environment | April 22, 2013

Alex Steffen: "Climate Action—The Next Great Boom Opportunity"

There's one element of the discussion on rapid climate change that environment speaker Alex Steffen says is being repeatedly overlooked. And, it may just be the silver lining nestled within the more somber environmental concerns about the future of our planet. "Climate action," he writes in The Harvard Business Review, "is the next great boom opportunity." There's a lot of money to be made, he argues, if we swiftly move our society into a carbon-neutral era. This is what he proposes in his book, Carbon Zero. Small steps are not enough to combat climate change. We need eliminate, not just reduce, the carbon emissions being dumped into our atmosphere if we ever hope to secure a prosperous and habitable future. The changes that need to be made are not small in scale, nor will they come easily. They do, however, have the potential to be profitable—both for our economy and our planet's future.

"The climate action we need involves innovating at a systems level, not just improving the performance of the components of that system," he writes in the HBR article. The emissions generated from car use and car production, for example, are the single greatest source of pollution being pumped into our air. Yet, simply altering the car itself to be more environmentally friendly is not a sustainable solution, Steffen argues. We need to combat the problem at a societal scale and alter the way we commute entirely. "Compact, walkable neighborhoods are in high demand now," he writes, "and it's probably the best-proven finding in urban planning that dense communities use less energy on transportation and require fewer cars and less infrastructure to meet the needs of their residents." Improving the walkability of our cities is an idea that cities speaker and MIT Media Lab director Kent Larson also advocates. That, combined with the expansion of shared vehicle systems in order to reduce the use of the private automobile. This will make our cities less pollutant-generating, while also chipping away at the gridlock and traffic congestion plaguing many large urban centers.

Steffen also notes that the car-sharing industry is becoming a profitable business. In addition to rethinking transportation, Steffen argues that our buildings and cities on the whole need an overhaul to reduce our climate woes. Redesigning our cities—while daunting as a task—provides the opportunity for new businesses to grow and contribute to the economy. In fact, Steffen predicts the potential for economic growth inherent in climate change-combating strategies will dwarf even the tech boom of the last 20 years. That's why Steffen tells us, both in his writing and in his keynotes, that we can—and must—invest in a more sustainable future. And, we must do it today. Because, as he concludes in his article: "Climate neutrality is not a characteristic of the 21st century economy. It is the 21st century economy."

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environment | April 21, 2013