Letters From The Earth


January 15, 2008

Most of you are aware of the Bali Climate Change Conference that occurred in early December. Hundreds attended, including government officials, industry lobbyists, environmental campaigners, observers, and yes, even the United States sent representatives — to observe only, because the US is not a member.

The focus of the meeting was on the future and, without question, there was general agreement that global warming is creating devastating effects. This meeting was really a preparatory gathering, attempting to forge new commitments to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol prior to rewriting a new agreement in 2009. Kyoto is interesting. While the original agreement dates back to 1997 it didn't take effect until 2005 and affected only the industrialized countries who signed that generate greenhouse gases (emissions of fossil fuel use by power plants, CO2 from cars, methane gas, and the like). Of course, those countries who signed the agreement have, for the most part, failed to meet their targets.

I wrote several years ago that I was disappointed that the United States did not join Kyoto. I continue to take the same position. At the Bali meeting the most glaring obstacle to a successful completion was the absence of the US as a member of the group. Bush officials say that the current administration won't agree to a new accord with limits on emissions. Instead, President Bush is proposing that the world's biggest countries work toward a common, long term goal, decades in the future, and without specific targets or limits. (This reminds me of a suggested US congressional solution to increasing gas mileage in cars by 2020! Why wait until 2020?) Once again, you can't create change unless you participate. The United States of America, no longer the only leader in the world, but surely one of the largest polluters in the world, needs to participate actively in change. The political rhetoric, the equivocations are no longer acceptable. I am angered by America's position and very disappointed in its response to opportunities to help create solutions to global warming. Doesn't the US position suggest that it does not want to change because it's going to cost too much to be compliant?

Something worth noting: One of the United States' staunchest friends, Australia, made a change in its position on global warming when there was a change in the country's administration. Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister, made his first formal action a recommendation to change Australia's position on Kyoto. Rudd said, "This is the first official act of the new Australian government, demonstrating my government's commitment to tackling climate change." Neither Australia nor Prime Minister Rudd agrees with the entire Kyoto agenda. For example, they don't want to sign post-2012 continuation of the agreement if emerging economies and global emitters, such as China and India, are not part of it. In my opinion, that's tolerable. The point is, Australia has made itself part of the process.

Why is all of this germane to us and our business? I believe there is an analogy between our industry and America's current position on global warming. Our industry generates 30 to 40 percent waste. We all know it but don't make the effort to change. The only element that seems to cause change is penalty or reward; in other words, money. How can we support environmental stewardship when we won't demand benign adhesives, use alternatives to landfilling matrix, and support liner recycling? If the United States of America can slip through the requirements of change without any kind of investment in renewable energy or having to add costly emission devices to control fossil fuel emissions, they're all for Kyoto. Likewise, if we can find change in our industry that doesn't affect our bottom line, we're all for climbing on the "green train." If Wal-Mart demands change, they get it. Without compliance to their packaging scorecard you'll be replaced. The pocketbook, not genuine stewardship, is what is driving our industry. Believe me, it is hard not to be cynical.

A mighty wind

Another story that reinforces this view appeared in my local newspaper the other day. The headline of a lead article — "More Farmers Seeing Wind as a Cash Crop" — caught my eye. An area in Northern Michigan called Bad Axe (oh boy) has installed 32 wind turbines on private farm land. For every installed turbine, a farmer can earn $18,000 to $30,000 per year.

Now think of that: Land that is barely tillable and certainly allows for no more than one annual planting is being used to generate energy and cash. That was the clincher for me, cash. That's the driver, not stewardship or a need to develop alternative energies. By the way, these wind turbines are huge. The towers are 200 to 300 feet tall, the blades 100 feet in length, the sweep of the blades is almost as big as a football field, and the whole structure weighs upwards of 50 tons. That $30,000 per year per turbine does buy more tractors. This cradle to cradle thing is pretty rich.

Top polluters

The saga of pollution in the Indiana cities of Gary and Whiting continues. Take a look at the accompanying list of the 20 worst polluters in the United States. Three of them are in that specific area. Is one near you? This, by the way, is information from the US Environmental Protection Agency, not malicious misreporting by an evangelistic reporter or columnist. These three manufacturing sites continue to dump toxic substances into both the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan. My disappointment is that state and federal authorities have neglected their responsibilities as guardians of our environment.

As we begin another year, let's work together as an industry to change. Everyone in the value chain — paper and film manufacturers, laminators, adhesive and ink manufacturers, converters, and end users — needs to play a role in improving our record of environmental stewardship. The technology is there and the alternatives are in place. Demand for change is beginning to grow. Pretty soon cost will not be the driver of action; the driver will become the requirement.

Postscript: Bali

The Bali conference continued after my column deadline. Just before press time, the United States changed its position on global warming.

One wonders, after hearing the entire story, if America's new position was more a result of political intrigue than anything else. The US held firm until the bitter end on its contention that developing nations wouldn't and couldn't meet greenhouse emission standards. In a masterful attack on America's position, the delegate from one of the smallest of the 188 countries in attendance, Papua New Guinea, said, "We seek your leadership. But, if for some reason, you're not willing to lead we ask you to get out of the way."

In other words, we're going forward, with or without you; damn the torpedos, full speed ahead. Of course, Paula Dobriansky, the head of the US negotiation team, had to have the last word, "We want to do our part as part of the effort forward." This, after throwing up roadblock after roadblock to impede progress. America, at the end of the day, had no choice. Impede or join the agreement.
Does my cynicism suggest that the United States was less than sincere?

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.
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