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.

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…]