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Businesses told energy policy must be changed

By Hiroko Sato
The Lowell Sun
For every one degree Celsius that the air temperature increases, the atmosphere absorbs 7 percent more moisture from the ground. And that results in extreme weather patterns that threaten the livelihood -- and, ultimately, the existence -- of human beings, said Rifkin, president of The Foundation of Economic Trends in Bethesda, Md., who teaches business at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. But that's not the only reason businesses should start relying on alternative energy sources. Humans have already used up half of the crude oil, which was relatively easy to reach and produce, available on the planet, Rifkin said. "We cannot afford the price of the other half," Rifkin told about 600 business leaders and policymakers gathered yesterday in Boston for the CERES Conference on sustainable economy.

Jeremy Rifkin calls global climate change a "species crisis."

For every one degree Celsius that the air temperature increases, the atmosphere absorbs 7 percent more moisture from the ground. And that results in extreme weather patterns that threaten the livelihood -- and, ultimately, the existence -- of human beings, said Rifkin, president of The Foundation of Economic Trends in Bethesda, Md., who teaches business at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

But that's not the only reason businesses should start relying on alternative energy sources. Humans have already used up half of the crude oil, which was relatively easy to reach and produce, available on the planet, Rifkin said.

"We cannot afford the price of the other half," Rifkin told about 600 business leaders and policymakers gathered yesterday in Boston for the CERES Conference on sustainable economy.

The rising cost of energy caused the economy to tank in 2008, and history will only repeat itself without massive global efforts to reduce reliance on petroleum, he said. Rifkin said he doesn't believe the use of renewable energy will spare the world from another economic crisis if people continue to centralize electricity production.

The key is "distributed energy," meaning creating energy wherever sunlight, wind, earth, heat and tidal waves are, right on the spot, he said.

Rifkin said that if grid systems are designed to move excess power to where it's needed by detecting and sharing information through the Internet, the world would have enough energy to survive. The economy would also become more decentralized as energy production becomes decentralized, he added.

While the United States may lag behind its European counterparts in its efforts to shift into a new economic model, "no one moves more quickly (than Americans) once they get it," Rifkin said.

The CERES Conference brought together hundreds of institutional investors and corporate leaders, including those who work for Fortune 500 companies, in Boston this week as they tried to learn ways to hedge against climate change-related business risks.

CERES is a Boston-based nonprofit think tank that promotes sustainable business practice. From how to evaluate such risks as water shortage, which can affect food and apparel manufacturing industries, to how to share the information with shareholders, business leaders exchanged their methods and ideas for dealing with potential natural disasters as well as federal and local policies on natural resources.

Many of those attending the conference said institutional and individual investors are increasingly becoming conscious of business risks stemming from extreme weather events and limited natural resources. And companies are assessing the risks to stay competitive in the long run.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, a keynote speaker at the conference, noted that corporate America's interest in sustainability issues helps to advance the agency's agenda.

"There is nothing as powerful as having businesses out saying, 'Hear me, this is what's happening,'" Jackson said.

Rifkin, who gave his keynote speech before Jackson yesterday, said Germany is embracing the idea of distributed electricity and has already converted 1 million buildings into "micro-power plants" by installing solar panels, windmills and other devices appropriate for the individual locations.

As the world shifts into the "new energy regime," ordinary citizens become micro-power producers and the grid system acts as an "electricity Internet," allowing people to exchange information about where energy is and where it needs to be sent.

Some European countries have approached their goal for "green" electric power sources through government incentives for solar panels and other devices. They would have accomplished even more if they had thought about how to store excess energy produced by solar and wind-power generators, he said.

Rifkin said he understands why many Americans wonder where green jobs are after the federal government invested a large amount of stimulus money into the green economy.

"President Obama's got it wrong," Rifkin said, adding that stimulus funding was distributed among unconnected programs, minimizing the overall effect of the investment.

But America can still do enough to avert the "species crisis," and the time for action is now, he said.

"Now is the moment to leverage everything you have," Rifkin told the business leaders.

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