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Is Corporate America Our Best Hope Against Climate Change?

By Bryan Walsh
Time
One of the unexpected twists of the global climate change debate is that the roles of government and business have in many ways been reversed. To traditional greens, business was the enemy, polluting with impunity, and government was the hero, ready to restrain. That was the mindset of environmentalism's first great boom, when landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act gave Washington the power and the tools to begin cleaning up the country.

One of the unexpected twists of the global climate change debate is that the roles of government and business have in many ways been reversed. To traditional greens, business was the enemy, polluting with impunity, and government was the hero, ready to restrain. That was the mindset of environmentalism's first great boom, when landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act gave Washington the power and the tools to begin cleaning up the country.

But when it comes to climate change, times have changed. Although industry is still the engine of all those carbon emissions — more than a few CEOs doubt that global warming even exists — it is also the source of clean-energy solutions, which are emerging from every layer of the business world, from tiny startups to Fortune 500 behemoths. Major corporations set their own plans for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that far greener than targets that nations throw about at U.N. climate change summits. (See TIME's complete coverage of the World Energy Technologies Summit.)

Meanwhile Washington is paralyzed, seemingly incapable of coming to grips with global warming or the looming energy crisis. What we need is smart policy to deal with the biggest long-term challenge facing the country. What we get is vacuum.

That was the overriding theme at the 2010 World Energy Technologies Summit (WETN) held in New York City on Mar. 12. Speaker after speaker came to the podium to map out the technologies that could lead to a clean energy future: solar farms in the desert, wind turbines on a capital scale, the resurgence of nuclear power, even the recycling of energy we use today. But those solutions will sputter without the right government policy in place — especially without a firm price on carbon, according to most of the experts at the summit — and Washington can no longer be trusted. "It's going to be a three-ring circus," said Peter Goldmark, the program director for climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund, talking about the Washington debate over climate and energy legislation. "And no one can tell you what's going to come out of this." (See Heroes of the Environment 2009.)

But does it even matter? After all, some of the smartest companies in the country are forging ahead on clean energy in the absence of legislation. Take Google, for instance. Dan Reicher, the director of climate change and energy initiatives for the Internet giant, described Google's plan to scale up renewable energy that could compete directly with coal — "REC" in the Mountain View company's parlance. Google is spending tens of millions of dollars on renewable energy, both on direct research within the company, and on investments in smart startups.

The company is also applying its Internet smarts on the energy sector, which in many ways has barely changed since the time of Thomas Edison. Google's PowerMeter, a free software tool, will let households customize their energy use, better tracking the electrons they're buying — a direct route to greater energy efficiency. "It's ET meets IT — energy technology meets information technology," said Reicher. (Watch video: "Energy Summit Showcases Breakthroughs and Barriers to Sustainability")

If Google can do for utility bills what it's done for email, it could change the way many of us view energy, dragging a reluctant industry into the 21st century. And the company's got a long-term plan — Clean Energy 2030 — that charts a way to wean the U.S. off coal and drastically cut petroleum use.

But even the mighty Google can't do it alone. Reicher has testified before Congress about the need for strong climate legislation, including a firm carbon price that could help renewable energy compete today. A carbon cap alone isn't enough, however; the U.S. needs to establish requirements for renewable energy, and just as important, vastly increase the public research money spent on energy. That last part is often missed in the energy debate, but Reicher pointed out that despite the urgency of the energy and climate crisis, the U.S. (outside of the one time bump of the stimulus) is now spending less than it did on energy research in the Carter Administration. "We need a wave of innovation, and the current levels of funding just isn't going to bring that," says Reicher, who worked in the Department of Energy during the 1990s. "That can't be forgotten."

While Washington dithers, trapped in health care hell, other countries like China and Germany are forging ahead, seizing the reins of the clean-energy economy. In the meantime, U.S. corporations will continue making tentative steps toward supporting renewable energy, and venture capitalists will keep looking for the next big solution.

There's even a chance that we could see a real change of values at the CEO level. At the Mar. 12 summit, Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a national network of investors and green groups, plotted out a roadmap to true corporate sustainability for the 21st century. Sustainability might be the only way to survive in a time of scarcity — and the next several years or even decades could be lean ones, as more of us are competing for what feels like less and less.

It would be a lot easier if Washington were really participating. "We need a price on carbon," said Lubber in WETS's last panel. "That's it. That's the bottom line." We'll see if Congress will heed the call.

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