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Shana Rappaport, Director of Engagement of the VERGE conferences at GreenBiz Group, asked a group of sustainability leaders (including Tamara Barker,Rob Bernard, John Elkington, Krista Huhtala-Jenks, David McConville, Ramez Naam, Laura Schewel, and many others) for their perspectives on the year past and years to come. I was honored to be included. Here are their questions, and what I had to say. (You can find the collected responses here, here and here.)

What impressed you most, positively or negatively, in 2016, and why?

I’ve been impressed and excited by the unrelenting ride down the price/performance curves for photovoltaics, electric vehicles, battery technology, sensor technology and so much more. These represent the foundation for profound technical, business social disruption ahead.

Most people can’t see it; legacy industries will fight it; but the shift is clear. Fossil is over, renewables win; the only question is how long the transition will take to play out, and with how much pain and struggle along the way.

What technology makes you hopeful about the year hear because of its potential impact?

In addition to the rapidly falling price of renewable energy, and the almost unavoidable advent of autonomous vehicles (my hopefulness is tempered with mixed feelings), I’m surprised and delighted by the growing attention to the potential role of living soil as the ultimate carbon sink, and therefore the potential role of sustainable agriculture, forestry and range management as macro, not niche, strategies.

Imagine it’s 2030. What technology, trend policy or other development made the biggest difference?

First, the key was putting a price on carbon; that provided market signals that reflected the real costs of energy alternatives, which in turn guided investment, drove innovation and fueled market capture across almost every economic sector. Those who were able to read the signs early and bet on proxy prices before they became “real” prices led the transition, and benefited greatly from it.

Second was the emergence of the blockchain and its descendants, providing complete, end-to-end, supply chain transparency and capture of embedded energy and externalities. These provided visibility into the invisible “wastes” in the global economy, and a pathway to massive profit for those who could see them.

Third was the constellation of distributed energy, storage and management systems, which drove the deep disruption of the utility industry, transforming it from a slow-moving commodities and infrastructure industry to a data, financing and services industry. This was not an easy transition, and was battled over in courts and legislatures for decades, but ultimately it was compelling business logic (supported by “getting the prices right” that won the day). (P.S.: I offer another possible 2030 vision here.)

As the days once again begin to lengthen,
and the candles nearly fulfill their promise,
and the possibility of rebirth dawns,
and the rising of the light
lifts our souls
and rekindles our hopes,
we wish for you,
in the very challenging time before us,
a year full of days
of courage,
purpose
and love.

TornadoRainbowHappy holidays,
from all of us at
Natural Logic
to all of you.

What if Bloomberg, Branson and Grantham came together to buyout the coal industry, close and clean up the mines, retrain workers and accelerate the expansion of renewable energy?

(That’s the subhead for the slightly abridged version of this provocation that ran in the Finance Hub of Guardian Sustainable Business Tuesday. Here it is intact.)

Would you make a one time $50 (£31) investment to save $100-500 each year? Sound good? Add nine zeros to each of those numbers. In other words, invest $50bn once over the next decade, and generate $100-$500bn in benefits every year.

That’s the surprisingly low price to buy up and shut down all the private and public coal companies in the US, breaking the centuries-old grip of an obsolete, destructive technology that threatens our present and our future. It’s a compelling high-return opportunity available now in the US if some farsighted investors merge purpose and private equity in a new way.

How would it work? The deal would phase out coal companies over 10 years, close and clean up the mines, write down the assets, retrain and re-employ some 87,000 workers, and create job opportunities and prosperity for coal-based communities. If at the same time the US accelerates expansion of renewable energy sources and transmission facilities, this could be accomplished with no interruption to electricity supplies, adding only about a penny or two to each kilowatt-hour on electricity bills.

This one-time transaction would generate multiple benefits. It would eliminate US’s largest single source of greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide from coal plants. What’s it worth to cut out at least one quarter of US carbon emissions? To assign a dollar value, we’d need to put a price on carbon.

