Carboholics Anonymous

by Richard T. Stuebi

This weekend, there was an extraordinary editorial in The Washington Post. The essence of the message was “Save me from myself: I can’t stop emitting carbon. Unless the government changes the rules to induce me to stop, I will kill the planet.”

The author of this plea was David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG), the 10th largest power generation company in the U.S. In effect, he is saying that his company is willing to undertake major changes to reduce emissions — but only if competitors do so too, because NRG would be disadvantaged in the marketplace to take proactive action on its own.

I am very sympathetic with Mr. Crane’s argument. It’s a fine thing if people want to engage in emission reductions voluntarily. As for me, I admit that I’m not enthusiastic to unilaterally make changes that I otherwise don’t prefer in order to reduce my carbon footprint. My rationale is that my miniscule contribution to solving the climate problem is individually meaningless, and I don’t want to be just one of very few parties incurring costs or inconvenience without having any macro-scale impact anyway. Put another way, I’ll do what it takes without complaining if everyone else is in the same boat, but I’m not going to be put out if most people aren’t. I don’t mind sacrificing, but if I’m going to sacrifice, it’s only just that the sacrifice must be shared.

This is where public sector leadership comes in, which in turn is based not only on courageous voting by citizens, but also by visionary companies that demand a new world order. I’ll gladly pay the price if everyone else does, and I’m eager to change the rules of the game so that we all bear our share of the burdens — and it looks like NRG is of the same opinion. With more corporate leaders committed to taking the same stand, maybe we’ll finally get somewhere with sound climate policy in Washington.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

19 replies
  1. ThinkLife
    ThinkLife says:

    It's amazing that the fossil fuel-guzzling power companies have in their ranks an executive who will vilify himself and plead for redemption this way! What a shift from a mere five years ago!There is hope, in the form of a not new, but renewed process called "decoupling."The Christian Science Monitor reports that five states now have innovative plans offering electric-power companies incentives to conserve energy. By “decoupling” from profits tied to producing more electricity, power companies can gain larger profits for reducing electric demand.“Idaho Power gets paid for its plants and equipment and boosts profits by winning incentive payments for reducing electric demand,” the Monitor reported on October 2, 2007."This is a vital step in the global-warming fight," says Audrey Chang, an NRDC researcher, in the Monitor's report. "It represents, we hope, a historic shift toward decoupling that is going to help bend the energy demand curve downwards." Pioneered by California 25 years ago, decoupling has gained momentum. An additional 8 states have proposed similar legislation.See: http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p02s01-wogi.ht… my blog at tmantyla.blogspot.com to add your thoughts toward BestWorld.–ThinkLife

  2. boreal
    boreal says:

    Hi Richard.Just so, it's a brave penquin that's first off the beach.Our TVO, (like PBS) on their premier primetime affairs show, just gave Bjorn Lomborg, statistition incompetant, 30 mins. to natter negatively, whilst allowing coyly, that it might be nice to try, something.Almost spilled the McCallan.As Groucho used to say, you sound like a nice young man.Google, 'boreal moonlight' and "get lucky."Don't tell B.P. until we've talked.Cheers, g

  3. Chris Bassoo
    Chris Bassoo says:

    Posted by Chris BassooWow what a wonderful blog, we need more forward informative and enjoyable blogs like yours bravo…warmest of regards from your Canadian friends Christopher Bassoo

  4. Peter
    Peter says:

    Richard,I find your blog both narrow-minded as well as short-sighted. You can't worry about what every else is doing…you can only change what YOU are doing. Can't you see that if everyone were to have the same ignorant "rationale" that you are all-too-happy to share, the world would never see any green innovations made whatsoever. In the economics arena, you often here about "first mover advantages." Sadly, in the area of green living, the reality is that there are actually a few (minor!) first mover DISadvantages. The point I want to stress though is that it is always, absolutely always, the first movers who set the course for an evolving industry. Sure, there may be some drawbacks, but shouldn't the fact that it's the right thing to do be enough for any moral person to jump on the first mover bandwagon? And just to clarify — I fully understand that this applies only at the individual level. Things become much more complicated and convoluted if we're talking about the merits / drawbacks of a business pursuing first mover advantages in the space of green innovation.Thanks for your article though — at least we're talking about it 😉

  5. gwen
    gwen says:

    I'd like to be able to say "let's just wait till 2008", but these climate shenanigans are happening so fast that we just don't have any time to mess around and wait. The political will to deal with this mess is going to come, but while we're waiting for it to come we individuals have to take action in our own small ways. Today we vote with our boycotts, lifestyle choices, CFLs, etc, and next November we'll vote for some help from the top.

