Business Report

Solving the Climate Crisis At a Profit

A Q&A with Hunter Lovins.

A decade ago, environmentalist Hunter Lovins published Natural Capitalism, coauthored with her ex-husband, Amory Lovins. The book influenced some business leaders to embrace what was a counterintuitive notion: that going green could be a way to save or make lots of money. Since then, she has gone on to establish Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado-based firm that helps businesses and governments become more energy-efficient and better prepared for the global threats of climate change. She recently wrote Climate Capitalism, a book due out this spring that presents the climate crisis as a giant business opportunity.

Green opportunist: Hunter Lovins, author of Climate Capitalism.

TR: If you look back at the thesis of Natural Capitalism, what has changed and what has been surprising since then?

HL: Ten years ago, we were observing what the few best companies were doing to implement sustainability profitably. And we derived a set of four principles of natural capitalism, the first of which is to use energy resources dramatically more productively. In the intervening years, this is what most businesses that manage themselves as green or sustainable or responsible have been doing, and with massive savings. One surprise is how many savings still remain.

What are some examples of those kinds of savings?

My team walked into a company last year that had 6,300 computers and monitors that they left on 24/7 because of some urban myths: that it shortens the life of the computer to turn it off and turn it on. Well, no, that’s not true. Or IT needs them left on [to do maintenance]. No, that’s not true either. One night a week would do fine. In that company, just publishing a policy to turn the darned thing off when you’re not sitting in front of it could save them $700,000 in the first year. This is free money.

What company is that?

I can’t tell you, but it is endemic throughout society. In the United States alone, we waste something like $2.8 billion each year leaving computers on that have nobody in front of them. So a surprise is that even though we and a lot of other people have been saying this for 10 years, the opportunities still exist, and if anything, they are getting better.

So principle number one remains valid.

Yes, although a change in Climate Capitalism is that we’ve redefined the first principle to be: Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively.

What do you mean by “buy time”?

What the world is shortest in is the time to deal with the challenges facing us. Things like the climate crisis. Some scientists are saying it’s too late.

Do you believe it’s too late?

The short answer is we don’t know. Maybe I’m just being an optimist, but in looking around, I believe that if the world’s businesses did what is manifestly in their own economic interest, implemented all the available, cost-effective efficiency improvements, we could solve the climate crisis—and at a profit.

That is the thesis of Climate Capitalism. Suppose the climate crisis is a hoax. Frankly, don’t go to Vegas on the odds of this being true. But if all you are is a profit-maximizing capitalist, you would do exactly the same thing as you would do if you were scared to death about climate change.

What is another principle you are espousing?

Ten years ago, the second principle was about biomimicry—design everything in the way in which nature does. I’ve redefined that principle to be: Redesign the way we make and deliver everything, using several approaches, like biomimicry or cradle-to-cradle [which involves designing products so that their waste can be recycled into material for another product].

Can you give me an example of a really good cradle-to-cradle redesign process?

How do we make cement right now? We dig up limestone, we calcine it at enormous use of energy, and as a result making cement is one of the most carbon-intensive activities in the economy. There’s a company in California called Calera. They have a much smarter approach, which is: How does nature make a cementlike product? Who in nature makes something like cement? Well, coral reefs do. Marine shelled creatures do, making hard casings in seawater. So let’s mimic that. To nature, carbon is the building block of life. Nature has ways of using the carbon to make the sorts of things it needs.

But how do you get to the point of cutting millions or billions of tons of carbon emissions?

We need entrepreneurs who will say, what are the productive uses of this [carbon] resource so that we can soak it up and put the system back in balance? So there’s Geoff Coates up at Cornell, who is using carbon dioxide to make plastic. Or all of the people who are making biochar, taking woody material that has already trapped carbon but that in many cases would rot [and emit the carbon]. By converting it to biochar in simple stoves that people in Africa can cheaply obtain, you use part of it as fuel and part of it goes into the soil, enhancing the fertility while trapping the carbon.

Do you think electric vehicles are a primary solution to the climate crisis?

I personally do, and that is a big difference between Amory and me. Amory is a huge fan of what he calls the hypercar [lightweight vehicles that run on hydrogen]. I don’t think the hypercar makes a lot of sense. I don’t think we’re going to have a hydrogen economy. I think it’s going to go to the electric vehicles and to some extent the flex-fuel hybrid.

What are the ramifications of not having a carbon tax or a carbon price in the United States anytime soon?

That’s the point of the book. That we can solve the carbon crisis at a profit regardless. The entities that are taking charge of solving the climate crisis are businesses large and small, and for very good economic reasons. However, we are swimming upstream against subsidies to the incumbent fossil industries. The International Energy Agency reckons that $550 billion per year is going to the fossil industries around the world, something like 10 times the subsidies that go to renewables and efficiency. That’s lunacy.

But I think when Walmart announces it is going to be 100 percent renewably powered, and it starts driving that down through the supply chain, that’s doing a great deal more for climate protection than anything the feds are doing.

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Corporate Energy Strategy

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