50 Years of Wilderness – Map: America’s Wilderness Areas

There are 758 so far in 44 states, a total of 110 million acres. Wilderness areas are in national parks or on other federal land, but they have added protection: in general no roads, vehicles (even bikes), or permanent buildings are allowed.

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Is Consumerism the Ultimate Climate Enemy?

COP21 ignores current economic growth model at its own peril.

Alibaba’s $14.3 billion “Singles Day” sales frenzy earlier this month was a triumph for consumption. Chinese lonelyhearts compensated for their empty dance cards by settling in front of their computers, going online to the e-commerce site and buying as much — in one day — as Ugandans buy in a year. Or, if that’s not striking enough, Chinese bought more in a day than the consumers of the 30 smallest countries in the world — combined — buy annually. Take that Vanuatu!

Markets were giddy to see Chinese spending 60% more on Singles Day than they did last year. Why? After decades of being the world’s factory of inexpensive consumer goods and enabling the West to keep buying more stuff, the world is now counting on China to become the next demand engine for global consumer spending, and therefore growth.

And it’s happening. China is already the world’s second-largest consumer market, largely on the back of China’s so-called “affluent class”. The affluent class is expected to be 280 million people, or 20% of China’s population, by 2020. And the spending of the affluent will grow fivefold to $3.1 trillion, which is the equivalent to approximately 35% of China’s total consumption and more than 5% of global consumption.

And that’s just with one-fifth of China achieving affluence. What happens when that number goes up to one-half? Or one whole? And what happens when India takes its turn as the star of the consumption passion play? And then Africa?

We are facing a consumption tsunami that has huge implications on our ability to address climate change. Heading into COP21, there’s lots of talk about creating a “circular economy” powered by clean energy that produces de-materialized consumer goods. But in China, as Alibaba founder Jack Ma said on Singles Day, they are only at the stage of trying to move from quantity to quality in their consumer products. More sophisticated approaches like cradle-to-cradle thinking are not even close to being broadly practical in such countries where most people haven’t yet had a chance to consume much compared to the West. It would seem therefore that the circular economy is trying to fit itself into a square hole in emerging markets such as China.

With China’s economic growth slowing because of weaker exports and reduced investment in infrastructure, the country’s new leadership has made it unequivocally clear that the solution for sustaining growth will be priming domestic consumption. For a country that is already suffering from toxic waterways, coal-choked air and a public health crisis, pursuing monetary affluence and its side-kick consumption is a deal with a devil we know too well in the United States and Europe. More consumption. More resource inputs. More ecosystem demise.

As world leaders gather in Paris for COP21 to address climate, they do so seemingly blind to the fact that their story of economic growth remains the same — growth on the back of increased consumption. It is perhaps the ultimate form of climate change denial. And yet the world’s people are bought in: Global middle-class spending is expected to more than double from $21 trillion today to $51 trillion in 2030.

Here’s where most articles will offer a prescription for solving the problem. But I’m not sure there is one.

Most people in the world still live in poverty. And we’re still producing more people (1.5 billion more in the next 15 years). They want to live better lives. And they should be able to. But let’s be honest about what that means. It means buying appliances, and eating more meat, it means using more energy. It means more consumption. That’s not a recipe for a solution. Yet, as we prove again today in the mad spree of Black Friday shopping, it is a big part of Human Nature, which in the battle with Mother Nature, often wins the day.

Whatever climate deal is reached in Paris, it won’t address the root of the problem — Us.

It will tinker with how we do things, but it won’t change who we are and what we’ve constructed: Consumers in a global economy built on creating more consumption.

COP21 — can you solve that? Because we need to.

Economy the Size of Russia’s Faces “End of Water”, World Yawns

California, the world’s 8th largest economy (bigger than U.N. Security Council member and nuclear power Russia and just barely smaller than Brazil) is on the verge of having no water left. That is according to a senior NASA water scientist, who said over the weekend that the “Golden State” is just one-year away from running out of water in its reservoirs.

Yet this isn’t front-page news. An economy with GDP of more than $2 trillion and home to more than 50 Fortune 500 companies, including the world’s most valuable company, Apple. An economy that produces more than 95 percent of all U.S. artichokes, broccoli, walnuts, kiwis, plums, grapes, celery and garlic, and overall half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts that Americans consume every day. Plus being America’s top dairy producer. The state also exports a lot of the food it produces, so the impact isn’t just domestic.

