(Another) call to action for the NW

Here’s an op-ed that I penned with Dan Rosen that appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune. If you haven’t joined Business Leaders for Climate Solutions, you should.

For a long time, “green” in Washington state has stood for Granny Smith and pine trees. With the Legislature’s passage last session of the Climate Action and Green Jobs bill, the state took a big step in creating a future based on the new green – a vibrant economy based on clean technology (cleantech), the green consumer and green exports.

Gov. Chris Gregoire deserves congratulations for requesting and championing the bill. But we all still have more work to do. The window for establishing leadership in the cleantech economy is fast closing. The opportunity to have a strong voice in shaping federal climate policy is closing fast, too. According to the Cleantech Network, while the total amount of venture capital invested in clean technology grew explosively in the last year, the Northwest accounted for just four percent of the total. The Northwest’s share was $261 million out of a national total of $6.4 billion, barely placing it in the top 10 regions. And that’s not just Washington state, but Oregon and British Columbia as well.

 

Discount the investment in the local biodiesel company Imperium Renewables in 2007, and Washington easily trails the Vancouver, B.C., cleantech cluster and is arguably far behind Oregon, where business leadership has articulated a much clearer vision for establishing an industrial base around the theme of sustainability. California and the Northeast have taken significant leads, and places like Austin, Texas, and Chicago are mobilizing civic leadership around this sector.

 

 

 

 

As members of Business Leaders for Climate Solutions, we are proud to have supported the Climate Actions and Green Jobs bill. We were joined by 32 other state business leaders, representing cleantech entrepreneurs, investors, energy consultants, service providers or simply business people passionate about sustainability.

 

 

 

 

But if the Evergreen State is going to emerge from the ongoing cleantech boom with a significant piece of the green that is being created, the broader business community must rapidly and definitively elevate its game.This is not a niche issue; the challenge of using energy more efficiently and developing sustainable products and services affects every sector of the economy and will provide both opportunities for leadership and tremendous risks for the laggards. A recent survey found 61 percent of business executives around the world expect climate change solutions to boost company profits. That’s why the major corporations that provide Washington’s economic backbone and their executive leadership need to bring their vitally important participation to the table: It’s of great economic interest to all of us.

 

 

 

Washington state arguably has several characteristics that will help us as we strive for a piece of the green economy. Our assets include: unrivaled branding as a center of “green” ideas; a consumer base that is highly sophisticated and demands truly sustainable products and services; and strong trade and economic ties with China and the Far East, which is fast emerging as a leading consumer of cleantech products and services. We applaud Sen. Maria Cantwell’s efforts to make Seattle the center for the dialogue with

China about these issues.We also have a vibrant green building-and-design industry, which is one of the key pillars of the green economy. And we have the potential to become a power in providing integrated design solutions that will be needed to reduce energy usage worldwide, including “green software” and smart-grid applications. 

 

 

Along with these strengths, we need to find sustainable and verifiable ways to leverage our vast forestry and agricultural resources as sources of renewable fuels and carbon sinks as regional and international markets take root.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But key pieces are missing. Specifically, for Washington to compete and lead in the cleantech economy, the business community must demand and achieve three things:

• Legislation next year that commits Olympia to put a price on carbon through a regional cap-and-trade system, along with complementary policies that promote clean energy, sustainable development, transportation and land use, energy efficiency and training for the green-collar workforce;

• Pressure on the federal government for strong climate policy that achieves reductions in global warming pollution that is science-based and beneficial to the economy;

• And we need a business community that is focused on and organized around the vision of making the region an international leader in the coming cleantech transformation.

We have a chance to truly be Evergreen. Now let’s seize it.

