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...]

Ted Roosevelt is lonely

I was headed out for a run one morning in April during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, CA, when I spotted Theodore Roosevelt IV jogging on the beach. Having a good run? I asked him. Yes, he told me, and he’d been swimming, too, in the big waves that crash onto the beach and draw hordes of surfers every day.

Legacy matters, I guess. Ted Roosevelt, as he’s known, is the great-grandson of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was famous for his love of what he called “the strenuous life“—he boxed, rode horses, fought in the Spanish-American war, went big-game hunting and explored the Amazon. Ted Roosevelt, who is 68, played football at Groton, played ice hockey and rugby and rowed on the lightweight crew at Harvard; after graduation, he served two tours of duty as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.

Like TR, Ted is a Republican, a conservationist and an independent thinker–which makes him part of a dying breed of moderate WASPy Republicans who are fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

Ted argues that environmental protection is good for America’s economic growth and strength. He describes climate change is “this century’s greatest challenge.” He believes that nature is worth preserving, not just because of its usefulness to humans but for its own sake. [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...]

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...]