Whenever I read the newspaper, I am struck by how reporters tend to work in silos. Environmental reporters cover beetles and bogs, business reporters stick to quarterly earning reports and political reporters dwell on the Beltway. As a result, readers are left with narrowly-defined perspectives.
It looks like this trend may be changing. I was a speaker at last week's Society of Environmental Journalism annual conference, a gathering of journalists that was rich thought-provoking discussions on corporate responsibility, environmental accounting and "greening" capital markets. Participants recognized the critical role of businesses, investors and Wall Street in tackling global environmental threats. They also showed growing sophistication in identifying roadblocks that will prevent market-based solutions from succeeding.
Here's a cheat sheet on a few of the hot-button issues that surfaced:
Accurate Accounting: Europe's carbon emissions trading program has been hurt by the lack of a centralized registry for quantifying and tracking greenhouse gas emissions. California policy-makers understand this and are smart to have launched the California Climate Action Registry to certify and register carbon emission sources as part of the state's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction law. "It's difficult to allocate carbon credits when there's no tracking of emissions," said PG&E vice president Steve Kline, a conference speaker.
Better Transparency: Hewlett Packard and Dell both received praise for ramping up their recycling programs so that less electronic waste is being sent overseas. In just one year, Dell boosted its recycling efforts by 72 percent, to 40,000 tons in 2006. Still, Dell was criticized for weak disclosure on how it is recycling the waste. "They have not been transparent about what they are doing with it," said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Curing Carbon Offsets: The Kyoto Protocol took some heat at the SEJ conference, especially its verification program for giving out credits for carbon offset projects. "You can't always tell if a forestry project is new or whether it would have happened anyways," said Stanford University economics professor Lawrence Goulder, in calling for more robust accounting in future carbon trading systems. "Offsets have to be real, they have to be verifiable."
Energizing Energy Efficiency: Companies, investors and environmentalists all touted energy efficiency as the most cost effective way to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. PG&E's Kline advocated passage of a national energy efficiency standard for new buildings. Ralph Cavanaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council said we need policies that reward power companies, not for selling more power, but for spurring energy savings through energy efficiency programs. "Right now the number of utilities in this country that have an earnings potential to encourage customers to use less energy is one -- Idaho Power," Cavanaugh said, noting that California will soon be following in Idaho's path.
Mining the Montreal Protocol: Former Secretary of State George Schultz says there are lessons to be learned from the Montreal Protocol, the landmark international treaty that dramatically reduced emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals worldwide. Schultz said the two-decade-old treaty succeeded because negotiators persuaded developed and developing countries alike to participate. Financial assistance was a big component in bringing developing countries along. "We created a fund to help low-income per capita countries put in new technologies that were cleaner," Schultz said, adding that similar programs should be considered to win China and India's support to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
These are just a few of the ideas I heard for bringing environmental and business perspectives together as we develop new policies, laws and treaties. Let's hope these interdisciplinary approaches make it into the heads of policymakers and reporters so that market-based solutions can help solve the many challenges before us.
Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.
Image: flickr/Stuck in Customs
The one thing I'd like to campaign for, now that sustainability/green living is making the news (again), is to bring environmental accounting into the business news:
CNN is coming out with a documentary "Planet in Peril," but when you tune to the business news, there's only stock market indicators. What if there were also reporting of, for example, the index of sustainable economic welfare?
It could add a new level of reality (for people otherwise too concerned with the virtualized world of "the economy"), I think.
Isn't the Clean Development Mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol exactly the kind of financial assistance that Schultz is arguing for? Why is this getting play as a new idea?