So why isn’t there a global panic? If Russia were about to run out of water, stock markets would tank, currencies would get jittery, and fears of mass migration and social dislocation would be stalking the halls of the EU in Brussels and the Hague. U.N. resolutions would be passed. Aid packages would be cobbled together. CNN would create a snappy new news alert and call it something like “WaterRussiaGate”.

But there is an almost deafening silence as sunny California — home of Disney la-la land, the Hollywood dream machine and the sometimes nauseating hubris of Silicon Valley’s often trivial innovators — marches merrily toward its own demise, and in doing so threatens to disrupt the global economy and countless lives.

It’s not as if the international water threat isn’t well known. The World Economic Forum said that in 2015 water crisis is the top global risk facing the world. And 2015 is the last year of the International Decade of Water, so presumably we’ve all been fully educated over the last 10 years about the size of the problem. Right?

Yet on the eve of the 22nd World Water Day (next week, March 22), water is still the red-headed step-child of the natural resource discussion. The media hardly cover it compared to energy. No sexy billionaire has made it their pet issue in the same way that Bill GatesSir Richard Branson and others have become the sugar daddies of energy innovation.

So here we are, on the brink of a major disaster for the world’s 8th largest economy.

Just as Hurricane Sandy brought the impact of climate change home for many Americans for the first time, could it be that the California water crisis is the event we need to finally get serious on the issue? The destruction of Sandy was quick and dramatic, while the crisis in California has been slower to develop. Until now. According to NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti, the clock is ticking. There is now an urgency that was previously missing.

Hopefully Gov. Brown will stop supporting fracking and start worrying about water. Reform of water pricing must get serious. Introduction of drip irrigation must be mandatory in agriculture (which uses more than 2/3 of the state’s water), and other conservation and efficiency measures must become a more ingrained way of domestic and business life. Investment in water infrastructure and innovation needs to be accelerated as well.

Famiglietti also suggested three immediate steps: water rationing, accelerating implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the formation of a task force with vision and teeth.

I am not a water expert. But I know stupidity and myopia when I see them. It’s time to get smart and to have clarity. It’s time to act. And it’s time to treat water like the invaluable natural asset that it is.

Shell Game: why climate policy is all business

More than 70 businesses, including fossil fuel giant Shell and utility EDF Energy, recently signed the “Trillion Tonne Communique”, asking governments to put a price on carbon in order to limit emissions to one trillion metric tons (we’re already more than halfway there). The ultimate goal is to make the world net-zero emissions by 2100. Sounds great.

Unfortunately communiques are toothless tools. Reminiscent of empty Cold War rhetoric and decades of failed Middle East Peace talks, they are easy to sign and difficult to realize.Same with the many petitions floating around.

The fundamental problem with the new communique, however, is that it reinforces a flawed assumption – an assumption that must change if we are to achieve the communique’s worthy goals. It assumes that the critical actor on the climate issue is government. If lobbying didn’t exist that might be true. But today’s reality is that buying influence (whether sanctioned or not) is core to global policy making and regulation. In fact, big multinational businesses asking government to fix a problem is a Shell Game. To use the U.S. as an example, it would be like asking Congress or the White House to spoon feed you when you made and owned the spoon, produced the food on the spoon, and controled the arm that’s delivering the food into your mouth. In essence, business is asking for something that it has the influence and ability to provide.

Business, not government, is the critical actor in the battle to halt climate change.

And within business, multinationals dominating the energy, mining and utilities industries, such as Shell and EDF, are the ultimate masters. A report issued in 2013 found that 50 of the 500 biggest listed companies in the world account for emissions of 3.6 billion metric tonnes, or 73 percent of total greenhouse gases (GHG).

Shell, for example, despite signing numerous communiques and joining several climate groups, until recently was aggressively investing in Arctic oil exploitation. It shifted its strategy in early 2014, but that was less the result of its commitment to climate action, and more about P/E ratio.

It’s time for businesses to stop whining like spoiled toddlers, put on some grown-up pants and act like the decision-maker that they are. Enough talk (R.I.P. communique and petition). It’s time for businesses to use their influence (and especially lobbying dollars) to be the change, instead of pretending that change is someone elses job.

The businesses that lead the change will be the beneficiaries of climate wealth. Those that don’t, won’t.



Push-Me, Pull-You: Is the Private Sector Climate’s Dr. Do Little?

