’t  a weak deal. It’s not a deal at all.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Having said that, I understand the thinking behind the first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done analysis coming from the inside the Beltway environmental groups. With the climate debate now shifting from Copenhagen to the U.S. Senate, they need to tread carefully. They can’t be overly critical of President Obama or undecided senators; they need to suggest that something real was accomplished in Copenhagen, to help persuade legislators that the U.S. can enact strong climate regulation without giving a competitive edge to China or India. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club made this argument explicitly, saying: “Now that the rest of the world–including countries like China and India–has made clear that it is willing to take action, the Senate must pass domestic legislation…”

But, again, the rest of the world has not committed to anything.

For a reality check on where we stand, let me refer you to the Climate Scoreboard put together by scientists at MIT, the Sustainability Institute and Ventana Partners, with the support of Nike, Citigroup, Fidelity Investments and others, which uses computer simulations to  model the long-term climate impacts of decisions being undertaken today. Please see the Climate Interactive blog for more detail.

Put simply, we’re not going where we need to go.

A big part of the problem here, as Bill McKibben has written eloquently, is that the world’s governments treat climate change as just another political problem–and it’s not.

Think about the health-care agreement reached this weekend. It’s the product of a series of compromises, some of them quite ugly, but it has the support of President Obama and Democrats in Congress because they believe it’s the best they can do, for now. Maybe they’ll come back to “reform” health care again in a few years. It’s a step, even a big step, in the right direction.

This is how politics usually works. It’s incremental. Even on great moral issues like civil rights, governments move piece by piece–first the military was desegregated, then came schools, then  voting rights, finally housing and employment bias were barred, if I remember my history right. This approach gives people time to get used to change. It’s the mindset behind first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done.

But incrementalism isn’t going to do the job when it comes to climate change. Every day that goes by when we emit more global warming pollutants into the atmosphere than nature can take out, the job gets harder to do. So a small but inadequate step, even one in the right direction, can actually leave us worse off than before.

One metaphor that helped me understand this is a bathtub: The faucet (industry, transportation, deforestation) is pouring more water in to the tub than the drain (nature’s ability to absorb CO2) can take away, and there’s no way to make the drain any bigger. Just turning down the faucet a little doesn’t help; the water level in the tub can keep rising, albeit not as fast as before. The longer the faucet pours in more water than the drain can take away, the more radically we have to turn it down to stop the tub from overflowing.

McKibben explains it this way:

Physics has set an immutable bottom line on life as we know it on this planet. For two years now, we’ve been aware of just what that bottom line is: the NASA team headed by James Hansen gave it to us first. Any value for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible “with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”  That bottom line won’t change: above 350 and, sooner or later, the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, hydrological cycles are thrown off kilter, and so on.

And here’s the thing: physics doesn’t just impose a bottom line, it imposes a time limit. This is like no other challenge we face because every year we don’t deal with it, it gets much, much worse, and then, at a certain point, it becomes insoluble—because, for instance, thawing permafrost in the Arctic releases so much methane into the atmosphere that we’re never able to get back into the safe zone. Even if, at that point, the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee were to ban all cars and power plants, it would be too late.

Oh, and the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already at 390 parts per million, even as the amount of methane in the atmosphere has been spiking in the last two years. In other words, we’re over the edge already.  We’re no longer capable of “preventing” global warming, only (maybe) preventing it on such a large scale that it takes down all our civilizations.

There’s the argument for Flopenhagen.

As for Hopenhagen, well, I saw a lot of things to get excited about during my week in Copenhagen.

Denmark itself, for one: The nation gets 20% of its energy from wind, it’s rolling out a national system for charging all-electric cars and roughly 55% of the people of Copenhagen ride a bike every day, most to go to work. You won’t be surprised to hear that they are thinner as a group than those of us in the U.S.

Speaking of wind, Tulsi Tanti, the founder of Suzlon Energy, told me that China is the world’s biggest and fastest growing market for win energy. His company is manufacturing turbines in China, and he says the government there is committed in a serious way to clean energy — even if it doesn’t want to be held to absolute limits on emissions.

Finally, the kids. There were thousands of them in Copenhagen. They are committed to organizing to stop climate change, they are smart, they are idealistic, they are not pragmatic and they are not fans of the first-step-much-work-needs-to-done approach. For more, check out 350.org or Avaaz or the Youth Climate Movement.

You know how people say we need to save the earth for our kids? I’m starting to think that it’s the other way round, that they are going to have to save it for us.