The Discoloration of Green

Last year, I said that a time would come when the term “green” would fall into disuse. I’m now wondering if that time is nearer than I originally thought. I’m already sensing some fatigue from friends in the media. At the consumer level it’s also more pronounced (depending on the day, search for “green fatigue” on a leading search engine bring back 500,000 to over 1 million results). Ironically, at the recently concluded Fortune Brainstorm: Green event, Andrew Shapiro of Green Order said that it felt as if 2008 would be the “apex of green”. Which of course begs the question: How steep is the downward slope in 2009? Ted Nordhaus (who coincidentally was my childhood neighbor growing up in the southeast quadrant of Washington, DC, back when we both had hair) and his cohort Michael Shellenberger, in 2004 shook up the establishment with their paper called “Death of Environmentalism“. They succeeded in pounding the final nail in that coffin. Now green’s utility is in question and it is even being challenged by another color – “blue”. Sustainability advocate Adam Werbach is now selling blue as the next step beyond green, arguing that blue is more accessible because it, in effect, means having your cake and eating it too (I’ve tried that, by the way, and I keep biting my hand by mistake). But really, green or blue, aren’t we just creating another arbitrary label that will also fade away with time? Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for “blue fatigue”, when the next Adam Werbach comes along and pronounces the blue movement dead, and argues that its time for chartreuse to have a turn? Not to mention the fact that people in the developing world (I spent 16 consecutive years in China from 1987-2003 so I have some credibility) have just started the Long March to consumerism and couldn’t really give a damn about green or blue, unless its related to the color of their new car or the tile in their newly renovated, air-conditioned kitchen.

I moved into technology because public capital markets (and human activity more generally) are driven by short-term interest and unsustainable growth. Facing a powerful system backed by powerful inertia, it was my conclusion that fundamental change to our behavior around consumption/growth is highly unlikely to happen (to the degree or within the timeframe needed) to address the ecological problems we face. That POV was largely informed by my time in China, where I watched stock markets open, bans on advertising lifted, private cars allowed back on the roads and consumerism return with a vengeance. I witnessed China’s boom and how it raised a lot of people out of poverty. The problem is that we can’t raise the remaining 1 billion Chinese out of poverty without totally screwing ourselves and the ecology. And China is just the start - Brazil, India and the rest of the developing world are going through the same transformation. Far be it for me to deny others the chance to live lives of comfort. But it is highly naïve to assume that individual Chinese or Indians or Brazilians will have the foresight to look beyond their drive to material comfort and make decisions on how they live based on a moral responsibility for the health of the planet. The West didn’t. It just won’t happen (no offense Bill McKibben, whose conclusion for our generation – that more is not better – ignores the fact that its mainly people who know wealth who have room to think about less). Only when people are so afraid of the ramifications of climate change or toxic sludge seeping out of their water taps will they be motivated to change behavior (as recent events in Juneau underscored). But of course, by then it will be too late.

So my bet for overcoming the challenges is technology, broadly defined. The way I see it, technology is the layer buffering natural resources from consumer and corporate behavior. It allows consumers to continue to behave much as they do and it allows natural resources to get a reprieve from that behavior. The more scaleable the technology, the bigger the reprieve and the better our chances. What Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has done with appliance standards in China is a perfect example of this. “Technology buffering” is not a panacea, but at least there is an opportunity to insert new clean technologies into existing products and systems and have a significant and accelerated impact. That’s what gets me moving in the morning. (Several new books, The Cleantech RevolutionThe Plot to Save the Planet and Apollo’s Fire address this movement).

What interests me from the Fortune event and others that I’ve attended over the past two years is a shift in the conversation. Many of the people I talk to say green/blue doesn’t really matter. I agree. What matters is that “industrial restructuring” takes place. Whether the CEO of Stonyfield Farm (“we don’t even use green to describe our customers, but ‘quality’ or ‘educated’”), the chairman of SC Johnson (“we need to move the conversation from going green to transforming industry”), Vinod Khosla (“people’s view of green is obsolete, its about mainstream business”), or builder Steve Glenn (“within 15 years green building goes away as a category”), the focus is more and more on creating a technological buffer to reshape the way we supply and demand.

So let’s focus on the technology that is going to get rid of the only color that deserves our attention – the black of oil and coal.