Reframing the 'Economics vs. Environment' Debate

Reframing the 'Economics vs. Environment' Debate

As the Bush Administration starts its second term and a new Congress takes up its duties, is it too much to hope for a fresh debate about environmental protection? Many people think so.
After all, Republicans, who are pro-business, won the election, while Democrats, pro-environment, lost; so our poor old battered planet is screwed, right? Not so fast. While "business versus environment" imagery drove the first Earth Day in 1970, subsequent waves of economic and technological change have invalidated those images in some key respects.

Green commerce -- by definition, both pro-business and pro-environment -- now constitutes a growing chunk of the U.S. economy, a fact neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to have grasped. That may change soon: Green commerce is now big enough to demand attention and the respect of leaders in both parties.

Green industries nurtured by the environmental movement -- recycling, green building, renewable energy, eco-tourism, organic agriculture, and so on -- are growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy, creating new markets worth billions of dollars and millions of new jobs.

Look just at recycling: this green industry represents 1.1 million jobs, $37 billion in annual payrolls, and $236 billion in gross annual sales. That's comparable in size to auto and truck manufacturing!

Almost as big is the $227 billion market for goods and services that appeal to "green lifestyle" consumers who value health, personal development, and sustainable living. These individuals represent approximately 30% of all adults; that's 63 million consumers!

Green technological innovations, moreover, are flooding the market. Our efficiency in the use of oil, for example, has doubled since the first Earth Day, and with the latest innovations, it can double again. According to an analysis by Princeton University scientists recently published in Science magazine, aggressive deployment of existing technological innovations in such fields as wind and solar could stop the escalation of global warming for 50 years.

Green technology companies -- most of them small businesses -- also generate substantial economic benefits, including job growth. A good example is IdleAire Technologies, Inc., a Knoxville, Tennessee company that is eliminating the problems caused when long-haul truck drivers stop to rest and leave their engines idling in order to heat or cool their cabins.

Instead, drivers plug into IdleAire's individual heating and cooling consoles located above parking spaces at truck stops. This allows them to turn off their engines and adjust temperatures as needed. IdleAire's technology saves as much as 40% over the cost of fuel that would otherwise have been consumed.

When fully deployed across the country, IdleAire will save 3.7 billion gallons of diesel fuel each year (an amount equal to 2.4% of America's imported crude oil and 18% of its crude Strategic Petroleum Reserves). The technology will also eliminate 51 million tons of air pollution each year and create 14,000 new jobs, many in the nation's manufacturing sector, while contributing $6.6 billion to the nation's Gross Domestic Product.

Big businesses are greening, too. Dozens of big businesses are engaged in varied endeavors to combat global warming, persuaded that their own economic prospects are at stake. Recent proponents include the Conference Board, which represents 70 big businesses, and the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of leading US corporations with a combined workforce of more than 10 million people.

Big businesses have learned that they can thrive by greening. DuPont, for example, has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% since 1990 -- a period when production grew by almost 30%.

Across the board, green commerce is being fueled by Socially Responsible Investments (SRI), the fastest growing sector of the financial services industry. In the United States alone, SRI represents a total of $2.16 trillion in assets, one in every eight dollars invested in U.S. markets.

The bottom line: green commerce has secured a firm foothold in the U.S. economy.

Besides being pro-business and pro-environment, green commerce is decidedly bipartisan. Green small business owners and technology innovators are as likely to be Republicans as Democrats. And certainly few if any of the big business executives steering their companies toward sustainability are left-wing liberals.

So alongside all its abundant economic and technological benefits, green commerce also creates the possibility of a new dialogue about the future direction of environmental protection. That's long overdue.

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Byron Kennard, founder and executive director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment, was an organizer of Earth Day in 1970.