Northwest businesses start to sense the gold in going green

Frustrated by national policies that create uncertainty, many businesses are plunging in to find profit-driven solutions to global warming. A recent Chamber of Commerce conference revealed a lot of progress.
Frustrated by national policies that create uncertainty, many businesses are plunging in to find profit-driven solutions to global warming. A recent Chamber of Commerce conference revealed a lot of progress.

When 250 Puget Sound business leaders gathered last month in Vancouver, B.C., at an annual Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce conference, they sat up straight and paid attention as their peers - including Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, and WalMart – described responses to growing global warming concerns. This wasn't altruism. This was bottom-line talk. One bank president provided the new mantra: "Green is the new gold."

It seemed that Al Gore had sunk in. Company representatives beamed as they discussed how they had reduced their energy consumption, designed new products, and supported their employees to find alternatives to driving cars alone to work every day.

The speakers shared fancy slides with upward slanting arrows, showing where economic opportunities await the visionary businesses that create new energy resources. A common goal, they agreed, was to design products that are safe, environmentally clean, and affordable. Another critical goal, stated in various ways, was to create a higher return on investments in a sustainable and socially responsible way. The driver is profit.

Another driver is the global insecurity caused by America's foreign policies, which has left businesses few choices but to find their own energy options. This may be the one silver lining to bad federal policies. The newly minted green companies recognize that their bottom line hinges on their own efforts to relieve financial pressure caused by accelerating costs of oil from the Middle East.

Steve Marshall of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development made the point that in 1973, during the oil embargo, the U.S. imported slightly more than one-third of its oil. OPEC shocked the world then by raising prices 17 percent in one month, and the cost of oil rose to a whopping $3.65 per barrel.

All U.S. Presidents since Nixon have wrung their collective hands and insisted that we must reduce reliance on foreign oil. But we don't. The U.S. is now importing 60 percent of our oil, the majority of which comes from five countries that are hardly our best friends: Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela. And we're paying more than $80 per barrel for this privilege.

The business world hates uncertainty. Since local companies cannot control the price of imported oil, they are looking inward for energy independence and security. And they are chalking up some early successes.

Boeing barely contained its pride over the company's efforts. Boeing's designs for fuel cells promise ultra-clean auxiliary power on new products. Employees are offered financial incentives to identify ways to save production time and have saved millions of dollars nationally on reduced kilowatt demands. And the new generation of airplanes reputedly uses 20 percent less fuel than predecessors. (Saving one pound of fuel means not emitting 3.1 pounds of CO2.)

Likewise, Weyerhaeuser reported reducing energy needs in multiple ways, such as using more locally produced biomass fuels, reducing waste and recovering more fibers, and investing in energy-efficient alternatives for workplaces. The result? Emission reduction targets already below 2000 levels and significant energy savings.

The crowd in Vancouver was receptive. The drum beat was steady and the theme consistent. Businesses that sought ways to conserve energy, to make products more efficiently, to focus their employees' efforts on ways to create renewable energy and conserve what they had, would emerge as climate change leaders.

Those efforts may cost more in initial capital investment but are resulting in sustainable and higher long-term returns on investment. Wall Street is taking notice.

Where's our local government in all of this? Out front, which business leaders say is good so long as regulations are predictable and clear. K.C. Golden of Seattle's Climate Solutions said what's needed by business from the government is a strong, clear public policy that will create reliable conditions for private investments.

As cities across the nation have thrown up their hands over the Bush administration's environmental policies, more than 630 cities decided self-help was their only answer. These mayors have signed Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' petition, urging their own state governments as well as the federal government to enact policies and programs to beat the very do-able greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the U.S. in the Kyoto Protocol - 7 percent reduction from the 1990 levels, by 2012.

Similarly, Gov. Chris Gregoire and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell reminded a packed session at the conference that Washington and B.C. have joined California and other states to demand higher fuel economy standards for automobiles. Last summer, Gregoire and Campbell also agreed to cap and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions between Washington and B.C., and collaborate on the innovation and implementation of clean technologies.

Gregoire announced that she had sued the Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to respond to the western states' demand for better emissions and mileage from auto manufacturers. Small wonder. One speaker noted that Ford's Model T got better gas mileage than many of the Fords produced today.


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