The following opinion piece is from an independent writer and is not connected with Greentech Media News. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not endorsed by Greentech Media.
At 5,118 feet above sea level, Davos, Switzerland, provides an ideal setting for the world's most powerful people to congregate and discuss high-level and long-term issues facing the globe and its people. It's a fitting place for the World Economic Forum, which is committed to "improving the state of the world,” to organize the annual meeting.
Unfortunately, in 2008 the stars became misaligned and delegates to the conference were greeted with news of tumbling world markets. With this headline, much of the media concentrated on this issue to the exclusion of many other important issues. Many people –- and perhaps some of you –- who watched the conference from afar may have been convinced that every conversation at Davos revolved around the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the subprime mortgage market. I'm happy to tell you that this was not the case.
The world leaders in attendance –- government and academic leaders, along with banking and corporate chiefs –- didn't arrive at their positions of power by following the news ticker. Indeed, issues of climate change, energy security and rising oil and commodity prices were highly notable themes. Even outside our conversations with high-visibility luminaries like Al Gore and with Google.org, world leaders and industrialists expressed marked interest in climate policy, low-carbon technologies and cleantech investments.
Despite near-term market jitters, most in the Davos group agreed that addressing global sustainability challenges will require a 50- to 100-year commitment. In that period, we will have many cycles of boom and bust, and we cannot allow ourselves to lose focus on the ultimate goals of sustainable development.
Davos 2008, more than anything, was a significant opportunity for companies like ours to bring the pace, potential and passion of the emerging cleantech industry to an audience that doesn't live in the echo chamber of the Silicon Valley. With our World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer award in hand, we at Primafuel were given a seat at this prestigious event. We used this week to share this cautiously optimistic message: If we make material long-term commitments, encourage breakthrough creativity and invest resources wisely, we can right the global economy into sustainability. Here are some of the thoughts we brought home:
Material, long-term commitments: Some people are under the idyllic impression that a well-informed consumer is one of the most important components in the path toward sustainable development. This topic became a point of contention at the Google.org session, where Al Gore responded to this idea with a fiery retort. Mr. Gore reminded the group that "the enemies" are spending vast material resources to protect their interests and to ensure that business as usual continues uninterrupted. He supported this realism by referencing the billions spent in advertising and lobbying, designed in most cases to drive a consumer to act in a certain way while FEELING informed, rather than BEING informed. Material long-term commitments must be codified into law to ensure that sustainability isn't perceived (incorrectly) as a luxury to be afforded only in times of plenty.
Breakthrough creativity: There's much more to sustainable development than the cleantech sector, and that's a notion often forgotten in certain circles. At a cocktail reception with Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, there was no shortage of great ideas. From new models of car insurance that can combat climate change, to unique approaches toward water conservation, most of the concepts batted around did not rely on breakthrough technologies. They instead hinged on breakthrough creativity. Every discipline must become engaged in an effort to drive sustainable development, not just scientists and engineers.
Wise Investments: There is no shortage of global capital, even in trying times. Establishing the right rules of a more ecologically minded marketplace is a critical component of achieving sustainability. Mechanisms by which to price “externalities” like carbon emissions sparked one notable conversation in Davos. At the Forbes party, I had a chat with two well-known Forbes brothers on the rising price of oil and the resulting flow of capital into energy technologies. Investments in nonconventional oil like tar sands and oil shale has quietly stacked up (and continues to grow) into the neighborhood of $50 billion. Every drop of this super high-carbon crude oil that makes it into the supply chain will place that much more of a load on the planet's capacity to sequester CO2. What should be glaringly clear is that high oil prices drive investments into alternatives like no other force; unfortunately, most of the alternatives out there are environmentally worse than the status quo. Sound policy is required to drive investments into the right sectors. There's no shortage of capital –- it's a question of allocation.
In conclusion, very significant change is afoot. Whether one looks to Davos or Washington, D.C., as a gauge, issues of sustainable development are becoming more relevant at the highest levels of power. Just 10 years ago, these issues were invisible or at the fringes of conversation. Policies are being revised, financial markets are learning, corporations are starting to internalize costs, and consumers are slowly becoming more aware.
The world is learning that U.S. cleantech companies are committed to developing solutions and it is eagerly waiting upon the United States to take leadership on these issues. What better time to start than during an election year?