National Climate Economy Summit Comes to UVM

This post was written by Sam Carey, Sustainable Innovation MBA ’18

Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and folks from around the United States interested in a transformation of the economy gathered at the University of Vermont September 6 – 8 for the Catalysts of the Climate Economy National Innovation Summit.  Students from The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 took a break from the classroom to attend the conference, and network with climate economy thinkers, innovators, and business leaders.

The Summit was sponsored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Presentations and sessions highlighted the work of entrepreneurs, leaders, and visionaries who view climate change as an enormous business and economic development opportunity.  The conference focused on what is currently being done, inherent challenges, and ways to meet ambitious targets.  For example, Vermont has been working towards 90 percent renewable energy by 2050; meanwhile California is pushing for total electrification and complete clean energy by 2030.

The climate economy conference kicked off Wednesday evening with a keynote speech by noted entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken, who presented a comprehensive new approach to reversing climate change, central to his new book Drawdown.  

Apart from making the switch to renewables, Hawken and his research team had found that a large portion of global carbon footprint may be addressed by providing adequate healthcare, through sustainable forestry, food and agricultural practices, and by improving education to young women.

Conference workshops were very much entrepreneurially driven demonstrating the growing enthusiasm that exists in the business world today to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  Proterra’s electric buses, General Motors’ Maven project, Patagonia’s sustainable manufacturing, and even on-bill-financed housing energy retrofits all prove that decreasing environmental impacts can cause increasing returns.

And while it became clear that many businesses are on the right track toward a more sustainable economy, one common question frequently arose:  How important are government policies in the climate economy?  Some argued that business leaders are in a position to “do the right thing,” and consumers will follow that path allowing those companies to succeed.  Others argued that there is no better way to drive innovation then though a policy push from governments.  One such idea that was repeatedly mentioned was a carbon tax, as well as subsidies for accelerating climate economy businesses.  It is unlikely that the debate over the importance of the market vs. public policies to reverse climate change will disappear.  It is likely not a tension between “either/or,” but an expression of “yes, and…” The businesses of tomorrow must be financed in order to make a difference, and how they are financed raises important questions for both private investors and government policies.