Rex Harrison– <em>Doctor Dolittle</em>About two thirds of chief executives – 67 percent – believe that business is not doing enough to address global sustainability challenges, yet there has been a precipitous drop in the proportion of business leaders who described sustainability as very important, according to a just released survey of 1,000 CEOs by the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture.

It is clearer than ever that the private sector, in particular multinationals dominating the energy, materials and utilities industries, hold the key to addressing climate through action on sustainability. Another new report, issued by CDP and written by PwC, found that 50 of the 500 biggest listed companies in the world account for emissions of 3.6 billion metric tonnes, or 73% of total greenhouse gases (GHG). These emitters primarily operate in natural resources and energy.

In the CDP Global 500 Climate Change Report 2013, Malcolm Preston, global lead, sustainability and climate change at PwC, said the findings raise “questions for some organizations about whether they are focused on sustaining growth in the long term, or just doing enough to recover growth until the next issue arises… Corporate emissions are still rising. Either business action increases, or the risk is regulation overtakes them.”

Meanwhile, the UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013: Architects of a Better World found that 78 percent of surveyed CEOs see sustainability as a route to growth and innovation, and 79 percent believe that it will lead to competitive advantage in their industry. Paradoxically, however, CEOs see the economic climate and a range of competing priorities creating obstacles to embedding sustainability at scale within their companies, and the proportion describing sustainability as very important has fallen from 54 percent to 45 percent, including only 34 percent of CEOs in economically hard-hit Europe.

So we have a situation where businesses aren’t doing enough, yet the leaders of those businesses say they want to do more.

Put another way: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

What needs to change to narrow the gap between intent and action? This is one of the fundamental questions of our time.

The answer to that question, according to the surveyed CEOs, is that we need better policies. Forty two percent of respondents listed governments among their top three stakeholders in sustainability, a rise from 32 percent in 2007. Eighty three percent thought more efforts by governments to provide the enabling environment will be integral to the private sector’s ability to advance sustainability. Specifically, 85 percent demanded clearer policy and market signals to support green growth.

Put another way: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Because business lobbying dollars control politicians, CEOs are really just blaming policy makers for a problem that the CEOs – along with their investors and consumers – are creating and prolonging.

When asked which policy tools should be prioritized, 55 percent pointed to regulation and standards and 43 percent called for governments to adjust subsidies and incentives. A further 31 percent sought intervention through taxation. Softer measures, such as information and voluntary approaches, were supported by only 21 percent of CEOs.

Polite attempts were made in the authors of the UN report to pull back the curtain and place responsibility back on business.

“Business leaders should recognize that even in today’s imperfect markets, high performing companies do manage to combine commercial and sustainable success. These companies are harnessing sustainability as an opportunity for growth, innovation and differentiation, and demonstrate that sustainable business is good business,” said Sander van‘t Noordende, Group CEO, Accenture Management Consulting.

Added Peter Lacy, the study lead from 2007 to 2013, and managing director, Accenture Sustainability and Strategy Services, Asia Pacific. “To move from incremental to large scale transformation, businesses must accept that instead of  persuading consumers about sustainability they must give them sustainable products and services they want at prices they can afford. And instead of showing investors the savings made from sustainability, the will have to demonstrate the positive business value it can generate.”

At the end of the day, with policy-makers in the clutches of business, the only meaningful change will come when CEOs, their boards, and their investors all realize that action today on climate and sustainability means long-term business success and mitigation against risk from resource constraints. And then upon that realization, use their power over policy-makers to make the changes they are asking for (not the other way around). The UN report found that although 52 percent of respondents see investor interest as an incentive for them to advance sustainability practices, only 12 percent of respondents see investor pressure as a leading motivator. Nevertheless, only a small minority of CEOs (15 percent) blame the short-termism of financial markets as a barrier, and 69 percent believe that investor interest will be increasingly important in guiding their approach.

The crucial role of business is one of the under-lying themes at next week’s fifth ClimateWeek NYC. I look forward to hearing from CEOs who are turning intent into action.


Cleantech: Bright Spot In U.S.-China Cooperation

Despite heated rhetoric from protectionist corners that China and the United States must compete over the massive dollars associated with the clean energy industry, some signs are actually emerging that we’re entering a phase of mutual benefit and collaboration.

