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.

Why animal welfare is a “green” issue

Where bacon begins

Environmentalists love animals, the more exotic, the better. You can find environmental organizations dedicated to the protection of pandas, polar bears, sea turtles and birds. Elephants and whales, too.

Pigs, chickens and cows? Not so much.

But the way we treat animals in agriculture has profound environmental implications. And the group doing the most to change that is not a green group at all but the Humane Society of the United States. I recently interviewed Wayne Pacelle, the HSUS’s president and CEO, about the environmental impact of the animal welfare movement for the website Yale Environment 360.

In the interview, Pacelle makes the point that crowding pigs, chickens and cows into so-called factory farms inevitably creates environmental problems, particularly around waste disposal. So, of course, does the sheer number of animals we raise for meat–about 9 billion in the US alone–and the enormous amount of grain that most be raised to feed them.

Pacelle told me:

We cannot humanely and sustainably raised nine billion animals in the United States. And we’re asking consumers, if they care about animals and the environment, to eat a smaller amount of animal products. 

As regular readers of this blog know (see this or this), I agree with Pacelle that all of us should, at minimum, think about how we consume meat and, to a lesser degree, fish. There’s debate about the environmental impact of animal products but  a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantifies the land, water and greenhouse gas burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production points to “the uniquely high resource demands of beef.” So there are compelling environmental reasons to avoid steak and hamburgers from factory-farmed cows. Of course, there are health reasons as well to eat less meat, as well as strong moral reasons to avoid meat from factory farms or, for that matter, all animal products.

HSUS has had a big impact on how animals, especially pigs, are raised in the US. The organization’s savvy campaign against gestation crates has helped persuaded big brands like Costco and McDonald’s to eliminate the crates from its supply chains, bringing pressure of major pork producers like Smithfield and Cargill.

Pacelle, as it happens, is a vegan. But HSUS is not trying to abolish animal agriculture. In our interview, he said

We are an organization that embraces humane and sustainable farmers. The vast percentage of our members eat meat, drink milk and consume eggs.

Others see that as a betrayal of animals. I saw this tweet the other day from Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, himself a vegan, which led me to an interview with Phillip Wollen, a former Citibank executive who became a hard-line animal rights activist after visiting one of his bank’s client’s slaughterhouses.

An Australian, Wollen has this to say about the so-called humane slaughter of animals:

Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.

Fascinating, no? You can read more here from Wollen.

I’m not yet persuaded, as Wollen is, that eating animals is being complicit in murder.

But I don’t feel good about continuing to eat chicken and fish.

BrightFarms: Scaling salad, locally

image_11Paul Lightfoot, the CEO of BrightFarms, pitched his company during an American Idol-like panel called Great Green Ideas at Fortune Brainstorm Green. He didn’t win the audience vote, but I think BrightFarms is a great idea, so I decided to write about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business.

BrightFarms builds hydroponic greenhouses in cities to grow lettuces, tomatoes and herbs for supermarkets. Retail chains are intrigued: They can satisfy their consumer’ appetite for local food, and be assured of a predictable supply of healthy, fresh vegetables. While hydroponic farming isn’t new, BrightFarms has developed an innovative business model that should enable the company to finance its expansion.

The result is that BrightFarms is growing (pun intended) at a nice clip. This month, it announced plans to build a greenhouse in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Here’s how my story  begins:

Most of the organic baby greens sold in Washington DC supermarkets are not “green” at all. They’re grown in the Salinas Valley in California, which has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet. Then they are shipped in refrigerated trucks roughly 2,800 miles across America.