Even without that number, though, we can already tally the direct health and environmental benefits of ending coal: the sulphur dioxide that causes acid rain, the nitrogen oxide that becomes smog, the particulates that provoke asthma, and the toxins like mercury, lead and cadmium that harm human brains, animals and fish. Estimates range from $100bn a year in a 2010 National Academy of Sciences report to $345bn a year in a 2011 Harvard Medical School study.

This buyout could come at a deep discount, rescuing the beleaguered owners, shareholders, and workforce of a dead-end industry. Coal has a dark future, already foreshadowed in declining stock market prices and abandoned plans for new construction. It faces competition from natural gas and renewables. And public opposition has led to hundreds of coal plants closed or blocked by the Sierra Club and its allies.

The industry’s market valuations could plunge further as it faces more taxation or regulation. As what’s now being called a “carbon bubble” deflates, insurance companies, markets, and elected officials may all conclude that, of all fossil fuels, coal’s deadly poisons put our world most at risk. Institutional investors that don’t recognise these risks are already failing in their fiduciary duty to shareholders. And coal company directors and executives may come to see a buyout as the best way to protect shareholder value.

There’s an inspiring precedent: When slavery was abolished in Britain’s colonies nearly 200 years ago, the British government paid out 40% of its annual budget to compensate some 3,000 slave-owning families for the loss of their ‘property’.

Who can make it happen? In normal times, we’d expect government to take the lead, since everyone, not just investors, would enjoy the savings by avoiding damaging coal emissions. But that’s not on the cards right now, neither from Congress nor the White House. Can we figure out a way to inspire third parties to remove what economists call “negative externalities?”

What if a few shrewd and enlightened investors step up to “do the right thing” – through the marketplace? Leadership could come from the 114 billionaire families who, encouraged by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, have already committed through the Giving Pledge to donate half of their assets to charity. What better investment could they make to protect their families, future generations, and their assets? They would be recognised forever as pioneers in responding to climate change.

Savvy climate hawks like Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, John Doerr, Jeremy Grantham, and Tom Steyer know all about buyouts. These financial superstars could figure out the best way to structure a Coal Buyout Fund – maybe even at a profit. Private equity firms could get management fees for the deals. A crowdsourced component could become the biggest kickstarter ever.

A coal industry buyout could then become the inspiring foundation for a global financial strategy to get us off fossil fuels, head off the worst consequences of climate change, and rewrite our future.

Gil Friend is founder and former CEO of Natural Logic, Inc., author ofThe Truth About Green Business and is the chief sustainability officer of the City of Palo Alto, CA.

Felix Kramer founded The California Cars Initiative in 2002; he spent a decade in the campaign to bring plug-in hybrid cars like the Chevy Volt to market.

Over the course of my more than 40 years of work on sustainability issues in business, government, and the civic sector, one challenge has remained central, reappearing again and again as a make-or-break element of all we are trying to accomplish. I’m encouraged to see that it is now moving to center stage.

It’s the challenge of getting the prices right—of ensuring that the workings of the market reflect the physical reality of, well, physics, and the living systems that sustain the human economy. Meeting this challenge is critical to the health of economies, enterprises, and ecosystems.

Some businesses are beginning to expand their focus beyond the surprisingly recent, single-minded obsession with maximizing shareholder value. Yet we haven’t solved the core problem, because the game is fundamentally defined by its rules. And markets, for all their agility and elegance, are massively distorted in several critical ways:

  • Values that are difficult to monetize or quantify—like social welfare, the regenerative capacity of living systems, and the economistic fiction of “externalities”—just don’t get counted.
  • The future doesn’t matter—and even if it does matter, it isn’t worth anything.
  • One person’s subsidy is another person’s investment. Perhaps most endemic—sober assessment of investment opportunities is too often distorted by historic ROI-blindness.

What is to be done?

