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Tamminen: McDonald's and United Arab Emirates Greener than America?

Everyone loves a “man bites dog” story. Not everyone likes those tales, however, if they embarrass someone in the process.

Take the news out of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where fast food giant McDonald's has just announced that they it will fuel delivery trucks with bio-diesel made from its own used vegetable oil. Neutral Fuels will process the oil into fuel — powering 100 percent of Big Mac’s fleet with something that is otherwise treated as a waste product there. Air pollution and greenhouse gases will be slashed about 50%, but the real figure is much greater when you look at the lifecycle of the product compared to the extraction, refining, and combustion of petroleum for the same purpose.

Of course the oddity here is that McDonald's would do this in a place, uh, “swimming” in oil. The company has already done this in parts of Europe and uses a blend of petroleum and biofuels in the U.S., but why go so gonzo in the Middle East?

The answer is because, unlike America, the Emirates are taking the future of energy and the current problems of pollution and climate change very seriously — both for environmental and solid business reasons.

One of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi, is home to Masdar, the Zayed Future Energy Prize, and a host of other innovative initiatives to develop and commercialize clean, sustainable energy for the future. It is also the HQ for the new International Renewable Energy Agency, a move that highlights the opportunity for oil wealth to be invested in the technology and fuels that will one day replace crude.

The point here is that the government supports these efforts, instead of denying the existence of human-caused climate change or the true cost of pollution-related disease, deaths, and wars — which seems to be the official policy of the US.

And that’s where the embarrassment comes into the story. The U.S. should be red-faced that its iconic brand of burgers, shakes, and fries is going green on the other side of the globe, in an oil-producing country, while our government and many companies here pretend that business as usual will go on forever.

For example, the Obama administration is negotiating with US car companies to raise fuel economy standards with the same companies our tax dollars rescued over the past three years, but which are now trying every way to game the system and avoid any meaningful improvement in fuel economy.

These same companies sued California when I served as EPA Secretary to overturn our standards, then came to a national agreement after losing in court, but now are lobbying Congress to overturn their own agreement.

Similarly President Obama has called for eliminating $4 billion in oil company tax breaks, but will not likely prevail over the millions of dollars of campaign contributions that flood Congress every year to protect Big Oil’s interests.

No wonder McDonald's isn’t motivated to turn its veggie oil into fuel in its home country or find other ways to evolve beyond oil dependence. Maybe a few more man-bites-dog stories overseas will finally embarrass or inspire our nation and its business leaders to actions that are at least as progressive as Middle Eastern emirates.

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Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, and author of "Cracking The Carbon Code: The Key To Sustainable Profits In The New Economy").