Why the Earth Is an Investment Opportunity

This week, we observed Earth Day in a world that is more crowded and more connected than ever. Since the first Earth Day was observed in 1970 three powerful forces have emerged that are now converging to present not only a daunting humanitarian and environmental challenge, but also an opportunity for the private sector to invest in viable solutions. These three forces are: resource scarcity, a growing middle class consuming those resources at an accelerating rate, and climate change.

Clean water, clean air and the steady access to food are all in limited supply, and are being depleted at alarming rates. And a rapidly growing, urbanized global middle-class is living and working in ways that are accelerating consumption of those already scarce resources.

Finally, the entire planet is confronting climate change, which has increased the imperative to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies. Climate disasters are becoming more frequent, from the U.S. to the Philippines.

Combined, these three factors represent a tall order, but also an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to work on solutions. Many developed economies have the capital to begin to address the effects of climate change. But developing countries - especially those in the most acute state of poverty - are at great risk of succumbing to the perilous effects of these forces.

Sub-Saharan Africa exemplifies both the enormity of this risk, but also the ways that business can serve as a force for good. More than 600 million people - the majority of the population in Africa - live without a reliable source of electricity and are unable to light their homes, refrigerate their food, power their schools or keep their small businesses open after dark. But these same places that are suffering from energy poverty have abundant renewable resources. The sun shines brightly on Africa, the winds blow strong and many regions of the continent like Kenya's Great Rift Valley also have significant capacity to generate power from geothermal energy. Thanks to growing international attention and local government reforms that have made it easier to do business, momentum is building. Last year, the continent added more renewable energy capacity than it had in the previous 14 years combined.

My work leading the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which catalyzes private capital for sustainable economic development, is rooted in the understanding that the world's challenges are too great for governments or nonprofits to address on their own. Transitioning to more sustainable global economy will require large investments of both time and money, which is why private businesses and investors must play such a central role.

In much of the world, millions of people will continue to live in areas that may never be connected to an electricity grid and where most of the food is produced by small-scale farmers with limited processing and transport infrastructure. Innovations like home solar kits, rooftop solar, and micro-irrigation are offering new, relatively low-cost ways to address longstanding challenges. It will take continued investment by developed countries to help meet these challenges and move in the direction of long-term sustainable development that will help preserve our planet.