You may or may not have heard of the World Resources Institute
before, but for anyone interested in environmental data, green business best practices, and policy analysis, it's a hugely valuable institution.
Of course, I'm a bit biased, having had the privilege of starting my career there. But I was reminded again of the value of WRI's work at a breakfast meeting here in Boston yesterday, where Jonathan Lash -- WRI's President -- gave a terrific presentation covering the top environmental stories to watch in 2009. You can read and see some of the presentation here
A few points from the talk really stuck out for me:
1. Climate change effects are being seen and felt even more rapidly than had been expected, emissions are growing faster than expected, and temperature changes are accelerating. Taken together, these trends reaffirm that the situation is much more alarming than most public debate and news reporting would have us believe. Jonathan pointed out that the significant effects already being felt are all the result of only 0.8 degrees C in temperature increase so far -- and even if we perform herculean efforts and achieve all our most aggressive goals for addressing climate change, expectations are that temperatures will rise another 3x or so before leveling off. That's a best case. And it's frightening enough by itself. There's a reckoning coming, in other words, and our choices are about how best to manage it -- will we suffer a "climate crash", or do can we mobilize and do our best to contain the damage? Remember this basic fact, when the Senate starts debating climate change legislation, and the inevitable horse-trading and watering-down start happening...
2. Speaking of that, we've talked a bit here
about some likely scenarios for climate change legislation in the Senate (and Jonathan mentioned that in the House, Waxman has promised to get legislation out of his committee by Memorial Day), and the importance of this being a "purple" legislation, to try to get to 60 votes. I think it'll be important to provide carve-outs for emissions offsets from energy efficiency and international imports (ala Clean Development Mechanism projects under the Kyoto process), to try to get some of the southern senators on board... But Jonathan points out that there is a "Gang of 16" Democratic senators who also have expressed reservations about climate change legislation (and they tend to come from the states where coal-based electricity dominates the supply mix). Winning them over will also require some creative bargaining as well, likely around funding for "Clean Coal" for example. Getting to 60 on any kind of aggressive climate change regulation is therefore a daunting task. In my opinion, entrepreneurs and investors should hope for the best, but plan for a likely weak outcome...
3. The stimulus bill had a number of great programs in it, from a cleantech and green jobs perspective. One thing to note, however, is that while the DOE was given something like $40B to spend, it'll be an organizational challenge for the Department to get that disbursed productively and quickly. After all, the DOE has historically been very slow at putting money out the door -- 24 months after Congress approved a major loan guarantee program to help build biofuel and other facilities, for example, not one dollar has been paid out. Steve Chu and his team seem very committed to changing this... But it will still require a major change. This dovetails with anecdotal evidence I keep hearing from across various states, where federal, state and local energy program managers know they're getting a big slug of money for "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects and energy efficiency programs, etc... but have no idea when, or what they're going to be able to do, much less how to put the money out there. It's a great thing to see all these efforts getting ramped up, but entrepreneurs and investors need to recognize and plan around a likely slow process for getting money out of these programs.
4. Jonathan talked about a pretty interesting use of advanced technology for monitoring illegal logging and then, in conjunction with a revison of the Lacey Act to allow prosecutions of mills that take in illegal wood. It's an interesting development for the forestry industry. But even more important from my perspective is the demonstration of how advanced monitoring technologies will be increasingly enabling more effective environmental regulations in the future. For a great example on a completely different set of environmental issues, see Planet Hazard
, a potentially powerful tool -- it allows easy access to Toxic Release Inventory data for air emissions in your hometown (if you live in the U.S., of course). Take a look at the major emitters in your area, and think about what your neighbors might think about that information. Technology innovations and smart regulations can be very effective together, and information itself can be a really powerful tool. We need a TRI for carbon emissions...
Those were just some of the important take-aways for me from Jonathan's talk. WRI tracks a tremendous amount of environmental data from around the world, and does a lot of really innovative work to develop innovative policies, to work with the private sector on key issues, and to address environmental challenges all over the world. Innovative efforts like the Global Impact Fund
, an internal venture fund to develop new programmatic activities, help the organization stay at the forefront of policy and engagement efforts. Their publications
are great educational resources as well. So I encourage readers to check them out.