In a week that saw more oil wash over Gulf of Mexico shores and more oil lobbying money wash over Congress—both with predictable results—I thought we could all use some good news and reasons to be hopeful. I found that inspiration on a trip to Germany and the UK inside two companies that have very unique perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that the world faces today.
Of course the continuing debacle in the Gulf speaks for itself, shouts from the headlines with failure upon failure to stop the oil gusher and from the faces of those whose lives are forever changed by this disaster. Against this backdrop, it is hard to imagine why Congress continues to subsidize the oil industry (according to the Senate Finance Committee, BP has deducted more than $225,000 a day from its taxes since it began leasing the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, for example), but permits taxpayer-rescued institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to prohibit twenty two states from allowing home owners to pay for solar panels on their property tax bills (which had stimulated new green businesses and jobs that are now in jeopardy).
Fortunately, this madness is not completely global in nature. I visited two companies in Europe this week that are proving low carbon products and services that are generating sustainable wealth, jobs, and a stable tax base for the cities and countries in which they do business.
Henkel, the maker of many familiar laundry and other consumer products, hosted a meeting of sustainability experts and described how their own 134-year history has made them focus on the long-term future over the short-term profit—but, as it turns out, without sacrificing either. From 2005 to 2008, Henkel’s production increased almost 20 percent, but cut its carbon emissions by nearly 25 percent, increasing net profits substantially while moving into new markets around the world. Henkel CEO Kasper Rorsted told us that these kinds of measurable results have inspired everyone in the company, from truck drivers to board members, to find new ways to accomplish more with less—less waste, water, fuels, and raw materials. The goal is to be as profitable in another 134 years as they are today, the benefits of being a multi-generational company with a long view.
Across the English Channel, Ineos Biois considerably younger, but also making money with the world’s most efficient process for converting municipal solid waste to clean low carbon ethanol. Unlike corn-based ethanol, which does not generally benefit the environment and survives largely on government subsidies (much like its petroleum counterparts), Ineos bio-ethanol cuts carbon emissions, costs, and can be produced in any city in the world. No need to invade other countries for diminishing raw materials or fear toxic spills that destroy lives, livelihoods, and the environment. The Ineos products also solve the challenge of limited landfill capacity and generate new revenues for budget-challenged city governments. Ineos Bio hopes to add projects in the US in the near future and in fact could help every nation on earth ease its oil addiction and the climate crisis—while making solid profits simultaneously.
Ironically, BP solar panels are made twice as durable as their predecessors by using Henkel sealants and Ineos Bio was built largely on assets and processes purchased from BP. To be sure, Henkel and Ineos Bio are not the only good economic and environmental news to be found these days. They do, however, exemplify that we can grow sustainably by thinking like our great grand parents and by looking in the trash.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).