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.

Natural capital: Breakthrough or buzzword?

forests-why-matter_63516847We depend on nature. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, the serenity of the wilderness: They make life possible. Not to mention more pleasant. Fine. That’s not news.

Lately, though, environmentalists and a handful of companies and consultants have tried to assign a dollar value to the products and services provided by nature. This idea is what’s called “natural capital,” at least as I understand it. I took a look at the idea in a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business.

The story has already generated reaction, positive and negative. (Sometimes from people in the same organization.) Before you read it, I want to clarify what I meant to say–something a reporter shouldn’t have to do, but it may be helpful in this case. I didn’t mean to diss the entire notion of natural capital. It strikes me as potentially a useful idea, particularly when applied at a modest scale, and with some humility. Specifically, some companies and government agencies have found that by “investing in nature,” they can generate favorable returns when compared to other more conventional investments. For example, Coca Cola bottling companies have paid upstream farmers to take better care of their land, as a way of protecting water that the company needs to make beverages. A small nonprofit in Oregon called The Freshwater Trust has found that working with landowners to plant trees along riverbanks can improve water quality more effectively and at a lower cost than installing conventional pollution controls. (Here’s an example, a project the group administered for the City of Medford.) Most famously, Dow Chemical has worked with the Nature Conservancy to develop “green infrastructure” instead of “gray infrastructure” at a big facility in Texas. Maybe because I can get my head around them, these projects make sense to me.

What’s harder for me to understand are the more ambitious and complicated efforts to account for natural capital on a corporate or even a global scale. The calculations get complicated, in a hurry. (PUMA and its parent company, Kering, have spent years trying to measure their impact.) The numbers become less reliable when we start talking about billions or even trillions of dollars. Most important, the object of the exercise is…..what, exactly? Some people argue that valuing natural capital helps company identify risks or opportunities in its supply chain, but does an apparel company really need to hire accountants and consultants to understand that growing cotton will be harder in a water-constrained world than it is today? What’s more, as I explain in the story, the idea of “finite” natural resources, on which much of the analysis depends, is itself flawed. Yes, we may run out of this or that, but over time, inventive people are about to devise substitutes for scarce resource as the prices of those resources. This is how markets and innovation work. After,  the  stock of natural capital in the 19th century would have included whale oil for lighting and horses for transportation; they were, perhaps, finite, but they became irrelevant.

In any event, here’s how my story begins:

The corporate sustainability movement needs many things – scale, acceleration, a sense of urgency, science-based targets and goals – but one thing it surely does not need is another buzzword. Yet that is what “natural capital” is at risk of becoming.

At the GreenBiz Forum last month in Arizona, which attracted nearly 600 sustainability professionals, talk of natural capital was everywhere. The Nature Conservancy and the Corporate Eco Forum unveiled the Natural Capital Business Hub, which aims to “help companies uncover opportunities to enhance their bottom lines by integrating the value of natural capital into their strategy, operations, accounting and reporting.” Companies identified as Natural Capital Leaders – including Kimberly Clark, Freeport McMoran and Adobe – were praised.

So what, exactly, is natural capital? And why should companies care? Will accounting for natural capital drive meaningful change – or will it merely consume time and energy, occupy panelists at sustainability conferences and generate consulting fees?

Defining natural capital is relatively easy. “It’s the products and services that nature provides to business,” explains Libby Bernick, a senior vice president at Trucost, a consultancy that has popularized the idea. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, even scenic landscapes upon which tourism may depend: all these are forms of natural capital.

The problem, as some see it, is that businesses and individuals use natural capital without paying for it. As Pavan Sukdev, a former banker who helped spread the idea, likes to say: “We use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose it because it’s free.” It’s a profound statement. Catchy, too.

But putting a price on nature’s products and services and then using those valuations to actually do something useful – well, that’s when things get fuzzy.

You can read the rest of the story here.

A libertarian joins The Nature Conservancy

Lynn Scarlett

Lynn Scarlett

Can conservatives be brought back into the conservation movement? That’s the question facing Lynn Scarlett, the new director of public policy at The Nature Conservancy, who joined the environmental NGO after working as president of the Reason Foundation and in the interior department of the Bush II administration.

As I wrote today at the Guardian Sustainable Business, Scarlett is taking on a big and important job:

Fortunately, she’s not alone. Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, leads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which aims to “unleash the power of free enterprise to deliver the fuels of the future”. A group called the Conservation Leadership Council, which is led by Gale Norton and Ed Schafer, who were interior and agriculture secretaries during the George W Bush administration, is “encouraging conservative voices to join the conversation about the environment”.