It’s a natural fit: the U.S. is an innovation engine short of capital and customers, and China is a commercialization hotspot with lots of money and a major environmental problem. Thanks to interesting new deal structures that allow for commercialization to happen while addressing U.S. intellectual property concerns, cooperation finally appears to be a reality.

In April, Zhongding Group announced a $200 million investment to scale the production of U.S. company EcoMotor’s ultra-efficient motor technology. A new manufacturing facility will be built in China to commercialize a technology that would have otherwise taken years to come to market (if ever) in the United States. Similar deals have started to add up. Wanxiang Holdings acquired faltering U.S. battery company A123 Systems (now renamed B456 – can you say rebrand fail?) for $250 million and also invested $420 million in GreatPoint Energy, a company that turns coal into natural gas. Coal-to-butanol company IGP Energy similarly formed a joint venture with Chinese coal giant Yankuang Group for five facilities. Shanghai steel giant Baosteel also invested in waste-to-fuel company LanzaTech, funding a demonstration plant that is expected to result soon in a fully commercial facility.

All of these deals, and many others, have meant rapid acceleration of technology that may not have otherwise happened. But the benefit isn’t just flowing to U.S. cleantech companies starved for cash. China also desperately needs the technologies to address mounting environmental concerns – air pollution, severe water shortages, food safety and the list goes on and on.

According to Cleantech investor Greg Manuel, there is a 5-plus year “innovation delta” between the clean technologies being developed in the United States and those in development in China (with China lagging behind). Similarly, Manuel says, there will be a $4.5 billion shortfall in capital for U.S.-developed clean technology start-ups in the next three years. “This emerging pattern of cooperation is still in its early stages. But there is a tremendous vector of opportunity when you look at the innovation delta, capital gap and severe environmental and energy challenges facing large Chinese enterprises with large pools of cash,” said Manuel, formerly a special advisor for energy affairs to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior vice president for corporate development and strategy at Amyris.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

China’s Consumption Push: the Beginning of a Global Tilt

I got into the resource economy because it hit me about 20 years ago that China’s one billion people had just entered a period driven by a desire to accumulate. People wanted to buy stuff, and were finally able to. It was clear then that unless China was able to forge a new development path different from other industrialized countries (i.e. not on the back of conspicuous consumption), that it would soon evolve from being the world’s factory (hyperactive producer of everything) to being the world’s black hole (rabid consumer of everything). What gave me a sense of urgency then, which was amplified now with the publication of a new study from the Boston Consulting Group titled “The Dynamics of China’s Next Consumption Engine“, was the vision of a China that literally consumed itself, and the rest of the world with it.

The executive summary of the BCG report sounds inspiring:

Within the next three years China is projected to overtake Japan and become the world’s second-largest consumer market. The affluent class is central to this rapid rise and will drive nearly half of this growth. As the incomes of today’s middle-class consumers increase, many will join the affluent class, which will grow to be an even more powerful force of 280 million people, or 20 percent of China’s population, by 2020. The spending of the affluent will grow fivefold to $3.1 trillion. This will be equivalent to approximately 35 percent of China’s total consumption and more than 5 percent of global consumption. It will also be nearly as much as Japan’s total consumption, 28 percent greater than that of Germany, and three times more than South Korea’s total consumption.

And that’s just with one-fifth of China achieving affluence. With China’s economic growth slowing because of weaker exports, the country’s new leadership has already said clearly that the solution will be priming domestic consumption. For a country that is already suffering from toxic waterways, coal-choked air and a looming public health crisis, monetary affluence clearly spells adject poverty when it comes to the future of China, and therefore the world’s future. I must confess, I am only consumed with two things: the thought that we have hit a global tilting point, and the following question: how do we get out of this mess?

$1 trillion… a solution to climate change?

My 10 year old son and I were talking the other night and he asked me: “Dad, what would you do with $1 billion?”. What followed was a conversation about how we’d try to invest the money in ways that had social impact (climate, child poverty, cancer were high on his list), while also saving just enough for our family to be secure. But then he asked me, “What about $1 trillion?” That’s a big number. Only two countries – China and the United States – each have a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $7 trillion.  Add Japan and Germany if you’re talking over $3 trillion, with just 15 countries in total with more than $1 trillion in GDP.

