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Brainstorm: Green, the aftermath

Brainstorm: Green, Fortune’s first conference on business and the environment, turned out well, judging from the feedback I’ve had since the gathering last week in Pasadena. I was pleased by the caliber of the speakers, by the constant buzz of the crowd (a good thing, despite the difficulty of getting people to quiet down!) and by the quality of the experience (food, setting, entertainment–the people in Fortune’s conference division really are first-class). Special thanks, one last time, go to our programming partners—Conservation International, Environmental Defense, NRDC and World Resources Institute. It’s looking as if there will be a Brainstorm: Green in 2009.

Here are some things that got me thinking during the event:

Climate-change legislation. A discussion about the prospects for climate change legislation left me mildly pessimistic about the prospects of getting a strong bill enacted anytime soon. Panelists were Andy Karsner of the federal energy dept., David Crane of NRG Energy, Jerry Brown who is California’s attorney general, Google’s Dan Reicher and John Bryson of Edison International. Most thought it would take at least a year, and maybe two, to get a bill onto the president’s desk. And they all agreed that it will be extremely challenging for Congress to get the legislation “right”—that is, to enact a law that will be strong enough to slow down and then reverse U.S. GHG emissions without driving up energy costs up so high that they provoke a political backlash. It’s a real conundrum.

They also agreed, as I recall, that even a good climate change bill won’t by itself be enough to drive the deep changes we need in the energy economy. It’s incumbent on Washington to enact stronger efficiency standards, for example. Rising energy costs alone won’t drive waste out of the economy. (Gas at close to $4 a gallon has not cut down driving much, if at all.) Karsner, the only Republican in the group, favors increased federal dollars for investment in renewables. That’s not entirely surprising, since he now oversees those investments, but on the other hand there are Bush administration appointees who see their job as shrinking the government’s role in the economy. Karsner, thank goodness, is committed to promoting renewable energy, and a good guy, to boot. (Very cool fact about him–he took his honeymoon in Antarctica.)

Electric cars: Here there’s real reason for optimism. Think Global, which makes an electric car in Norway, announced at Brainstorm Green that they are launching in North America. Their backers include venture funds Kleiner Perkins and Rockport Capital. I took a spin in a Think electric car, which will retail for about $25,000 and was really impressed—a fun ride. Even more exciting was my ride in a two-seater, three-wheeler brought to the event by a company called Venture Vehicles; the car isn’t quite ready for prime time but could be appealing to city dwellers or suburbanites looking for second car for short trips. Shai Agassi of Project Better Place opened the conference, and talked about the progress he is making in getting his electric cars rolled out in Israel and Denmark. And Beth Lowery of General Motors said she has high hopes for the Chevy Volt, due out in 2010. Dan Reicher of Google told me they, too, are exploring ways to link electric cars to a smart grid powered by renewable energy. Utility execs like Peter Darbee of PG&E and John Bryson of Edison see this as an enormous opportunity. My takeway–there is lots of momentum here.

Sustainable agriculture: How can we produce more food with fewer environmental inputs on no more land? That’s an enormous challenge as the global population keeps growing and hundreds of millions of people emerge from poverty and subsistence diets. You only have to read the headlines to see that this will be a huge issue. (The Washington Post is running an extensive series this week on the global food crisis.) I moderated a panel with Jason Clay of WWF, Tom West of Pioneer (DuPont’s seed company), Bob Langert of McDonald’s and Howard Yana-Shapiro of Mars Inc. to talk about this, and we were only able to scratch the surface of the problem. One thing immediately became clear—as laudable as they may be, locavores, organic farms, community-supported agriculture and backyard gardens (sorry, Michael Pollan) will not solve this problem. Large-scale solutions will be needed. But our discussion planted the seeds (couldn’t resist) for future columns and stories, so watch this space in the months ahead.

Rabble rousing: Putting activists from Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network in the same room as CEOs set off some sparks, as you might expect. A panel on “clean coal” was among the liveliest at Brainstorm: Green, featuring Mike Brune of RAN, David Crane of NRG, John Lavelle of GE Energy and David Hawkins of NRDC. (I had to miss it because I was leading another discussion. Next year, we’ll showcase this debate.) Brune also challenged bankers during a panel on Wall Street and climate change to stop investing in conventional coal plants; in response, Mark Tercek of Goldman Sachs said it’s not an investment bank’s proper role to set energy policy for China or India. Of course, as a practical matter, even if Goldman were to stop financing coal, other banks would step in. Enviros who want to stop all new conventional coal plants need to build a broader political consensus, just as anti-apartheid activists did when U.S. companies stopped supporting South Africa back in the 1980s—an analogy made by Brune.

Brainstorm Green underscored the fact that big companies and NGOs are increasingly working together towards shared goals. Doug McMillon of Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart said his company has learned an enormous amount from the enviros who regularly trek to Bentonville. Paulo Adario of Greenpeace Brazil and Bob Langert of McDonald’s talked about how they formed an alliance to try to prevent deforestation of the Amazon caused by planting soy.

Where we stand: On a panel called “The Path to Sustainability,” I asked Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Beth Lowery of GM and Linda Fisher of DuPont to rank the U.S. economy, on a scale of 1 to 10, when it comes to sustainability. A “1” means we are destroying the planet and urgently need major changes. A “10” means we meeting our own needs in a way that preserves the ability of future generations to meet theirs. They all gave the economy a ranking of “1” or “2” – so there is a lot of work to be done.< /p>

For better or worse, we crammed a lot into two days. There’s lots and lots of coverage, including video, here at the Fortune website. My friend and colleague David Kirkpatrick wrote a terrific column about one of my favorite speakers, Janine Benyus, who is doing amazing works about biomimicry. The tireless David Roberts of Grist blogged about the event here and here and here and here and here. You can read blogger and PR guy Willie Brent’s comments here, and read this upbeat take from blogger Donna Barnett.

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