UEP Colloquium Panel Discussion

Beyond Public Policy-Private Sector Responses to Climate Change

UEP students, faculty and community members convened Wednesday to hear from a panel of local representatives from private sector consulting firms working with companies striving toward sustainability. The guests briefly summarized their work and then took several questions from the audience.

Eleanor Ford is a policy consultant for Ceres, a non-profit that mobilizes private sector companies toward a sustainable global economy. Ford works to engage companies on sustainable investments and educate them on the risks resulting from climate change. Through the BICEP coalition within Ceres, companies and policy-makers work together to produce legislation that will stimulate a transition to a sustainable energy economy.

Christina Becker-Birck works in the Boston office of the Meister Consultants Group (headquartered in Germany), specializing in renewable energy policy and climate adaptation. Becker-Birck’s efforts have been directed largely toward governments, such as Boston, Saudi Arabia, and several island nations. She has aimed to lower barriers to investment in renewable energy sources, especially in developing countries where the business case for investment is not as clear.

Dan Von Allmen is a senior analyst at Sustainable Energy Advantage, which helps private, public, and non-profit organizations to access clean, sustainable energy. Their focus is largely on state level renewable energy markets.

When asked where someone can have the most impact in expanding the renewable energy market, all panelists agreed that there was a need for more representation across the board. All levels of companies and governments need to have a focus on sustainability, not just a sustainability office within a large organization. Ford gave the example of the U.S. military, which sees the climate as a security risk. Not coincidentally, the Department of Defense is one of the largest solar energy purchasers. Von Allmen emphasized the need to focus on implementation of clean energy policy.

Addressing the role of the private sector in shaping policy, Becker-Birck spoke to one of the main limitations of private sector approaches: If the goal is social justice related, the private sector will not participate at the same level. Ford agreed, adding that a policy will fail if businesses are not behind it. They suggested amplifying the voices of alternative energy providers and those working at the intersection of energy and social justice in order to drown out the powerful and moneyed voice of the fossil fuel industry.

Seeking advice on differentiating companies truly seeking sustainability from those merely conducting a greenwashing campaign, Becker Birck recommends investigating how far removed their sustainability officer is from the CEO. It would seem that any company trying to achieve real change knows that sustainability should be a top priority, one on which the CEO should be kept up to speed.

The panelists discussed natural gas markets in general, as well as in Massachusetts specifically, and how it has affected investment in renewable energy. Von Allmen stated that the northeast has a relatively successful wind market, but expansion of natural gas pipelines could diminish those benefits by lowering gas natural prices. Ford went on to explore the issue of oil and gas reserves. Fossil fuel companies use these vast reserves to inflate their stock prices (carbon bubble). Maintaining atmospheric carbon at agreed upon levels would forbid companies from fully tapping their reserves. Chevron, as one example, isn’t worried about this stopping their extraction, since developing countries will soon begin demanding full use of their fossil fuel reserves.

From a sector that can be viewed as the bad guy in so many environmental discussions, it is refreshing to hear from people and companies working toward sustainability. It is also important to keep in mind that the private sector is not likely to go far enough, and their idea of sustainability may not be the same as that of the surrounding community, whose voices are even less likely to be heard.

Be sure to attend next week’s UEP Colloquium: James Jennings – “Black and Latino Young Males in Boston” at 12pm in Sophia Gordon Hall. Lunch, as always, will be provided.