  1. Drive persistently and systematically to full-cost accounting that factors in all five capitals—financial, natural, human, social, and manufactured—and that uses all these perspectives to inform and guide decision-making. Puma and other companies exploring ecological profit & loss accounting are finding significant and potentially game-changing weaknesses in their financial statements and assessments of material risk when these other capitals are taken into account. As Paul Herman observes, people are your biggest asset. So how can you manage effectively when your biggest asset is listed as a liability on your books?
  2. Replace the practice of discounting the future with financial tools that value the future—metrics that realistically compare the enhanced future value of trees, intact forests, or topsoil with net present value. The medieval practice of demurrage, for example, interpreted the time value of money in the opposite way than we do today, “creating an incentive to invest in assets which lead to longer-term sustainable growth.” This practice is what enabled the construction of the great cathedrals that would arguably be impossible to justify under today’s schemes. Money in the future may not be as valuable as money in the present, but natural capital will be.
  3. Understand and eliminate your company’s exposure to subsidies. Yes, exposure. Just look at the ratio of subsidy to profit (or subsidy to market cap) of the coal industry. What are those ratios for your company? Subsidies may seem to provide benefit, and in some cases reflect social investment in activities outside the reasonable risk/reward landscape of individual enterprises. But they are fragile at best, subject to shifting political winds, and the inevitable public revulsion at bought-and-paid-for government. Because iIf your business depends on subsidies— whether they be unmonetized non-monetized externalities like carbon emissions, or direct transfer payments like welfare to make up for in adequate wages—if it’s not able to carry its full weight, then maybe you don’t really have business.
  4. Drop the obsolete, knee-jerk, unsupported-by-the-data assumption that better necessarily costs more, because it’s not supported by data. This long-held habit of thought distorts investment processes  by otherwise capable and intelligent people. Sure, Cadillacs cost more than Chevys, but what’s the ROI when “net-zero-energy” buildings can be built with no incremental capital cost at all?

This is challenging territory. It will require new tools, new mindsets, and new alignments of very significant financial interests. But conquering this territory is indispensable to meeting the challenge of reinventing the economy of an entire planet. This planet. In one generation.

Originally published on the EcoInnovator blog at Corporate EcoForum.

Cities are uniquely positioned to drive the sustainability revolution—whether in concert with national governments (as is possible in some countries) or on their own (which is necessary in some countries).

Cities lead the way in greening transportation, the built environment, food production, procurement, economic development and more, with impacts far beyond their borders. What can cities—and regional clusters of cities—do to create a living model of the green economy?

What do cities do?
Cities perform four key roles, each of which can have significant impact on quality of life, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability, and provide powerful leverage for change.

Cities express and leverage the public will.
Government, though out of fashion in some US circles these days, is simply “what we do together”—a collaboration to create viable communities and the systems that sustain them. Through general planning processes, zoning and building standards, and economic development policies, cities define the landscape of the rest of our lives—for example by building distributed generation into it.

Cities collect and spend money.
By operating eco-efficiently, in facilities and fleets, cities act as skillful fiduciaries of the public trust and set examples for other developers and operators. By establishing green procurement standards—perhaps in collaboration with local universities, hospitals and businesses to provide economies of scale—cities provide consistent market demand for the businesses of the new economy. By using their bonding authority, cities can guide capital formation and investment to accelerate the new economy.

Cities gather and dispense information.
Cities collect lots of data—their spending, building permits, infrastructure, and more—and can provide open access to most of it, as Palo Alto is doing, both to support transparency and democracy and to fuel the innovation with open APIs. Cities—and regions—can track the resource “metabolism” of energy and materials, and make those and other community sustainability indicators available in interactive scoreboards that let people see progress and compete to do better—in real time.

Cities provide shared services.
In addition to formal educational services, cities can provide technical assistance to support entrepreneurship and the green evolution. In addition to the operating infrastructure of urban life, cities can convene conversations about what we want that future infrastructure to be.

