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Embedded with the Planet Savers

Are we screwed? At Globe 2014, I survey the rapidly evolving world of 'clean capitalism' for answers.

By Geoff Dembicki 31 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

[Editor's note: The Tyee's sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki is on a months-long journalistic quest to answer the big question of his millennial generation: Are We Screwed? Find a complete list of his dispatches as they appear here.]

Now and then an elected official makes a remark notable for its self-awareness. Such a moment occurred during the opening minutes of Globe 2014, when B.C. Premier Christy Clark lamented in a speech that her generation is too often concerned with "how to manage and how to slow down and in some cases how to stop change." But young people, she explained to a packed Vancouver ballroom, "are already in that change... no matter how hard policy-makers seem determined to resist it."

As one of the youngsters to which Clark was ostensibly referring, I'd come to North America's oldest conference on clean capitalism to get a clearer sense of the rapid changes shaping my generation's future. The world I entered, where green investors called carbon the "C-word," Enbridge's former CEO described our transition off fossil fuels, and Suncor handed out gummy bears, at first perplexed me. There was, to quote a conversation I overheard, "an air of unreality" about the whole thing.

Yet while walking Canada Place's warren of hallways one morning in search of coffee, an attendee doing the same spoke of being "lost in a forest." From then on I couldn't shake the idea that Globe, as well as the wider world of sustainable business, was itself a kind of ecosystem. And that if I could grasp the hierarchy of its food chain, the lay-out of its flora, the way nutrients cycled through it and the energy needed to keep it alive, I might learn how this ecosystem is evolving.

If I could do that, then the turbulent changes millennials like myself are coming of age in might seem less perplexing. I'd be better able to understand the future to which they all led. So for much of the three days at Globe I spent listening to panel debates, waiting in line for coffee, eating stale breakfast sandwiches and schmoozing (badly) with green visionaries, I considered myself a type of ecologist, surveying for evidence that the world I'm inheriting isn't as screwed as I sometimes imagine.

Carnivore's dilemma

The first place in this ecosystem I decided to survey was the top of its food chain. There reside the corporations whose appetite for polluting fossil fuels helped create our global economy, and may soon cause our demise. Speaking on this carnivore's dilemma was Hans Engel, chairman and CEO of BASF, the world's largest maker of chemicals produced from such fuels, with $112 billion in sales last year. At Globe, he admitted BASF's enormous consumption of finite fossil resources "can't go on."

Of late, BASF's designed more efficient factories, cut climate impacts by 34 per cent, won green awards and become "more responsible," Engel said. But not everyone thinks gradual change can save BASF and others from extinction. Once we get full carbon pricing, abolish fossil subsidies and allow disrupters like electric cars to thrive, said cleantech investor Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the "antiquated, archaic and inefficient business models" of large corporate polluters "could not survive for a day."

That wasn't the message at Suncor's pavilion. "We care about having a healthy and sustainable ecosystem just like everyone else," said Sue Van Aalst, spokesperson for Canada's largest oil sands producer. Still, did Globe delegates ever wonder what Suncor was doing at a sustainability conference? "All the time," she said, handing me a pamphlet on Suncor's recent green strides, along with a bag of gummy bears containing a subsidiary's food grade oil. "We always give them out," she said.

Munching later on those gummy bears, I tried to imagine a future where society consumes as much clean energy as it now does fossil fuels. Former Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel has apparently done the same. "We expected to see a transition in our industry," he said, explaining the $2 billion Enbridge has invested in wind, solar and other such projects, "from a hydrocarbon base to a more renewable base." Daniel thinks it's at least 50 years off. "We're not even close to sustainability," he said.

Flourishing flora

While Globe's carnivores debated a more omnivorous future, other conference goers engaged with the ecosystem's flora. At a session on regenerative architecture, green design visionary Mona Lemoine asked the crowd to close its eyes and imagine a building "designed to be like a flower." Each "flower" shares water and energy with those next to it, enabling decentralized societies more resilient to extreme weather and scarcity. It's a nascent vision. "We're still at the pilot stage," said one speaker.

But clearly the concept of design inspired by nature is potent. Delegates packed a conference hall to hear Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder Dayna Baumeister describe how "a conscious emulation of nature's genius" may stave off planetary catastrophe. Hers was a narrative of "curiosity, awe and wonder" whose adherents sought guidance in spider webs, sunflowers and ant swarms. "Perhaps," she said, "there's a bit of sustainable design that's been going on for the last 3.8-billion years."

582px version of GlobeCon2014_600px.jpg
Globe delegates ponder life in 2030. Photo: Kristian Secher.

Baumeister's vision didn't just include cool gadgets and buildings, but a new capitalist order modeled after natural ecosystems. In the rise of a circular economy, she and the speakers at another session pictured a future "where nothing is wasted." Instead, raw materials, finished products and waste pass through our lives in a loop emulating the nutrient cycles of nature. "It's about fundamentally changing the economy so it becomes restorative," explained panelist Jamie Butterworth.

A truly restorative economy will require many new clean technologies. Yet the capital flows necessary to give them life have lately been lacking. Global clean energy investment has steadily declined from a 2011 peak of $302 billion. "The bloom is off the cleantech rose," said influential industry tracker Nick Parker. Such has investor enthusiasm waned for early-stage climate solutions that Canadian venture capitalist Tony Van Bommel now refers to carbon as the "C-word."

'Green elephants'

But the global financial data only tell part of the story. For each of the past five years in Canada, clean technology firms have raised more than $1 billion on the public markets. "That's pretty good," said the Toronto Stock Exchange's Michael Kousaie. Those investments flowed to a thriving herd of more than 150 companies. As the sector matures globally, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital co-founder Wal van Lierop hopes some of them evolve into "what I call the future green elephants."

That is, herbivore disruptors big enough to challenge the carnivore incumbents. It would happen faster if markets properly valued the clean air, water and ecosystems -- the "natural capital" -- invested in our existence. "The big mistake we've made in capitalism," said sustainability icon Peter Bakker "is the only capital we recognize is financial capital." Added the Carbon Disclosure Project's Nigel Topping: "We need to have a tougher conversation about what role the economy plays in our society."

Many of Globe's speakers, deep in middle age, say that conversation won't be had -- if ever -- until the new millennial generation ascends to positions of power. "Young people think differently than people like myself," said Mary Polak, B.C.'s minister for the environment. "They expect different things from their world." Yet Polak couldn't picture the future. "I can tell my 26-year-old absolutely nothing with respect to what her world is going to be like when she's my age." She paused briefly. "Nothing."

Polak spoke at one of Globe's final sessions. When it was over, and as delegates poured out of the ballroom's rear doors, I found myself puzzling over her remarks. Hadn't we all just sat through three days of pontification about the future? During that time, I'd surveyed an ecosystem rapidly evolving towards a stage where even the most powerful polluting corporations must no longer feel fully secure atop the food chain. So are we screwed? The question had never seemed so subjective.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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