How WRI is giving companies the jump on green investment

"I'm an economist," said Andrew Steer. I'm not an environmentalist by training."

This is a good thing because, unlike some U.S. environmental leaders, Steer, who is the new president and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI), is willing to deliver some straight talk about economic growth, environmental protection and the costs of clean energy. He’s also committed to WRI’s global, fact-based, business-friendly approach to addressing big environmental problems.

Over lunch the other day, Steer met with a group of reporters for the first time since joining WRI last month. A 60-year-old Brit, he is only the third president of the Washington-based nonprofit, following James "Gus" Speth, a lawyer and academic, and Jonathan Lash a lawyer and former regulator who is now president of Hampshire College. By contrast, Steer spent most of his career at the World Bank, working in international development and as the bank's climate change envoy.

While living in Vietnam, Steer saw first-hand how the past two decades have brought material progress along with environmental degradation. Not one of the bank's 100 Vietnamese employees owned a car when he arrived in Hanoi in 1997, he told us. Today, nearly all do. They are better off, but the city is more polluted and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

"Per capita income in developing countries is twice what it was. More people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 20 years than in the prior 100 years," he said. "But the price that we've paid, in terms of environmental debt, if you will, has been much too high. We have incurred a massive environmental debt."

But while economic growth can drive increases in pollution in the short run, history suggests that as poor countries become richer, they grow more willing and able to pay for cleaner water and air. China, of course, has invested heavily in solar and wind power, hoping to build export markets. According to Steer, Morocco is investing in solar thermal power, hoping to export electricity to Europe; India and South Africa are seeking alternatives to coal; the Indonesian government raised gasoline taxes and rebated the proceeds to the poor; and even Ethiopia devised a "green plan" with help from consulting firm McKinsey.

Next page: Why switching to clean energy isn't a no-brainer

Image of Collage with a money tree and young business man by Sergej Khakimullin via Shutterstock.