The key:

  • Set compelling goals—not just energy efficient buildings, but net zero buildings. Not just an iconic project or two, but requiring all new buildings to be net zero, all renovations, or, over time, the entire city?
  • Streamline policies, programs and practices. The biggest problem with regulation isn’t that it demands better—or safer— performance; it’s that too often its burdensome or unpredictable. But it doesn’t have to be; design thinking can make it better/faster/cheaper—and more effective.
  • Integrate. Commit to systems-based, multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary approaches. Traffic isn’t just a transportation problem; it’s a planning and design problem. Land use isn’t just a planning problem; its a water and hence energy problem. Addressing these issues systemically can challenge existing habits and turf but drive leapfrog innovation and orders of magnitude greater financial benefits.
  • Encourage engagement and open feedback. Giving people a clear line of sight that connects their needs, actions and impacts—and that lets them see how theirs connect with those of others—is one of the most effective drivers of innovation and improvement we’ve seen.

Cities face the challenges we all face: Do we try to slow the damage? or build the regenerative capacity of the living systems that sustain the human experiment. Do we apply band-aids? or build lasting solutions? Do we leave money on the table? or define the markets of the future? In each of these challenges, cities will be pivotal players.

—Gil Friend, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of Palo Alto

This post is a submission to Masdar Engage.

When I learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing earlier this month, I spent the afternoon in tears.

Not tears of grief alone, but of love, admiration, awe, inspiration at the contribution this one man has made—both to the people of South Africa on their long path to freedom, and to the people of the entire world in our daily challenge to understand what it means to be a human being.

There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
― Nelson Mandela

Thank you, Madiba.

This month I began serving as the Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Palo Alto.

As many of you know, I’ve been dedicated for the last 41 years, since cutting my teeth with Bucky Fuller’s World Game in 1972, to connect the human economy with the laws of nature—the time-tested, open-source principles that govern the living systems that underlie the human enterprise and all we hold dear.

After more than 20 years advising corporations and governments, I’ve found myself hungry to shift from an external advisory role to bringing all my experience to bear in one place—as a responsible executive with his ass on the line. This is a great opportunity to do that—in a remarkable community with a passionate citizenry, a tradition of innovation, a geyser of entrepreneurship and, I’m told, a pretty decent university.

Their question to me:

How can we make Palo Alto the greenest city in the country?

My question to them:

What can one small, innovative city contribute to the sustainability revolution?

It’s a thrilling opportunity—one that opens many new possibilities on innovation and influence, and that hearkens me back to my earliest labors in the sustainability vineyards, back at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the early 1970s. But that’s a story for another time.

Natural Logic will continue operating under the leadership of my remarkable colleagues, notably Natural Logic principal (and long time friend and colleague) Michael Kleeman, senior associate Shripal Shah and others. My own role in client engagements will be much more limited and leveraged, after fulfilling current commitments. I’ll of course continue to speak, blog, tweet, podcast, etc., actively, as well as support a very small portfolio of individual coaching and thought partner clients.

There’ll be more details to come over the coming weeks—and hopefully a chance to speak directly, if that makes sense! Meanwhile, you’ll be able to follow my exploits on my  CSO twitter site and a blogging venue TBA, as well as my usual social media coordinates.

My new contact information for City of Palo Alto business and “sustainable city” matters: gil dot friend; the domain is cityofpaloalto dot org; 1-650.329.2447. For all other matters, please continue to use my Natural Logic coordinates.

My friend Jonathan Koomey‘s invited perspective article, “Moving beyond benefit-cost analysis of climate change”, was just posted by the open access on-line journal Environmental Research Letters.  Here’s the abstract and the introduction.

Abstract

The conventional benefit–cost approach to understanding the climate problem has serious limitations. Fortunately, an alternative way of thinking about the problem has arisen in recent decades, based on analyzing the cost effectiveness of achieving a normatively defined warming target. This approach yields important insights, showing that delaying action is costly, required emissions reductions are rapid, and most proved reserves of fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground if we’re to stabilize the climate. I call this method ‘working forward toward a goal’, and it is one that will see wide application in the years ahead.