Furthermore, prominent business leaders, including John Faraci, the CEO of International Paper, and Jim Connaughton, a vice-president at Constellation Energy and a former White House official, also belong to the council.

“There are solutions to environmental problems that are consistent with conservative principles,” Scarlett told me last week at The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The business-friendly NGO works across party lines and has branches in all 50 states (and in 35 countries).

The story goes on to say that no major environmental law has been enacted by Congress without bipartisan support. But, for reasons that have mostly but not entirely to do with the climate-change debate, Republicans and conservatives have broken away from the environmental movement since the 2008 presidential election.

Bringing Republicans and conservatives back into a climate movement will be tough. Some in the Tea Party wing are anti-science; they simply reject the notion that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth. Many climate-change solutions are big and complicated, and similar in that sense to Obamacare, which has united Republicans like no other issue. And the big business lobbies that could help bring back conservatives are dominated by fossil fuel interests.

Still, there’s something fundamentally conservative about the idea that people and companies should clean up after themselves and be responsible for the messes they make–even if the mess, in this case, is CO2, the colorless and odorless gas that drives climate change.

You can read the rest of my story here.

MillerCoors: A trickle-down theory of corporate sustainability

Beer-on-Bar-007Every big company understands that saving energy, water and raw materials in its own operations is good for business. You don’t need an MBA to grasp that efficiency reduces costs, which can lead to lower prices, gains in market share and higher profits.

Not as well understood are the opportunities that await companies that dig into their supply chains to drive efficiencies. If big companies can work with their suppliers to save energy, water and materials, everyone should gain, and we’ll waste fewer resources.

That’s the theme of my story today for Guardian Sustainable Business, about MillerCoors, water and barley farmers. It’s an example of what I’m calling the “trickle-down down theory of corporate sustainability.” By that I mean that  sustainability initiatives taken by the biggest companies trickle their way down into remote corners of the global economy.

Here’s how the story begins:

So you think you have a cool app on your smart phone? Meet Gary Beck, an Idaho barley farmer who, from the comfort of his living room couch, can control giant irrigation systems miles away, turning sprinklers on and off or adjusting their spray.

Every drop counts. “Right now, we’re in a huge drought,” Beck says. “Some of the old timers have never seen it this dry before.”

Beck manages a farm that grows about 2,500 acres of barley for MillerCoors, the US’s second-largest beer company (behind Anheuser-Busch InBev), with revenues of nearly $9bn last year. His thorough water-conservation efforts – including redesigning equipment, abandoning some fields and using more compost – have paid off big time, saving water, energy and money.

Even more notable, they have been guided – and partly financed – by his biggest customer, MillerCoors, with a nudge from its biggest customer, Walmart; by local utility Idaho Power, which wants to help its customers save energy; and by The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Silver Creek Preserve, a nearby high-desert fly-fishing destination that attracts an abundance of wildlife, including eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions – all of which, of course, need water.

It’s an example of how companies such as MillerCoors are reaching beyond their own boundaries to help solve environmental problems.

Note a few things about this story. First, although my focus is MillerCoors, you could easily argue that Walmart, with its supplier sustainability index, is equally responsible for the water-saving projects on barley farms. By asking aits suppliers–about 60,000, at last count–to track the lifecycle impacts of their products, Walmart forces them to think about where their environmental impacts are greatest, and urges them (to put it kindly) to make improvements.

Second, unlike Walmart, MillerCoors is getting its hands dirty and spending its own money as it works with suppliers. It’s investing in best practices on one barley farm, and helping to spread them. It’s the kind of thing Starbucks has done for years with its coffee farmers.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that the first (and, as of now, only) reader comment on this story says: “Adfomercial. Naughty Guardian.” This may be because SABMiller is a sponsor of the Guardian’s water coverage–a fact that I only learned when, to my dismay, the story was accompanied by a banner ad for SABMiller. All water-related stories on Guardian Sustainable Business, it turns out, run with a banner from SABMiller. You’ll have to trust me when I say I didn’t know that when I began to report this story.

But there’s a bigger issue here. My role, as I see it, isn’t to be a full-time corporate critic. Instead, I try to jeer companies when they screw up and cheer those that try to do the right thing. If I’m wrong about MillerCoors, by all means let me know. But I’d find it too depressing to spend all my time looking for bad news.