And then we stumbled upon an idea. Could we address one of his concerns – climate change – if we bought up oil companies and then figured out a way to shut them down without major social, economic and political disruption? A little bit of back of the envelope calculation and we figured out that $1 trillion could buy you ExxonMobil ($400 billion market cap and world’s 4th largest oil company) and #6 BP ($130 billion), $210 billion for #7 Royal Dutch Shell and #8 Chevron ($200 billion), with room to spare. If half of the world’s 7 billion people could invest $200 to a general fund that would get you most of the way. If one-fifth of the world’s population invested $700 that would be more than enough.

But what would the climate impact be to take four of the top 10 oil producers in the world offline? Not totally precise (but close enough), let’s assume daily oil production of the four companies of 2.5 million barrels per day, or a total of 10 million per day, or 3.65 billion barrels per year. Assuming 430 kilograms of CO2 per barrel of oil burned, that’s about 1.6 trillion kg of CO2, or 1.6 billion tonnes. Total CO2 emissions in 2011 were 34 billion tonnes. So the net result would be a 4% decrease in CO2 emissions if the four oil companies stopped producing oil tomorrow.

Worth a $1 trillion? Not sure, but an interesting exercise in the power of crowdsourced impact investment. And given the current international talks on climate, perhaps no less feasible in achieving emission reduction goals.


It’s time for the gloves to come off on climate change

The people who accept climate change as a real threat need to accept that they have failed to get other people to accept climate change as a real threat. One climate scientist, Peter Gleick, was so desperate to expose skeptics that he lied to obtain internal documents from The Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that questions the reality of climate change and has done well in discrediting Gleick and his peers.

But stealing documents is not the way that climate policy will see meaningful change here in the United States. Stealing some of the skeptics’ playbook, however, might make a difference.

Liberal foundations (there are several prominent ones) that fund efforts here in the United States to make sure climate change is properly reported, and to have rapid response in place to rebut arguments from climate skeptics — they all live in their heads. Their approach is rational. They underappreciate the fact that the issue at hand is emotional and visceral.

Conservative attack dogs understand this. They have no hesitation going for the jugular, or playing to our most primordial instincts and fears. The liberal elite, meanwhile, continue to try to influence policy and public opinion by citing science, by correcting factual mistakes and by engaging in “substantive debate.”

They will never win, because they are not only playing by the wrong rules, they are playing the wrong game.

Prompting action on climate change requires open warfare. Gloves off. If there are rules, they are street rules, i.e. logic is out the window. On the street, it is all about protecting your people.

The idea that accurate reporting will change the way anyone thinks or acts on Capitol Hill is ridiculous. It’s like planting a seed in Death Valley and expecting it to miraculously sprout into a beautiful carbon-mitigating flower. Not going to happen.

Recently, executives at many renewable energy companies have been discussing an opinion piece by Severin Borenstein, a professor of business and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, who argues (largely correctly) that the Obama administration’s linkage of clean energy to jobs and innovation is placing focus on the wrong issue.

His argument is simple: the dirty energy industry can just as easily claim that it is creating jobs and innovating, and they wouldn’t be lying. Borenstein suggests that the true issue must be global warming. Nor is this incorrect. But — no offense to Borenstein — while he is no doubt a great academic, he is not an influence peddler. And that’s what is required in this situation.

New research from the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change backs that up: Almost 4 in 10 Americans still don’t believe in man-made climate change (and that’s actually an improvement from 50 percent in 2010). Additional research by Third Way, a moderate Washington think tank, unveils an alternative to focusing messaging on global warming, and this alternative is rooted in the idea of talking about the benefits of arresting climate change.

As any good marketer knows, when you’re selling something, you’re selling the personal benefits, not the product itself. In the same sense with climate change, we need to sell the benefits of stopping man-made climate change.

Recent focus groups conducted in Ohio and North Carolina by Third Way confirm this approach. Besides concluding that “voters in traditional energy states want to get America running on clean energy,” their findings — Moving Clean Energy to the Center: Insights from Swing Voters in the Midwest and South — reached three other important conclusions:

  • Focusing on long-term economic growth potential and the consequences of inaction works. Selling near-term job creation doesn’t.
  • Tapping into concerns about pollution and the strong desire to eliminate coal works. Focusing simply on climate change doesn’t.
  • Describing a vision of government as a facilitator for the private sector works. Direct spending by government doesn’t.

As the California campaign against Proposition 23 last year proved, concern about public health because of pollution made a huge difference in defeating the proposition, which aimed to cancel the state’s nation-leading and progressive climate policy. The involvement of the American Lung Association gave the pollution message credibility and linked it in a very visceral way to personal benefit.