Michael Totten‘s comment:

Outstanding article, Jonathan Koomey. I particularly liked this passage, “Delaying action eats up the emissions budget, locks in emissions-intensive infrastructure, and makes the required reductions much more costly and difficult later. The IEA, using the ‘working forward toward a goal’ approach, estimated the costs of delay at about $0.5 trillion US for every year we put off serious climate action [13].

Conversely, early action through technology deployment brings the costs of technologies down through learning-by-doing, which is one manifestation of increasing returns to scale [19]. Because of these and other factors, our choices now affect our options later, which is known in the technical literature as path dependence [19, 20]. Luderer et al highlight the importance of such effects to the economic outcome on climate mitigation, but most conventional models of the economy ignore them [19, 21], with the likely effect of overestimating the costs of reducing emissions.”

My comment:

It’s so clear. Who wants to waste half trillion a year?

Which means the only obstacles are (1) those that profit from the delay, and (2) those that are disinformed by those that profit from the delay.

[I fully intended my recent posting, 5 things I’ve learned in 8 weeks of sustainability conferences, to be provocative. (No surprise there. You may have noticed that I’m inclined to challenge familiar thinking and push the boundaries of what’s possible, profitable and purposeful.) But some readers were more incredulous than provoked, and challenged or at least questioned some of the claims and data I reported. I’ll provide clarifications—and some corrections—next week—once we recover or rewrite the draft that vanished last week. Until then, here’s my sustainability briefing for this week. (You can also listen to me read it to you—and while you’re at it you can subscribe to my new Sustainability Briefing podcast.]

There are two big conferences I’ve been tracking this week. They’re worlds apart, and not just geographically.

The first: the UN Climate Talks in Warsaw, where the global community, as we call it, continues to struggle to find a deal to prevent the gathering storm of climate change. It’s not looking good.

“The talks,” as Reuters reports, “have stuttered over several issues, particularly whether rich nations should pay developing countries for losses suffered due to the effects of climate change, and the lack of ambitious pledges to cut emissions.” In fact 800 people from Greenpeace and WWF & other groups walked out of the talks—the first mass this has happened—to protest lack of progress towards a global deal.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, some ten thousand people have gathered for Greenbuild, focusing on the $100b green building industry—an industry reportedly doubling in size every three years. Hillary Clinton keynoted last night (and Bon Jovi performed!), but what particularly stands out for me is the growing movement toward “net zero”—not just less damage, but no damage.

Integral Group, a Bay Area design and engineering firm, has, for example, designed 41 net zero energy buildings at last count—buildings that use no more energy than they generate. But what’s notable is this: they didn’t cost a dime more to build, and in some cases less that “normal” or even energy efficient buildings! What’s the ROI of lower operating costs gained through less capital investment? It’s a deal so good that you can’t do the math. In fact it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

It’s not a niche phenomenon—net zero will be required the goal for all new homes in California in 2020 (and for all new commercial (and 50% of existing commercial) structures by 2030).

And it’s not just buildings. Companies as diverse as BT, Dell and Thrive Natural Care are talking about delivering “net good.” Dell has set its target at 10x—delivering ten times more energy savings and climate benefit from their products as it takes to produce and operate them—and while it’s not completely clear how that will be calculated, it’s a commitment worth watching.

At one level, the difference between the climate talks in Warsaw and Greenbuild in Philadelphia is the difference between seeing a vast problem or seeing a vast opportunity. It’s both of course—I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of the climate tumult ahead. But in my view a primary focus on the opportunity—what Jigar Shah calls building creating climate wealth—a trillion dollars worth of it—is what will let loose the creativity to build a new economy—one that nurtures nature, that makes investors very, very happy, and that uplifts humanity—all seven-going-on-ten billion of us.

For most of the past eight weeks, I’ve been on the road at sustainability conferences*: New Metrics, Sustainability Applied, a private company briefing, Cities Alive, Net Impact, the SRI Conference, CleanTech Future. Keynoting some, moderating some, occasionally a civilian. (I missed SXSWeco, alas, and Bioneers and the San Francisco Green Festival for the first time in maybe forever.) I’m tired but enriched—fired up, actually—and want to share a few impressions with you.

