Emissions Boost Case for Clean Energy

Two facts make clean energy unbeatable: air pollution and its friend climate change.

Sure there are naysayers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was quoted as saying, “Scientists are ‘coming forward daily’ to disavow a ‘theory that remains unproven,'” in a tweet by New Hampshire Public Radio.

And James Delingpole on globalclimatescam.com sarcastically says, “It now seems that Mother Gaia may have a deadly new weapon up her sleeve: KILLER MUTANT SHARKS!!!”

Whatever. Delingpole takes issue with a news item that indicates sharks may be adapting to climate change. Good for the sharks.

Acknowledgment dawns

Here’s the situation — continued and accelerated burning of fossil fuels not only taps the supply of easy-to-extract oil but the proof of its effects mounts. And sure, domestic coal is plentiful. But blacken the skies so that even those who live in the countryside can’t see more than a mile or two, and supporters — even those who hail jobs, jobs, jobs — start to go the way of passenger pigeons.

Corporations are beginning to pay attention, and not just with lip service. Sustainability has taken root in boardrooms across the globe, and investment in practices and technology that prevents destruction of the environment is rocketing upward faster than anybody thought possible.

Cheap oil is great. Canada’s oil sands are amazing. And that Bakken oil shale formation under Parshall, N.D. could be a game changer — if we could somehow export it off-planet and use its rich extracts on recently terra-formed and pristine Earth-like worlds.

But here we’ve got to deal with an environment that’s had more than enough of our rapid technological ascent. If mankind continues to push the devastation thing, not only will the economy collapse, but most of us will get sick and die long before we get old.

Political avoidance

GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sidestep the issue of clean energy on the campaign trail. This, however, contrasts mightily with the mood of many in the private sector, which Newt and Mitt say they support hands-down. Corporations and small businesses are publicly embracing the concept of sustainability, energy efficiency, waste reduction and even green chemistry. It would appear corporate boards and business owners see value in going green.

Romney pokes fun at President Obama’s support of green jobs, saying on his website that the president’s administration “seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation.” Romney says, “‘Green’ technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace, and studies have shown that for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”

Gingrich says he would “finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties,” but then goes on to promote oil shale development and the destruction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly clean or green.

So yeah, lop off another mountain to extract coal, fire up the power plant and dust the neighborhood. “Fire in the hole,” as Boyd Crowder would say on FX’s “Justified.”

Green sneaks in

Sentiment toward clean energy and sustainable practices is maturing. True believers come from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum. Economic practicality will do that. Not only is solar at or near parity with fossil fuels but wind’s getting closer and innovation is increasingly resulting in more sophisticated smart products that can navigate the new reality of variable power sources, maximize energy and reduce waste in every possible metric.

In fact, technological innovation in clean energy is moving forward so rapidly that by the time industry masters one form of energy capture, another is baked up in the test kitchen and ready for a taste test. For instance, solar’s efficiency is pushing 50 percent, while battery technology is getting so versatile that some companies expect batteries to complement home solar systems. And backyard mechanics are figuring out how to extract hydrogen using solar power and operating their cars off the stuff.

End product? Vapor.

Energy independence gains momentum

There’s value to clean air. It makes a good slogan, true. But more than that it’s an awesome goal. To think that in a relatively short time, the United States could become energy independent with clean skies and wealthier boggles the mind. But it’s possible.

Consumers would have to adapt to electric cars, natural gas-powered fleet vehicles and even hydrogen hot rods. The military would lead the world in production of biodiesel, algae fuel and isobutanol. Markets would spend less time worry about crude oil prices and more about increasing international sales in third world countries now able to produce their own clean energy.

Sounds a little crazy, and maybe it is.

Green in strange places

On the other hand, evidence that a cleaner world is not far-fetched is mounting. Corporate Knights, a self-described company for clean capitalism, has unveiled its eighth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world. No. 1 is Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, which had sales of $10.5 billion in 2010.

Also on the list are South African mining giant Anglo American, Japan’s Hitachi, Intel, United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca, Brazil’s Petrobras and Norway’s Statoil ASA. The ratings were based on ratios of sales to energy production, carbon creation, water use and waste. Also included is leadership diversity and CEO-to-average-worker pay.

Says Toby Heaps, chief executive of Corporate Knights: “In a year in which Wall Street was occupied and capitalism became a bad word, the Global 100 companies serve as ambassadors for a better, cleaner kind of capitalism which, it also turns out, is more profitable.”

Something is indeed going on. Anglo American’s website’s main page features this directive: “We recognise the challenge posed by climate change and we are taking action to address its causes and to protect our employees and assets, as well as our communities, against its potential impacts.”

Wall Street embraces sustainability

I must be making this up. I still remember the mining companies in Fairbanks, Alaska dredging anything and everything and the John Birch Society guys in the Golden Days Parade driving their Rocket to Russia truck tossing candy to us kids. My recollection of society is decidedly conservative and resource-driven. So what’s going on?

Evidently the mood is greening. More than two-thirds of companies say sustainability has invaded the boardrooms and a third say the practice is contributing to their profits, according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group.

The study, “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point,” found about 67 percent of companies see sustainability as necessary to being competitive, up from 55 percent the previous year. The survey involved more than 2,800 corporate leaders “representing every major industry and region of the world.”

“The attention and investment we see indicate the here-to-stay nature of sustainability for organizations everywhere,” said David Kiron, executive editor at MIT SMR and a coauthor of the report, in a statement.

Investment up in energy efficiency

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy provides some detail. “The 2010 U.S. Lighting Market Characterization” shows that investment in more efficient technologies, higher efficiency standards and public awareness campaigns “helped shift the market toward more energy-efficient lighting technologies across all sectors.”

That means energy savings and more cash in consumers’ pockets. Lighting is the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, and upgrades pay for themselves in a matter of a few years. Changing out lights, however, is like a gateway drug to sustainability.

After making lighting retrofits, the next question always is: “What more can we do?” People like saving money. I would love to put an end to my PG&E power bills with solar panels and a household battery. Of course, I’m nowhere near close to that. But daydreams are an important part of this going-green exercise.

Battlefield Earth

Yet, this shift has surpassed idle thought. It’s based on the cold hard reality that our planet faces something akin to an alien assault by the Covenant from the Halo video-game series.

Marc Gunther of greenbiz.com writes that many in industry see climate change as inevitable and are preparing plans to adapt. “Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what’s being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness,” Gunther says.

Longer dry spells, wetter rainy season and more powerful storms are forcing the issue. Industries that don’t plan for the worst may end up suffering. Businesses that don’t plan might not be around to post year-end earnings.

Extreme weather forces change

Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” writes that extreme weather cost agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion in 2011, while Hurricane Irene slapped New York City with $7 billion in estimated damages. He quotes the World Bank’s estimate of damages in Thailand from flooding there at $45 billion.

The solution is straightforward. Basically, we’ve got to clean up the air and stabilize the climate warming trend or prepare for more upheaval. Parenti says government is best equipped to deal with both scenarios, either with the massive task of clean up or through more nuanced approaches related to support of technological advancement through subsidy, research and development.

“Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy,” Parenti writes in a post for tomdispatch.com. So there’s precedent.

If we pick clean energy as a proactive response, we’re going to need a little bit of help from our friend Uncle Sam, or Big Brother, depending on where you lean. Not bad thing. But it will take a some political willpower, consensus building and a thaw in the red-blue divide.

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