Paul Lightfoot thinks there’s a better way to get fresh lettuce, tomatoes and herbs into the hands of supermarket shoppers. Lightfoot is chief executive of a startup called BrightFarms, which builds and operates urban, hydroponic greenhouse farms. The company operates a greenhouse farm in Philadelphia, it’s building another on a massive rooftop in Brooklyn, and it is developing farms in St Louis, Kansas City, St Paul and Oklahoma City.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Lightfoot
Paul Lightfoot

The aptly-named Paul Lightfoot, by the way, is a marathon runner, which naturally predisposed me to like him and BrightFarms. He joins a distinguished group of “green” marathon runners including Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, Paul Polman of Unilever, “Speedy” Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, Tony Hansen of Fortune Brainstorm Green, Jason Graham-Nye of gDiapers, DOE solar guru Christina Nichols, ethical sourcing expert Melissa Schweisguth, Natalie Bailey of the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group and Sheryl O’Loughlin of the Nest Collective. If I’ve forgotten anyone, by all means let me know by email or in the comments.

Fortune Brainstorm Green, and the limits of corporate sustainability

Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green
Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green

The 2013 edition of Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference was, by most accounts, a hit. We had a record number of attendees, including more than 50 CEOs of companies and nonprofits, big and small; plenty of entertaining and informative conversation; and a healthy dose of fun, with celebs like Harrison Ford, and (my favorite) ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek. As co-chair of the event since the first Brainstorm Green in 2008, I love to reconnect with colleagues and sources, meet new folks and learn from and, occasionally, by inspired by our top-notch speakers. The theme of the conference has been a constant: How can business profitably help solve the world’s most important environmental problems?

Unavoidably, the challenge of an event like Brainstorm Green (as well as a conundrum for anyone who writes about corporate sustainability) turns on the question of how much to cheer or jeer the efforts of companies that are trying to “go green.” My job, as I see it, is to do both–to applaud the leaders, to prod the laggards, and to do my best to tell one from the other. That’s difficult balance to do in a conference setting where the mood is one of bonhomie, where the speakers are our “guests,” and where the presumption is that everyone is doing the best they can. The trouble is, that’s usually not good enough.

Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green
Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green

As Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy, who I interviewed at Brainstorm Green, put it in his excellent new book, Nature’s Fortune:

Nearly every precious bit of nature–teeming coral reefs, sweeping grasslands, lush forests, the rich diversity of life istelf–is in decline. Everything humanity should reduce–suburban sprawl, deforestation, overfishing, carbon emissions–has increased.

Sad but true.

So if corporate America is changing for the better when it comes to the environment–and no doubt, many companies are–the pace of change is too slow and the ambitions of business leaders are too modest. Incremental change is not getting us where we need to go. [click to continue…]

In defense of environmental extremism

David Brower and friends
David Brower and friends

The other night, I saw A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary history of the environmental movement, as part of the excellent DC Environmental Film Festival. The movie was OK, worth seeing, but not great, a bit PBS-like in its sweep.  By trying to cover a  lot, the filmmakers mostly skim the surface: Here’s Sierra Club  founder John Muir, there’s Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, remember when Jimmy Carter put a solar heater on the White House roof, say hello to Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben, meet Wangari Maathai, and let’s not overlook environmental justice and the Copenhagen climate talks, and wasn’t that Buckminster Fuller? Nor does the film look critically at environmentalism; it’s narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.

FierceGreenFire_posterHaving said that, the film, sometimes by design and sometimes inadvertently, manages to deliver a useful reminder about radicals and rabble-rousers: They are often the ones who drive change. Had Barry Goldwater been an environmentalist, he might have said that extremism in defense of the earth is no vice and that moderation, when it comes to climate change, is no virtue. The environmental movement’s heroes, at least in this telling, are David Brower and Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes and Greenpeace, and not those who work inside the Beltway or travel to UN conferences. At the very least, grass-roots, bottom-up activism created the conditions that drove change in Washington.

Consider, for example, these stirring words from a presidential State of the Union address, which is (too) briefly excerpted in the movie: [click to continue…]

Investing in nature

This is a good time to consider “impact investing,” and if you don’t know why, check the latest statement from your savings account or money market fund. My Vanguard money market fund is paying 0.04 percent interest; a Bank of America savings account pays 0.01 percent.

You don’t need an MBA to understand that the financial return on those investments is close to zero. The social or psychic returns? No better.