Patagonia helps to save….Patagonia

A merino sheep ranch under Ovis XXI management in the Patagonian Steppe ecoregion of Argentina’s Neuquén Province. The Conservancy is working with Ovis XXI to protect Argentina’s temperate grasslands by promoting best practices in sustainable grazingThe more I learn about Patagonia Inc., the more impressed I am with the way that Yvon Chouinard and his colleagues run their business. The outdoor gear and clothing company supports what it calls the “silent sports” of climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running–none of which require a crowd or a motor to be enjoyed. It’s an enterprise that lives up to its mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Until recently, though, Patagonia did no business in Patagonia–a remote region of South America that includes temperate grasslands of Argentina, about 400 million acres (nearly three times the size of California) that are said to be among the most threatened, most damaged and least protected habitats in the world.

Now the company has embarked on an unusual partnership with a network of Argentine ranchers and The Nature Conservancy that is intended to build a sheep-grazing business that will not only protect, but restore parts of the Patagonian grasslands.

It’s a test of an intriguing idea–that a company that sells stuff to people can not only do less harm to the earth, but use the power of business to do environmental good.

“Can a company ever be regenerative?” asks Jill Dumaine, Patagonia’s director of environmental strategy. “We aspired to it, but we couldn’t envision what that would look like.”

[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…]

Look who’s coming to Brainstorm Green

Next April, FORTUNE will again bring together some of the smartest people we know in sustainability for Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s annual conference on business and the environment.

This is will be our 5th Brainstorm Green–hard for me to believe, since I’ve been involved since the beginning–and we’ve again got a first-rate lineup of leaders from corporate America, the  environmental movement, the investment community and government, as well as a scattering of interesting writers, thinkers and doers about “green.”

Once again, the event will be held at the spectacular Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA. Dates are April 16-18, 2012.

Alan Mulally

New faces for 2012 from the corporate world will include Alan Mulally, the president and CEO of Ford; Rob Walton, the chairman of Walmart; Andy Taylor, the chairman and CEO of Enteprise (they buy more cars than anyone in America); C. Larry Pope, the chairman and CEO of Smithfield Foods (they make more hot dogs than anyone in America, as I wrote in Smithfield Foods: Sustainable Pork?); Vance Bell, the chairman and CEO of Shaw Industries (the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, see my blogpost, This carpet has moral fiber); John Faraci, the chairman and CEO of International Paper; Gary Hirshberg, the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm; Russ Ford, the executive vice president of Shell; Bea Perez, the chief sustainability officer of Coca-Cola; and Trae Vassallo of Kleiner Perkins. [click to continue…]

Why acai? Ask the Sambazon guys

Jeremy and Ryan Black, with acai

Sometimes, for an entrepreneur, not knowing what you are getting into is a blessing.

If brothers Jeremy and Ryan Black had known what they were up against back in 2000 when they started Sambazon, a company that makes juices, sorbet and smoothie packs from tiny purple berries that grow in the Amazon forests of Brazil, they might not have bothered.

Few Americans then had heard of acai, or knew how to pronounce it. (It’s ah-sigh-ee.) The little berries from tall skinny palm trees can be harvested only once a year, they must be frozen right away to retain freshness and then shipped to the U.S. It’s a cash business, so importers must pay farmers long before the products are sold. And who, for goodness sakes, would sell them?

Harvesting acai

Nor did Jeremy or Ryan know much about the food business. Jeremy, the older bro, who’s now 37, was a financial planner. Ryan, who’s 35, was pursuing a professional football career as a defensive back, hoping to get to the NFL, after a season in the European football league.

All they knew was one thing. “Acai is amazing,” says Jeremy. And they had an idea that if they could figure out how to turn acai into a real business, they could not only do well for themselves but do some good for farmers in the Amazon. Says Ryan: “If this berry became a household word, it could be a really strong force for sustainability in the Amazon.”

It’s taken the Sambazon guys a decade, but things are looking up these days for their company. The No. 1 producer of organic acai, Sambazon doesn’t disclose sales–they were reported at $25 million in 2008–but the company says it is profitable. It employs about 150 people, half of them based in Brazil. You can find its products not only at smoothie bars and Whole Foods, but at mainstream retailers like Safeway and Giant. And the investors in the privately-held company include savvy food guys like Steve Demos, who founded White Wave and put Silk soy milk on supermarket shelves, and Gary Hirshberg, the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms. They also secured investments from Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that’s intended to support sustainable livelihoods in the developing world, and from the EcoEnterprises fund run by The Nature Conservancy. [click to continue…]