[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.


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