If Obama ever grows a backbone on the climate issue (he’s shown he has courage when it comes to terrorism, and what is global climate change but the ultimate terrorist?), here are some suggestions for talking points that are tied back to the notion of protecting your people and personal benefit.

It’s an approach that might make a difference to the people who can really matter in this discussion — not the liberal elite, not the conservative skeptics, but the 4 in 10 everyday people going about their business and just trying to get by.


Climate Change Deniers Climate Change Hawks
The EPA is a job-killer and must be shuttered. Conservatives want to poison your water supply and make sure that your children are exposed to toxic chemicals and asthma-causing pollution.
Carbon regulation is an additional tax and an economy-buster. The Extreme Weather Party (aka the Republicans) is actively preventing steps that would help communities from being destroyed by the increasing occurrence of deadly tornados, hurricanes, flooding and drought.
Clean energy jobs are a myth. Clean energies like solar have a multiplier effect in economic development compared to dirty energy.*
The White House climate hoax is to blame for high gas prices. $5 a gallon is a small cost compared to sending your neighbor to die in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain stability of our oil supply, and the $1 trillion price tag for two wars that the U.S. taxpayers didn’t want.


We need to reach 10 out of 10 to achieve meaningful action. Reframing the conversation can help get us there. And as the American Lung Association showed in California, so can engaging messengers that are all about protecting your people.

Another such messenger is the insurance industry — not traditionally seen as a bastion of consumer advocacy. Yet they see a severe threat from climate change, and are starting to get very nervous that their business model is in jeopardy. Last week, on the heels of the devastating tornados that ripped through the United States killing dozens and destroying whole communities, representatives of the industry went to Congress to implore them to not only believe, but to take firmer action on climate.

“From our industry’s perspective, the footprints of climate change are around us and the trend of increasing damage to property and threat to lives is clear,” Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, said during a press conference that also included representatives from Swiss ReWillis Re and the nonprofit Ceres, which leads a number of industry efforts focused on sustainability.

Cynthia McHale, Ceres’ insurance program director, took the gloves off a bit more and focused on personal benefit, saying that unless we end political paralysis on climate change, “extreme weather is certain to cause more homes and businesses to be uninsurable in the private insurance market, leaving the costs to taxpayers or individuals.”

In the United States last year, we experienced a record 14 natural disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage each. Property and casualty insurers lost an estimated $44 billion in 2011, a year in which natural disasters were more severe, more frequent, less predictable and longer than in the past. The average weather-related insurance industry loss in the U.S. is now $20 billion a year, a more than six-fold increase from about $3 billion a year in the 1980s, according to Swiss Re.

*(This is where I slightly differ with Borenstein, whose Berkeley colleague Dan Kammen has shown that solar installation creates five times or more the number of jobs than does investment in a natural gas plant of comparable capacity).

This article also appeared on Greenbiz.com

Human Health: the Cure for Climate Insanity?

While reading Bryan Walsh’s thoughtful review of a new book The Conundrum by David Owen, I noticed that the review was posted under TIME.com’s “health” section. The book is about energy efficiency.  What does energy efficiency have to do with health? The seeming disconnect between the two, plus a number of other things I’ve seen in the past week, prompted me to revisit an idea that I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Is is possible that humanity’s selfish concern for its own health will be the ultimate road block to inevitable ecological destruction?

I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that the answer will likely come from China (or India).

My old friend Bill Bishop, a long-time Beijing resident, posted a recent photo of his air filter after a couple of months removing coal dust and other harmful particulates. Scary. He is not alone, with a recent rush on indoor air filters reported by the Chinese media.  But as those reports point out, most people cannot afford the costly systems.

A lot of China-watchers tend to discount the impact of environmental pollution on the country’s development, preferring instead to debate the possibility of a hard landing due to loose bank lending, housing bubbles or other economic causes.

Clearly, health concerns can help drive change. The oil company-backed Prop 23 campaign in California – which sought to overturn the state’s progressive climate policy – was in part successful because of the support of the American Lung Association, and its ad campaign.

In China, where three decades of double-digit economi growth has resulted in a water crisis, unprecedented air pollution, the toll on human health is just starting to be quantified. But it doesn’t take data for people to know that something in China is wrong, and there is growing social unrest because of pollution.

Social unrest is the boogey-man for China’s rulers. It will be interesting to watch as the dynamic between continued growth and continued deterioration of public health plays out.