Mark Tercek, the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, happens to have an MBA (from Harvard), and he spent more than 20 years at Goldman Sachs before leaving in July 2008 (good timing!) to lead TNC. So it’s no surprise that he has introduced impact investing, in the form of interest-bearing Conservation Notes, to the conservancy.

Investors can lend money–minimum $25,000–to The Nature Conservancy to help the organization protect natural resources.They get a modest payback, along with the knowledge that their money is doing good. “It’s an investment-grade opportunity to achieve environmental impact on the ground,” Mark told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. [click to continue…]

Scott Jurek (and other vegans I like)

Scott Jurek at Pacers in Clarendon

“Believe it or not, there were two things I used to hate–vegetables and running,” Scott Jurek says. ”

Which only goes to show you how much people can change.

Jurek is a vegan and one of the world’s all-time greatest ultra-runners — “ultras” are races longer than marathons, often much longer. Scott has won the world’s most prestigious ultras many times, including seven consecutive victories in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. In 2010, he set the U.S. record for most miles run in a 24-hour period by covering 165.7 miles, which is more than six marathons. Think about that for a moment.

The other night, Scott led a group of several dozen runners (including me) on a 3-mile jog from The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Pacers running store in Clarendon, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve just finished the book–it’s an autobiography, a guide to running, a recipe book and, more broadly, a story about the importance of pursuing your goals, whether or not you achieve them.

Eating and running, he writes, are “simple activities, common as grass. And they’re sacred.”

Pilgrims seeking bliss carry water and chop wood, and they’re simple things, too, but if they’re approached with mindfulness and care, with attention to the present and humility, they can provide a portal to transcendence. They can illuminate the path leading to something larger than ourselves.

This isn’t to say that running will solve the world’s problems, or yours. But, as Scott writes

Move your body and fill it with healthy food and you will be transformed.

I’ve met Scott a couple of times now, and I have to say that I am impressed, not so much with his extraordinary accomplishments as a runner (which strike me as near-superhuman, and therefore not relevant to the rest of us)  but with his thoughtfulness (he’s smart, inquisitive and well-read) and  his purposeful approach to life, notably his plant-based diet. The fact that he’s a world-class runner and a vegan may well be coincidental–though I don’t think that’s so–but at the very least he is proof that a plant-based diet is no obstacle to good health and athletic stardom. [click to continue…]

On the run with Team Nature

It’s no surprise that many runners care about the environment. We depend on the outdoors to enjoy our sport, and most of us love to run in beautiful places.

But, unlike so many other cause-oriented nonprofits or charities–think of the Race for the Cure or Run MS–environmental groups have been slow to take advantage of the opportunity to connect the work they do to the running world.

The Nature Conservancy is trying to change that, which is how I found myself at the start of the GW Parkway Classic 10-mile race, which goes from Mount Vernon to downtown Alexandria, on Earth Day, a drizzly Sunday morning. Here in the capital region, and elsewhere around the world, Nature Conservancy chapters have organized Team Nature (“Healthy You, Healthy Planet’) to encourage people to get outside and run, and to raise money for the conservancy’s work.

When I had the opportunity to join Team Nature for today’s race–thanks to Mark Tercek, the Nature Conservancy’s CEO, and Kate Hougan, the regional marketing director–I was delighted to do so. TNC does important work, including efforts to protect and restore Chesapeake Bay, which I heard about today from Mark Bryer, who also ran the race. Plus I knew Scott Jurek would be there.

I’m too old for heroes, especially sports heroes, but I am a huge admirer of Scott, who I met recently for the first time. In a terrific book about running called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (which set off the minimalist running craze, a topic for another day), author Christopher  McDougall writes:

Scott was the top ultrarunner in the country, maybe in the world, arguably of all time.

Scott, who is 38, is a seven-time winner of the  Western States 100-mile endurance run, a trek through the remote and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, and he set a course record the first time he ran the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile run through Death Valley where temperatures routinely top 120 degrees. [click to continue…]

Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue…]

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.
William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue…]