What do a thousand jailed demonstrators, President Obama, a dozen Fortune 100 CEOs, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and a melting ice sculpture of a polar bear have in common? Two things. First, they are all part of the climate talks in Copenhagen that finally start in earnest this week after ten days of street theatre and roller coaster expectations. Second, they are all the wrong people to watch if you want to understand where the most innovative and successful carbon policies and technologies are coming from.
In fact, the most practical (and profitable) initiatives won’t be found in proposals for the future being debated by heads of state, but in the real world programs already being deployed in states and provinces of the US, China, Brazil, Canada, and many more "sub-national" jurisdictions in countries once thought to be climate laggards. Two great examples from the US and Brazil are the states of California and Para. Delegates this week will hear from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Para Governor Ana Julia Carepa about how much of the climate change challenge is already being met in their states with great results for their economies.
In California, much has been reported about Schwarzenegger’s Million Solar Roofs initiative (that has already put tens of thousands to work manufacturing and installing solar); his Green Buildings Initiative (government buildings saving 18% of energy just with clever "tune ups" and saving up to 60% with smart controls and sustainable building products); and his Hydrogen Highway Network (hundreds of hydrogen powered vehicles and fueling stations proving the practicality of zero emission cars).
But as Congress debates climate legislation with cap-and-trade carbon market proposals, the Governator will also tell the climate groupies in Denmark that California is spearheading the creation of a carbon market for about a third of North America that will start capping emissions in 2012 and facilitating billions of dollars of trades in carbon credits around the world - - regardless of what national governments decide in Copenhagen or Washington DC.
In the Brazilian state of Para, Governor Carepa also realized that carbon guilt alone would not reduce harmful emissions or save the trees in her state’s part of the Amazon rainforest. She shrewdly saw that sustainable economic development, giving all of her citizens a stake in a low carbon future, would be the only practical way to solve the problems of the environment and economy. She pushed through legal and policy reforms so that international businesses would invest capital in sustainable development and encouraged global institutions to focus on saving jobs, not just trees.
An example of the success of her approach is the Grupo Orsa Company that took over heavily logged industrial forestlands and rehabilitated them to produce wood, pulp and fibers within a thriving forest ecosystem, earning sustainability certification from the Forest Stewardship Council and creating hundreds of jobs in the process. Forest-based carbon sequestration projects around the world have failed when they pay governments to just "protect" lands. Governor Carepa’s policies give people economic interests to save forests - - much more practical and sustainable over the long term. Now her citizens are harvesting organic nuts, valuable sustainable hardwoods, and growing raw materials for organic alternatives to fiberglass (Volkswagen will soon be using these lighter, stronger, organic materials in cars). The "green" economic growth has also generated funding for schools, clinics, and improved living standards for the people of Para, especially in rural areas that would otherwise be struggling for economic relevance.
What these Governors and dozens like them around the world have realized is that green jobs grow fast and don’t wither like those dependent on resource extraction (think depleted oil fields in Ecuador) or outdated technology (think Detroit). If you want to know where the solutions to both the current climate and economic crises will come from, look to these brilliant state leaders, not the national ones alone.
All of this should give Copenhagen delegates some hope for the future. Now would one of you please get an icepack for that poor melting polar bear?