Sustainability Inside The Beltway

I just returned from speaking at the Atlantic Monthly’s Green Intelligence Forum 2010 which I told you about earlier this week. In several respects, the Forum presented an interesting contrast to the West Coast events I have attended recently. The crowd of 200+ was comprised mostly of Congressional staffers, Federal agency personnel and a mix of individuals from environmental nonprofits and Washington-based think tanks. The bigger departure was the non-stop discussion of the role politics and policy are playing in sustainability. From the panels moderated by Atlantic’s well spoken group of journalists to the hallway conversations, it seemed that everyone wanted to speculate about what Congress might do or, more likely, might not do.

The change of scenery and different conversations raised a question in my mind, just how critical is Federal policy going to be in the next few years for green business? There were certainly a few answers that could be teased out of the Forum. David Hayes, Deputy Secretary for the Department of Interior (DOI), optimistically noted that DOI can already effectively use our public lands to stimulate development of utility-scale solar, including concentrating solar as well as photovoltaic arrays. Hayes did advocate for changes in the law to allow the public to share in some of the revenues generated by plants on public lands. Jason Grumet, President of the Bipartisan Policy Center (a think tank founded in 2007 by Republican Congressional leaders), sounded a more pessimistic note, observing that the recent energy and climate debates ended with less consensus than when the debates started. Grumet suggested that the public conversation move from climate to more traditional themes of public health and air pollution. James Connaughton of Constellation Energy (and former chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality during the Bush Administration) seemed skeptical that a change of context would make any difference since even the BP oil spill had little effect on the electorate. I found some truth in a comment from Steve Cochran, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Change Director, that “we must depolarize to decarbonize” so the best hope for action is a bottoms up approach in states, local governments and corporate supply chains.

My own answer to the question is the same one that Applied Materials and Silicon Valley have offered for several years now: alternative energy and environmental solutions are good businesses and we will continue to build them with innovation and the other tools at our disposal, but sound, timely public policy can dramatically accelerate the process. A federal climate or energy bill can send the right signals to unlock even more investments than we are seeing presently. A consistent international treaty might do even more to create expansive energy and environmental markets all over the world. Meanwhile, sound State and local programs, such as California’s AB 32 (Global Warming Solutions Act) need to be defended and implemented. If these questions about policy fascinate you, head to D.C. for the endless discussion.

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