We’re headed for a world of hurt
We don’t know whether we face step function changes in climate – such as suddenly losing the Greenland ice shelf – and we may not know until – and if – it happens. But we do seem to be witnessing a serious acceleration of extreme climate events.  A single billion-dollar storm event per year in the 1980s, five per year in the 1990s and oughts, and more than eight per year so far this decade—and now the Philippines super storm with landfall winds 50% more intense than Katrina’s. The deniers and their bought-and-paid-for cronies and legislators can dissemble all they want; insurers are taking this seriously—as are coastal cities around the world, who see the massive call on infrastructure investment coming.

We’ve turned the corner
And yet, the shift toward a renewable—or perhaps even regenerative—economy is accelerating faster than many of us expected.  Solar is at grid parity right about now, and investment in renewables exceeded investment in fossil and nuclear energy combined last year.  Companies are not only realizing substantial cost savings from eco-efficiency – $450 million over 10 years for Interface Flor, $395 million in two years for Unilever— but also substantial top line revenue gains from sustainability focused product innovation – half a billion or so for Levis,  $130 billion for General Electric. (See Creating A Regenerative Economy, the recent piece in Fast Company by John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins.)

Defective thinking + massive economic distortions hold us back
Yet people—and companies—who should know better continue to assume, based on habit more than data, that greener will cost them more money, or make them less money; that you have to choose between making money and making sense. You don’t. (See above.) The opportunity would be even more dramatic were it not masked by the massive economic distortions of  both direct subsidies  transfer payments and tax loopholes, and the indirect subsidies of un-monetized externalities. When the subsidies to the coal industry exceed the market cap of industry, that’s not a business; that’s a dead man walking. When the subsidies to the oil industry are three times greater than the profits of the oil industry, that’s not a business; that’s transfer payments from taxpayers to shareholders, and one day taxpayers might just say “enough!” When half of Walmart’s employees require public assistance to compensate for insufficient wages, that’s not a business; it’s a scandal. (Here’s a new metric for you: what’s the ratio of your company’s profit to the direct and indirect subsidies it receives?)

Disruptive innovation is good news or bad, depending on where you sit, but it’s comin’ ta getcha!
We are in an era of entire industries being turned on their heads – the time when business model innovation may be even more significant than technical innovation. Think AirBnB, which put as many beds under management in seven years as the leading hotel chains did in 70.  Think ZipCar, which claims a 10x improvement in capital efficiency – and a profound challenge to the automobile industry. Think 3-D printing. The list goes on. Here’s the deal: you have two choices: blow up your own business model and work like hell to make sure that you’re the one to replace it with something better and more profitable; or dig in your heels and hope to hell that somebody else doesn’t blow your business model out from under you (though they probably will).  There is no third choice. (And, by the way, money isn’t what motivates your people.)

Software, finance & cities are key—but there’s still plenty to do in the world of stuff
Software will eat the world, Marc Andreesen promised us, and we see its transformative impact in Sungevity‘s “virtual solar design,” Verizon’s smartgrid enabled thermal storage, WeatherBug‘s big data for home-specific thermodynamic profiling and Climate Corporation‘s hyper-granular crop insurance. FinTech may have the world for dessert, as “socially responsible investment” grows up from the negative screens that got it started; performance parity with less diversification has most asset managers’ attention, but the real game is outperformance. Massive outperformance. GE’s venture into the industrial Internet, for example—where big data meets meets big things that spin—promises to deliver more to the bottom line from a 1% improvement in jet engine efficiency than the total current profit of the airline industry.

There’s more to talk about—engagement, infrastructure, China, more—but that’s enough for today. I’ll have more to add in coming weeks. Meanwhile, my questions for you—whether as a company executive, a government official, an investor or a citizen:

  • How will you protect yourself from these trends?
  • How will you benefit from them?
  • How will you drive them?
  • How will you even discuss them?

My suggestion: Talk with me. That’s what we’re here for.

(*You can find my tweetbooks for several of these conferences here.)