  6. C Neal
    C Neal says:

    I agree that large utilities will have a hard time reducing emissions voluntarily – such a strategy is more likely to put them out of business without top-down regulation. But the individual argument is less compelling: just as it is with voting (which you cite as a separate solution), individual contributions are NOT meaningless in the aggregate. Put another way: we can achieve the necessary reductions in emissions either by cutting 2% of our greenhouse emissions across the entire population, OR we can achieve the same goal if a randomly sampled 2% of individuals commits to carbon neutrality each year. More likely, the volunteers for carbon neutrality would self-select from the greener end of the emissions spectrum; still, we might still achieve the target if 4 or 5 percent of us made the commitment each year.Any individual's effort to prevent 24 tonnes of air pollution – our per-capita GHG emissions here in the US – shouldn't be sold short as "meaningless".

  7. Richard T. Stuebi
    Richard T. Stuebi says:

    Note to Boreal,I have no relationship whatsoever with BP. In departing Cleveland a few years ago, BP merely provided The Cleveland Foundation a financial gift, which has funded my efforts.I know who Bjorn Lomborg is and I am aware of his stands, but I’m insufficiently intelligent, hip or ironic to comprehend your other commentary. Richard Stuebi

  8. Pageturners
    Pageturners says:

    Yes, environmentally the people of the world are in the same state as the Irish revolutionaries who said "We must hang together or most assuredly we will hang separately".

  9. Steven Chen
    Steven Chen says:

    Dear Richard,You are right. Environment friendly policy is our only hope. We should work hard to get the non-environmentlists on board. Tell them that it is important to them and their children.

  10. Kiashu
    Kiashu says:

    When talking about corporations and individuals, we're talking about different things.If a corporation tries to be "green", and if that leads to a financial disadvantage ("if"!) then it will collapse, and no longer be able to be either green or crappy. So indeed regulation is needed.But if an individual tries to reduce their emissions, they don't suffer any financial disadvantage. Use of public transport rather than cars, turning off the AC, eating meat once or twice a week instead of every day – these sorts of simple things can halve your carbon emissions, cost you not a cent, and in fact will save you several thousand dollars annually. So while a company may suffer disadvantage from trying to be "green", an individual need suffer none, and in fact will have more spare cash – cash they can use to invest in solar panels insulation and the like to reduce their emissions from 50% to 10-20% of average. Or they could just be content with halving their personal emissions; I think for the Western world to halve its household GHG emissions in a matter of a few months would be a great triumph. Why do something which no-one else is doing? Well, actually quite a lot of people are doing something, if you go looking to talk to them; but even if they're not, let's turn that question around: why not do something no-one else is doing? What are we, still in high school and we don't want to stand out? Why not do something which is no real inconvenience to us? Will it have a wider impact? Well, does it matter? Aren't there some things which are right or wrong to do, regardless of their wider impact? I once passed $30,000 sitting unwatched in a bank (someone was about to put it in the ATM), I could have grabbed it without being noticed or filmed. But I didn't take it. Why not? Would it really make any difference to the world? Of course not – but it would be wrong to steal, so it would make a difference to me. Perhaps I cannot make the world a better place, but I can at least not make a contribution to it being a shittier place. Nor is it plain that companies will suffer disadvantages from going "green". Consider for example the fact that the USA uses 25 barrels of oil per person annually, while Australia, a country with just as great distances to travel, and just as much mining and agricuture, uses 15. And efficient countries like Denmark use 7. Obviously there's a great deal of waste in the system. By cutting waste, companies like NRG could in fact save money and increase profits. Again, a halving of emissions while saving money is quite plausible for many companies. The NRG CEO is being a wuss. If I were a shareholder, I'd move for his dismmissal – he's just said he doesn't know how to run his company properly, minimising waste and expenses and maximising profits, and needs a government handout.

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