Earlier this month, I attended ECO:nomics, a three-day conference, hosted by The Wall Street Journal, that brings together some of the nation’s top business and environmental leaders, policy makers and entrepreneurs to discuss the intersection of business and the environment. This wasn’t a sudden embrace of the green movement by the preeminent business newspaper in the U.S. — it was a very realistic look at both the opportunities and threats that these companies face from environmental issues.
For Sustainable America, the most interesting discussions were about food and fuel. We’re concerned with issues like using less arable land to make fuel, finding more efficient ways to feed a growing population, and supporting innovation in vehicle technology that helps us use less oil. Here’s a peek at what some top business leaders are thinking about these issues:
1. Switching From Switchgrass: Gregory Page, Executive Chairman of Cargill, noted that climate change was something that they worry about quite a bit, but feel that they will be able to meet rising caloric demand worldwide through adaptation. Yet the large question remains whether crops should be devoted to food or fuel. Page noted that they have largely abandoned research on switchgrass-based ethanol after spending a fair amount of money on research. (When pressed, he said it was a figure with eight zeroes after it.) He now feels that the future for ethanol will likely be from tree waste, and not crop waste.
2. More Efficient Protein: In a conversation with Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, he talked about how as wealth increases around the world, demand for protein also increases. Of particular interest, he noted that fish are very capable of converting grains into protein, at a ratio of just over 1:1. Chicken is the next best animal, while pigs and cows are very inefficient at turning grain into protein. While it was obviously self-serving, he pointed out the logic of placing an emphasis nationally and internationally on eating these more efficient proteins.
3. A Future for Fuel Cells: On the transportation side, the most fascinating conversation was with James Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, and with follow-up conversations I had with Nihar Patel, the company’s vice president of business strategy. Toyota is a shareholder in Tesla, which they have been happy to own given Tesla’s recent meteoric rise, but they do not feel there is a future in the all-electric vehicle. They are pushing hard on hydrogen fuel cells, and while many have said that fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) will always be “just 10 more years away” from the marketplace, Toyota is making a bet that the future is much closer. They will be introducing a snazzy looking 2015 FCV as a California-only model. To sell 10,000 of these, they say they need a hydrogen fueling station within six minutes of the home of every FCV owner. If they focus on San Francisco and Los Angeles, they only need 68 stations to make this a reality.
Another bit of encouraging news from Toyota is that its leaders view the company as a “transportation company” rather than a car company since car sharing is becoming more important in big cities and younger drivers aren’t as interested in owning cars outright.
Overall, ECO:nomics was a fascinating look behind the curtain from some of the leaders in industry that have the knowledge of geopolitical and macro-economic risks, and also wield the power to help make effective change. It was encouraging to see that the things that Sustainable America cares about are all issues of concern in Fortune 500 board rooms, and with our help, will also be issues that we can all have an impact on in our own kitchens and driveways.
For more news from ECO:nomics, check out The Wall Street Journal’s special report.
Executive Director, Sustainable America