Here’s hoping health wins.

Clean Energy and the Last Brand Standing

Solyndra is getting a lot of headlines, but the company’s high-profile implosion is the symptom of a renewable energy industry rationalization that has been long anticipated. It shouldn’t be a surprise or generate excessive hand wringing.

Whether it’s solar, bioenergy, power storage or any other cleantech vertical, there will be a lot of dead bodies littered across the market in the next 12 to 18 months. That is just a fact, and a natural outcome of an industry (finally) maturing.

Most importantly, it is a signal that we are moving from a period of technology innovation to one of market innovation, and therefore true mass adoption. And with mass adoption, the focus of corporate communications is necessarily shifting toward building brand credibility, loyalty, engagement and awareness.

The companies that have the strongest brand coming out of the industry consolidation cage match will be best positioned to be the last brands standing. Many executives I speak with expect only a handful of brands to survive the shake-out of each sector. The stakes are high, as brand equity has many implications: lower cost of capital, lower cost of customer acquisition, the potential to charge a premium, etc.

Brand ≠ Hype

But make no mistake, many of the companies that are perceived as having the strongest renewable energy brands today in fact do not.

Often funded by Silicon Valley investors used to the hype cycle and quick returns of media, ecommerce and high-tech companies, many of the cleantech brands now considered the darlings of their respective sectors will soon enough be dead and gone, or acquired for pennies on the dollar by existing conglomerates.

A strong brand is not just about hyping awareness, it is about delivering on your promises — to achieve business milestones, to hold up your end of a strategic channel partnership, to nurture employees, to provide a return for investors and to provide a benefit to society (economic, environmental or otherwise).

Many of today’s renewable energy brands have over-promised, and just as many if not more have under-delivered. Caveat emptor.

The Impact of China and “The Strategics”

While it is still too early to make iron-clad declarations of winners and losers, already some of the brands that will survive are starting to rise to the surface. Some of them are new, and some of them are familiar.

In the electric vehicle industry, for example, Tesla appears to have survived its start-up origins to evolve into an automotive brand with staying power, while the likes of Chevrolet and Nissan seem to have shifted laterally early enough to have carved out a future niche as well.

Similarly, multinationals in other sectors — chemicals, fuels, generation, transmission, infrastructure — are starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the looming brand wars, and may end up being the de facto renewable energy brands of the future. With market conditions buffet the renewable energy sector, many of these strategics smell good deals and are becoming more acquisitive.

At any rate, it seems fair to say that some of the ultimate brand winners will be ones we may not even know of yet, while others will belong to existing Fortune 500 companies, who buy early leaders, then apply their significant marketing muscle to enhance them further or subsume them entirely.

The other question hanging out there: where will the leading brands reside?

Given the emergence of China and Brazil as important players and the fact that the developing world is ripe for renewable energy deployment, it remains to be seen if the winning brands will be the usual suspects from Europe, the United States or Japan, or whether the companies will be based in the developing world.

Some brands from China seem poised for leadership. But will they have the foresight to invest strategically in brand enhancement on a global scale, something corporate culture there has not traditionally valued?

We will see. In the meantime, let the brand wars begin.

(This post also appeared on GreenBiz.com)

marketing monday: the green, the clean and the dirty

Friend Joel Makower stirred up a good discussion last week with his article, Green Marketing Is Over. Let’s Move On. Green marketeers Suzanne Shelton and Michael Martin disagreed with him. And while I agree with Joel (I’ve made the case in the past that not only green should be pronounced dead, but so should the notion of sustainability), I don’t expect the use of either to disappear anytime soon.

However, I find it somewhat amusing that Joel is calling for the demise of green on his website, GreenBiz, that is built around the concept of promoting green. Why should green marketing be obsolete, but green media not be? And Joel also mentions that Michael and Suzanne are green marketing consultants, the implication being that they have vested interests in promoting the survival of green marketing. True. But doesn’t GreenBiz also have a consulting arm focused on… helping companies become more green? Hmmm.

Mind you, as a marketer myself of “clean” – as in cleantech, clean energy and the clean economy – I’m not exempt from scrutiny (as I have pointed out in the past, there is no such thing as clean anything when you take a closer look. After all, everything we make requires the consumption of something, including EV batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, etc). Matt Ridley recently wrote a provocative post on this subject, which seems accurate and misguided at the same time. Accurate in that renewables are not strictly renewable if you look at their entire supply chain. Misguided in the assumption that there is an apple to apples comparison between fossil fuels and renewables (can you say “externalities”?).

