Fortune Brainstorm Green 2010: A Conference for the Environment

Billions of dollars are at stake. Not to mention reputations of leaders in business, academia and government. Even the public image of our country on the world stage is hanging in the balance. 

Despite differing viewpoints on nuclear energy, coal-fired power plants, wind energy and a variety of important subjects in the world of green, one consistent theme emerged at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, held earlier this month at the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel Resort in Southern California. And that is: we need an official, approved and legislated policy on carbon reduction and we need it now. Not only careers, but also many thousands of jobs and potentially the future of our planet (not to mention Sierra Club Green are all seemingly on "hold" until Washington can cobble together a bill on carbon reduction that will pass in the Senate.

Over 300 luminaries from the environmental world, as well as corporate America, Wall Street and Silicon Valley populated 
the conference. Listening to the panel discussions, I realized just how committed the big time venture capital groups are to the clean energy movement succeeding. It almost felt like we are all loaded into the same boat together, furiously rowing out to sea but without a compass. Environmentalists, corporate sustainability officers and the investment community look back in nostalgia to the 2009 conference when it seemed certain the U.S. would have an energy policy in place by now.

Some companies and investors cannot proceed without knowing exactly what the U.S. government will ultimately call law on carbon reduction. Be it cap and trade, cap and dividend, a straight carbon tax, or some hybrid thereof, it seemed most participants would be happy with any reasonable approach at this point. In my mind, it would be the start of an evolving framework that will take years to perfect. 

Aside from this glaring issue, a wide variety of provocative topics were batted about, including Lee Scott from Wal-Mart on how the company is going green (Wal-Mart's proposed Sustainability Index is truly groundbreaking as it requires their supplier companies to use sustainable practices or lose their accounts with the retaining giant); Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, Mark Turcek of Nature Conservancy and our own Michael Brune of Sierra Club trying to explain what environmentalists really want; "Electric Cars: Mass Market or Mirage?" featuring BMW Engineering VP Tom Baloga and David Sokol, who is Warren Buffet's point man on energy investing; legendary green guy Stewart Brand along with several power company CEOs on whether nuclear power is part of the answer (I am still very questionable on this); Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan on whether sustainable business can operate without the usual hypocrisy and morality issues; "Chasing the Dream of Sustainable Consumption" with top execs from Dell, Starbucks and Wal-Mart, among many, many more.

A representative from Dell explained their commitment to going carbon neutral: they are changing their packaging from polyethylene to bamboo; powering down all corporate machines every evening; offering free recycling for all Dell computers among other initiatives. IBM's expertise in nanotechnology is being leveraged to improve the water desalinization process. Starbucks is feverishly working on making all their cups recyclable, as due to the high temperatures of the beverages, standard recyclable paper cups will not work. Bill Ford of Ford Motor Co. reminded us that no true economic recovery has ever occurred in this country without a strong industrial base. Manufacturing, he said, is critical to keeping America employed and productive.

Also way cool was a performance by rock keyboardist Chuck Leavell, best known for his work with the Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones. Leavell was on hand not only to entertain, as he is co-founder and primary investor in Mother Nature Network, the green news and information site.

Equally impressive was the true green practices utilized for the entire conference. The Ritz-Carlton offers extensive recycling; efficient watering systems for all landscaping; greywater recycling of washing machine water; and reuse of sheets and towels unless otherwise specified by guests. FORTUNE served organic and sustainable produce from local providers; organic wines, beers and teas; reusable water bottles provided by Dell; onsite shuttle service by electric and hybrid vehicles; and all leftover food was given to local shelters. These are things that ALL conferences and meetings should do, but kudos to FORTUNE for keeping it real -- I've attended too many green events that didn't even have recycling, much less green practices!

I'm already looking forward to next year's conference. At least by then, there should be resolution one way or the other about what legislation governing carbon reduction we will be working with. 

As always, we love to hear your comments, let us know what you think will happen in Congress and how it will affect green business and jobs.