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Your forgotten business partner: Nature

Most companies take for granted the fact that they are utterly dependent on a healthy planet. Nature provides not just the air we breathe and the water we drink, but an array of products and services to business—from the paper on which memos are printed to the sequestration of carbon in forests to the wild fish people eat for lunch.

450px-Forest_in_summer

The jargon-y name for these benefits is ecosystem services. Now a group of forward-thinking companies and nonprofits are asking:

What are ecosystem services worth?

How can companies protect them?

Should business pay for the services?

“Ecosystems and eco-system services do matter to the bottom line,”says Craig Hanson, director of the people & ecosystems program at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank. “Nearly every business, to some degree, depend on ecosystems for its own profitability.” [click to continue...]

“An emotional, social, economic reset”

“This economic crisis doesn’t represent a cycle. It represents a reset,” Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, said today. “It’s an emotional, social, economic reset.”

And the biggest impact of this “reset” will be greater government involvement in the economy, and in the affairs of business, for better or worse.

“People who understand that will prosper,” Immelt said. “Those who don’t will be left behind.”

Immelt spoke to the annual conference of Business for Social Responsibility, an association of about 250 companies that are looking for more sustainable ways to do business. About 1,200 people from companies, NGOs, consulting firms, PR shops and government agencies are here for the group’s powwow in New York.

The GE chief executive didn’t put it exactly this way, but he made clear that the meltdown on Wall Street and the election of Barack Obama will bring an end to a couple of decades of nearly blind faith in free markets and deregulation. (Heck, even Alan Greenspan has admitted that.) Going forward, stronger government intervention will be a fact of life, here in the U.S. and around the world.

The question, of course, is how deep and how wide the government involvement will be. You can be sure that the Obama administration will regulate the financial industry. But will Washington bail out the automakers? Freeze foreclosures? Tax fossil fuels? Make it easier for workers to join unions? All of the above?

Adjusting to this new reality will take some doing, Immelt said. “I’m a free market guy and fundamentally a Republican,” he told BSR. (That put him in a distinct minority in this crowd, which is packed with Obama fans. A BSR survey released today found that nine in 10 of the conference participants believe Obama will have a positive impact on advancing the agenda of corporate responsibility.) But while he may be a free market guy, Immelt’s no ideologue. He acknowledged that the government has always been deeply involved in the economy; research funded by the defense department helped spur the technology revolution of the 1990s, for example. What’s more, he said, prosperity depends on what he called four “pillars” of education, energy, health care and a financial services sector that promotes innovation. Education is a government obligation, of course, and the other three sectors he cited–energy, health care and financial services–have always been heavily regulated.

Interestingly, Immelt suggested that President-elect Barack Obama make clean energy a top priority when he takes office. Energy’s a big problem, he said, but unlike, say, health care, it is a problem that can be solved relatively easily, and with substantial benefits for the economy and the environment. Not incidentally, GE, a big player in wind energy and nuclear power, and a wanna-be provider of “clean coal” plants, stands to gain from an aggressive government push for clean energy.

“Clean energy is a combination of technology and public policy,” Immelt said. “I think this is imminently solvable. It creates jobs. There’s not a lot of downside.” GE, he said, is devoting about half of its $6 billion a year in R&D investment to clean energy and clean water technologies.

Immelt also sounded a positive note about his work with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of GE, DuPont, Alcoa and other big companies with environmental NGOs like Environmental Defense Fund and the World Resources Institute. The GE executive is the big cahuna behind U.S. CAP, which favors mandatory regulation of greenhouse gases, a role that has taken him a long way from his days as a young GE plastics exec who had developed a “healthy dislike for environmental NGOs.” Now he’s pals with the likes of Fred Krupp of EDF and Jonathan Lash of WRI.

Having said that, Immelt made clear that neither his position on climate change, nor his belief in GE’s much-hyped EcoMagination initiative, spring from any personal love for the outdoors. “I’ve never camped,” he said. “I don’t fish.”

But the science of climate change is “pretty much irrefutable,” he said. What’s more, GE’s business of selling products that help solve environmental problems is growing, from about $5 billion when EcoMagination was launched to about $17 billion today.

Besides, big companies don’t like uncertainty and there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty right now about what a President Obama and Congress will do to regulate greenhouse gases. Even worse, Immelt noted, you could argue that the U.S. already has de facto, unspoken regulation because of the growing opposition to coal-fired power plants.

“The last 49 coal plants haven’t gotten permits,” Immelt said. “Guess what. When that happens, you do have an energy policy. You just don’t know it.”

Better to have a full-scale democratic debate about what our energy policy should be. You can be sure that when that debate unfolds next year, GE’s voice will be heard.