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October 09, 2009

Where Are We Going With Business and Sustainability?

Nate McMurry '10
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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with a sample of polar ice during his visit to the Polar ice rim on September 1, 2009 to witness firsthand the impact of climate change on icebergs and glaciers.

Today, the 2009 Social Enterprise Conference: From Vision to Practice is taking place at Columbia Business School. This year’s event features Craig Barrett, former chairman of Intel, as the keynote speaker, and the panel topics touch many areas of business and sustainability. One panel will touch on how the private sector can provide solutions for clean water scarcity; another will showcase successful social entrepreneurs. Many of the themes that are being discussed today came up as part of a debate we took part in last week at the Carnegie Council.

Last Wednesday, a team of second-year students made up of Irene Pipola ’10, Kayvan Parvin ’10, and myself participated in “The Future of Business and Sustainability” debate, hosted by the Carnegie New Leaders. The group debated with teams from the NYU Stern and Baruch business schools and explored various ways of using the private sector to achieve environmentally sustainable outcomes.

The debate took place on a cruise around Manhattan on a “green” boat powered by biodiesel fuel. The evening began with clips of the new film Shattered Sky, by Stephen Dorst, which explored the parallels between the current debate on climate change to the one that led up to the Montreal Protocol in 1987 that resulted in the regulation of industrial gases that were causing holes in the ozone layer. The Protocol has been very effective and levels of harmful gases in the atmosphere rapidly have stabilized in the years since it was passed with no economic impact on consumers.

Dorst was present, and we discussed the similarities between the two cases; in both, corporate lobbyists held up the legislation for years and winning public support was crucial to providing the political will for change. Most importantly, the leadership of the United States is key in both cases; it took 14 years after the discovery of the ozone-depleting properties of certain industrial gases to get global agreement — and U.S. leadership was crucial to bringing the world together to solve the problem. Similarly, the debate on how to regulate greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change has been going on for decades — and the lack of U.S. leadership has been fundamental to the inability of the world’s nations to reach an effective plan of action.

Once the debate started, our group put forth several innovative ideas on New York, business and sustainability. Kayvan identified innovative business models that could address the split incentives problem that causes many profitable opportunities in energy efficiency to go unrealized. Irene discussed how congestion charges and incentives for some businesses to operate at flexible hours could be cost effective tools to reduce the strain on New York’s public transit infrastructure. I insisted that solving the fundamental problem of the externalities associated with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change could not be addressed without putting a cap, and therefore a price, on those emissions.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten