As a leading event focused on the intersection between business and sustainability, the Ceres
conference is always an compelling event, and this year was no exception.  When the event wrapped up in San Francisco, however, I left with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, there were some truly anxiety producing insights into the state of global warming and the challenges it will produce for businesses and society, delivered by Bill McKibben, Carl Pope and others.  On the
other hand, it was announced that General Motors, Autodesk, Eastern Bank and other leading companies have signed the Climate Declaration to encourage Congress to enact sensible, meaningful legislation to lay the groundwork for a more robust, energy efficient, lower carbon future.  In addition there were some terrific sessions and workshops and announcements on commitments from leading businesses that had me leaving feeling optimistic (what can I say,
I’m a glass half full type of gal).  Here are some of the highlights.

Renewable Energy Goals and Corporations

In a fascinating kickoff discussion, including participants from Ceres, Starbucks, GM, the National Resource Defense Council and SustainabilityEye (representing the investment community), the state of the renewable energy market was discussed.  Ceres started by laying out a goal that businesses should aim for sourcing 20% of their energy from renewable sources.  Starbucks’ Jim Hannah quickly upped the ante by announcing that Starbucks has set a target of 100% renewables globally, up from their already impressive 60%.  Ceres presented more sobering research based on a survey of 600 companies showing that investment and commitment to renewables was slowing and has actually decreased in the last year.  

Part of this is due to the fracking / natural gas boom, and a big part is due to the roller coaster ride that is federal renewable energy policy (for example, uncertainty around renewable energy tax credits and the elimination of the DOE loan program).  Even with all of this, the panel was optimistic about the future of renewables due to rapid innovations, the convergence of technologies (like EV’s, smart grid and smart buildings), and signs of thawing in the political climate.  Mark Fulton, the investor on the panel, suggested that the next 3 to 5 years is going to be dominated by natural gas, especially as China rushes towards this cleaner fuel as the the health crisis caused by the air pollution from their current coal-based energy policy reaches critical mass.

Investors and the Value of Sustainability

Daniel Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, participated in a plenary conversation and he was terrific.  He spoke eloquently on the role that innovation will play in moving sustainability forward and making it an asset for businesses.  He also went on to call on investors to heighten the value they place on sustainability.  He indicated that Sprint is increasing its focus on the Socially Responsible Investment community in hopes of changing the dialogue, saying that it is vital investors perceive the real value in running a business to positively impact the quality of life on a healthy planet.

He pointed out that shareholders are currently the #1 concern of businesses (some may say the only), but he hopes this will change over time and become more balanced as investors and business executives see that this short-term approach is at the expense of everything else.  This was highlighted by comments from KB Homes, builders of some of the most energy efficient homes in America.  While they are doing tremendous work, their homes are not as inexpensive to build as less efficient homes built with lesser materials and care and the market is punishing them due to the resultant tighter margins.  Would this be different if the market and investors placed a higher value on resource efficiency and sustainability?  Perhaps more business leaders will follow in the wake of Unilever’s CEO, who recently stopped offering quarterly earnings guidance to investors in order to allow the company to make better and more informed long term business decisions.

Climate Change - Taking the Blinders Off

Bill McKibben and David Blood (a former Goldman Sachs executive that left to start a energy generation investment firm) provided a lunch plenary on Investment Strategies for a Low Carbon Future that scared the wits out of me.  I’m not going to go into detail here, but instead I will highlight that since the event, the atmospheric observatory in Hawaii recorded the first week
ever in which the Parts Per Million of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400.  This is the highest
level of this heat trapping gas recorded on Planet Earth in the last three to five million years....or since humans evolved to stand on two feet.  

To give you an idea, leading scientists have long held that to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, we should maintain CO2 levels below 350 PPM.  McKibben’s famous climate change advocacy non-profit is called for this very reason.  We didn’t only blow through that in the past few years, we just jumped past 400.  

Hold onto your hats.

Water and Energy

The last day of the conference kicked off with a  discussion between Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, and Catherine Bessant from Bank of America (BofA strongly supports a price on you didn’t know that did you?)  in which they discussed amongst other things the connection between water and energy.  Ceres released a report concurrently called Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water.   This discussion was immediately followed by a panel titled Squeezing a Stone:  Lessons from the Western Water Crisis.

Featuring Michael Glade from Molson Coors, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute and Lester Snow from the California water foundation, this panel took a no holds barred look at the water crisis in the overstressed Colorado River Basin.  Gleick from the Pacific Institute made it clear “We've over allocated the water of the river, layer on top of that climate change and we have an unprecedented challenge.”  As Snow from California followed up, “The water allocations were made based on flawed assumptions, and now we have no possible way to meet those commitments.  If we don't have a serious policy dialogue, we'll just limp from one crisis to the next.  We'll end up like Australia with a 10 year drought and then do stupid things.”  

As energy generation, climate change and cities in the desert continue to stress our single most important natural resource (drinkable water), a lot can be learned from how the crisis in the Colorado river basin plays out.  Will we make good decisions or limp from one crisis to the next?  Will it be too late for places like Las Vegas?  Either way, businesses should play close attention as these battles will have real world implications.


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