Analysis: Globe 2004 Signals Next Industrial Revolution
By Greg Helten
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, April 13, 2004 (ENS) – Some of the most innovative environmental technologies were on display, and more than 2,000 of the brightest corporate executives, government ministers, and thinkers in the world of sustainability were on hand here March 31 through April 2 at Globe 2004 - a biannual conference and trade show on the business of the environment that attracts up to 10,000 visitors at a time.
An increasing number of prominent multinational companies are working to adopt the business strategy of triple-bottom line accounting and “cradle-to-cradle” design and manufacturing, said to be the cornerstones of the next industrial revolution. One cradle-to-cradle product is Shaw Fiber’s “eco-solution Q” carpets that can be recycled in a continuous loop, again and again, with old, worn-out carpet becoming the feedstock for new carpet.
Some governments are making changes in their operations to benefit the environment - Canada and the United Kingdom were stand-outs. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin announced funding for the creation of a controversial “hydrogen highway,” a series of hydrogen fueling stations from Vancouver to Whistler to be built in time for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
And the UK was there to publicize its Kyoto Protocol commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012, and its goal of a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010.
On the trade show floor it was clear that technological leaps in efficiency are occurring, seen in products like the new solar panels with electronics that are 30 percent more efficient, and transparent with surfaces that accept projected images.
Another company, PyroGenesis, has created a new plasma waste incinerator and resource recovery system that takes a third of the space of a conventional type and recovers energy and metals. It even creates new material for products or construction, and all with no ash produced. One is currently installed on a Carnival cruise ship.
In the corporate conference rooms, too, it was clear that the catastrophic events linked to climate change are increasingly making their way into the thoughts and onto the balance sheets of corporations and governments.
Conference participants cited last summer’s record heatwave in Europe that killed an estimated 26,000 people, devastating forest fires worldwide, the widespread flooding in China last July that left millions homeless, the 65 million people being threatened as river levels sink in the lower Mekong River basin, as well as the dangerous dust storms in Asia where the sands are whipped up as far away as Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Pacific basin that are blamed for a combined economic loss equivalent to $8.47 billion.
By contrast with the ongoing debate in the media, there was little dissent about the validity of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol to address climate change, except perhaps for Lorne Taylor, environment minister from Alberta, a Canadian province that depends largely on oil and gas and logging of its boreal forest for income. Canada has ratified the protocol and is working on ways to reduced its greenhouse gas emissions.
But an unsettling theme began to surface in the presentations and forums - the global economy is still hard wired to constantly accelerating growth and increasing amounts of energy and material throughput. Some companies are performing much better, but doubts were expressed that their growth will be enough to shift the global economy towards sustainability.
Some speakers, like George Carpenter, are still asking, “Is there really a business case for sustainability?” Carpenter is director of corporate sustainable development at Proctor & Gamble (P&G) which operates in 160 countries and sells 30 million consumer products a day.
“The barriers are not technology,” Carpenter said, “Our laboratories are filled with technology that would cause huge quality of life differences. The challenge, I think, and why we don’t have more people doing this is because we haven’t got a successful business model yet."
"If you can’t figure out how to make money on a product, and if you can’t make money on it," said Carpenter, "you don’t have a business, and therefore there’s no reason to invest what sometimes can be sizeable upfront investment to get to something that’s not a sure thing.”
One of the products that did make it out of P&G’s labs for testing is a little packet of ingredients that purify and disinfect polluted drinking water at a retail cost of about US$.01 per liter, a boon to reducing waterborne disease in the developing world where diarrhea is a leading cause of death among children.
The first clinical study in Guatemala two years ago showed a 27 percent reduction in diarrhea in the overall population and 42 percent among percent children under two, the most sensitive population, and that these results were replicated in Kenya in the past six months.
Another product aimed at improving the quality of the lives of women who do laundry by hand might give them back an hour per day, maybe more, by reducing the amount of water needed from four buckets to two. And clinical trials of another P&G product in the area of dental hygiene showed that it reduced cavities in about 60 percent of the population they reached.
Many revolutionary products and technologies may be sitting in corporate and government laboratories because they either won’t make money for shareholders in the short-term or they threaten the present global economic infrastructure.
Some promising and scientifically sound technologies are faced with chronic lack of government and industry support, such as the tidal wave energy technology by Blue Energy Canada that has languished for more than 10 years.
And why invest heavily in hydrogen fuel cells, an infrastructure and energy-intensive conversion technology, when we have the MDI Air Car, invented by Guy Négre of France, which runs on pressurized air?
Michael Maser from Blue Energy Canada, the tidal power company, has been to a number of the Globe events through the years, and when asked if the present business model is effective in saving the planet from human damage, replied, “Clearly not. As discussed in one of the forums and answered by Ray Anderson [of Interface Inc.], considered by many as CEO of one of the most sustainable corporations on the planet, although triple-bottom line accounting and authentically sustainable business practices have been adopted by a few businesses and industry associations, the business-shareholder model and conventional business practices, for the most part, remain dedicated to maximizing profits at the expense of environmental and social values.”
Strong said that the commitment of governments is still lacking, and improving this is up to the public.
But corporations are another story.
It was revealed last week that 57 percent of Canada’s commercial forests are now under the control of private companies - an astonishing proportion in a country where the forests have historically been considered a resource held by the Crown for the benefit of all Canadians.
Global corporations have incredible power. By their very size and reach - some of them have budgets larger than entire countries - they wield enormous power and influence that can be either planet-positive or planet-negative, and a growing number are putting money and effort into cleaning up their companies and producing more sustainable products.
But what about the rest? Stand by for Globe 2006.