So what’s the takeaway for me? We can all make the subject moot if products that have a smaller ecological impact 1) cost less, 2) are easy to use and 3) work well. Ultimately, that’s a function of innovative marketing that can help scale market demand, but more importantly innovation in financing, policy and product development. Green only becomes obsolete when there is no need to distinguish from the alternatives on price, efficacy and reliability.

Cleantech Policy Needs Clarity, Consistency and Cojones

EarthTechling recently interviewed me and asked for my perspective on trends in cleantech, including marketing, communications and PR. Some themes that emerged:

  • Five suggestions for cleantech companies to set themselves apart in a crowded market
  • Backing “boring” businesses usually works
  • Technology innovation we have plenty off; we need marketing, financing and business innovation (plus the 3Cs from energy policymakers – clarity, consistency and cojones

See the full interview

EV to be Most Hyped News of 2011: Survey

Media covering renewable energy and cleantech overwhelmingly expect the biggest news hype of 2011 to come from electric transportation, while they identified energy efficiency as the most deserving of coverage, according to my annual survey. With more than 70 respondents from newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and blogs, the survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of media expect demand for cleantech coverage to be greater this year.

The survey strongly confirmed one trend – the migration of content online; and appeared to shoot down another – lack of adequate budget. Nearly all of the respondents – 96% – said their work will primarily appear online, while almost 70% said that they would have enough resources to do a good job of reporting on cleantech this year. At the same time, there is a willingness to use content (video, animation, graphics, etc) produced by non-media sources (73% said they frequently or sometimes used content developed by companies).

In addition, the survey revealed some social media habits with regard to obtaining information, with Twitter (82%) by far and away the top choice of social tools for tracking news.  The RSS feed is also clearly not dead, with 57% naming it as the second tool of choice.

EV received 56% of the votes to be the most hyped sector in 2011, more than double the nearest competitor – smart grid, which received 20% of the votes. The only other technology that registered double-digit percentages was carbon capture and sequestration (16%).  On the flip side, media identified energy efficiency as the area that deserved the most media attention, with 42% choosing EE. This is ironic since I’ve often heard reporters say that they want to cover energy efficiency, but editors find it too boring (this is backed up by page views). The other technologies deserving attention mentioned by  more than 10% of respondents were: carbon management (20%); solar (13%); smart grid (13%) and water (11%). One of the most important sectors from an impact perspective, agriculture and foresty, got no votes.

As in previous years, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed (68%) said B2B coverage would take priority this year, with the remainder paying more attention to consumer technologies. Overall, the overall trend is also of continued interest in the sector – 62% expected increased demand for cleantech news among audiences

Interest in policy coverage also remains high, with nearly 80% expressing significant or moderate interest in tracking government developments.

marketing monday: the distributed brand

As someone who consults on communications and engagement for the Distributed Energy industry, it is clear that the future of communications is The Distributed Brand. Recent research from one of firm Weber Shandwick’s sister agencies, Universal McCann, backs this up. According to their Wave 5 – the Socialization of Brands study, findings included:

a company’s branded website as a destination for consumers is dropping – from 85% to 75% over the past three years – with more attention going to social platforms and mobile applications.

globally, nearly half of active internet users claim to have joined a brand community. Many join such a community to gain access to free content (69.6%), but the higher motivations are to learn (78.6%) and to get access to advance news of products (76.1%). In other words, people was first access to news and information.

of those joining a brand community, 72% said they thought more positively of the brand as a result, 71% said they are more likely to buy the brand, 66% said they felt more loyal to the brand and 63% said they recommended others to join.

At the same time, as someone who came out of the content creation business (I previously produced feature-length films, launched a magazine and newsletter, and worked as a journalist) it is also clear that one of the most important ways to become a distributed brand is to be a great content creator or co-creator, and to use that creation as a means of engaging communities. If you’re interested, some insights on this trend. My favorite: “the Chief Content Officer will be the CMO of the future.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly the role of content and how to socialize it is making The Distributed Brand a shift that cannot be ignored.

Characteristics of Distributed Energy that can be applied to the Distributed Brand:

Both are about getting a solution to the point of use

Both are smaller scale and modular

Both are about peer to peer or many to many, not one to many

Both allow integration of other ancillary applications