06/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"There is No Planet B" And Other Things I Heard on Earth Day

Earth Day week is filled with announcements, events, and parties -- way too much for any one person to follow. Every angle on the week is different. I spent the week in DC, speaking at the EPA, moderating a plenary session at the Creating Climate Wealth event (from the Carbon War Room), and then ending my time with a White House reception for Earth Day -- which was awe-inspiring, frankly, as I had never been to the White House and that whole "leader of the free world thing" is fairly impressive.

I wanted to share some random snippets of interesting things I heard along the way.

- In preparing for the EPA speech, I read EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's speech from last month at the National Press Club. Please read it. It's about innovation and a new kind of regulatory approach. Key quote: "I'm done with the false choice between the economy and the environment."

- At the Creating Climate Wealth Conference, Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network, said, "the theme of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day is green business."

- Jigar Shah, CEO of the Carbon War Room: "Energy waste and illogical decision-making are huge wealth-creating opportunities... Climate change is not a sacrifice... it's not like the 70s where we ask, 'what are we willing to pay for clean water', but it's now 'what are we willing to do as a species [to build a better world] for our children and grandchildren?'"

The panel I moderated included Sir Richard Branson, former Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres, Waste Management CEO Dave Steiner, Pegasus Capital founder Craig Cogut, and Sara Greenstein, a top exec from Underwriters' Laboratories.

Sir Branson: "Protecting natural resources and reducing carbon emissions are the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity in history... We can't rely on 'the end is nigh' language... it's not nigh if we all work together to scale up low-carbon solutions."

President Figueres: "There is no planet B!" In politics, he said, "The long-term perspective is the next election. The short-term is the next poll." In Costa Rica, he had a single term, by law, so he was able to pass a carbon tax in the 1990s! And on land-based carbon assets, he said, "As long as the price of a tree standing is less than the price of a tree cut for timber, we won't save the forests."

Dave Steiner described the 4.5 lbs of waste we each produce... every day. He said it's all carbon really as it breaks down into methane. Waste Management now powers 1 million homes with methane gas.

Craig Cogut described one seemingly 'boring' business he's invested in that replaces shipping pallets with more sustainable alternatives. Some of the biggest food companies and retailers are signed on.

Sara Greenstein explained the role UL plays in setting standards around the world (every U.S. home has 100+ UL labels on products). The company began by setting a standard for how light bulbs should work at the World's Fair they were introduced at (in the 1890s). In essence, it's going to be hard to launch and scale new technologies -- like a smart grid -- without some agreement on standards and certifications to ensure the whole system works

At the evening event at the conference, Branson spoke again, but we also heard from the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, about climate justice, as well as speeches from a co-founder of Earth Day, Dennis Hayes, and the Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke. A couple gems:

Dennis Hayes told us that a National Academy of Sciences study said there was enough evidence of climate change to start working on constraining CO2 emissions... in 1979. Sigh.

Secretary Locke: "The Chinese are spending $9 billion a month on the clean economy... the longer we wait, the further behind we fall to China, Spain, Germany."

Another panel on the 2nd day of the conference featured Reed Hundt, former head of the FCC; Reid Detchon, the VP of Energy and Climate at the UN Foundation; and Sunil Paul, a leading clean-tech venture capitalist and founder of Spring Ventures. Some very interesting stats from them:

Reed Hundt talked about the investment in and creation of mobile and data networks. Between 1997 and 2007, the private sector -- without any government money -- spent nearly $1 trillion. Hundt said that "if we spent the same amount in the same time period [on clean energy], we'd have a 100% clean grid." He also talked about the need for long-term, low-cost financing (this is where government can help) and his Coalition for Green Capital.

Reid Detchon talked about California's holding flat the energy use/person over years vs. the constant rise everywhere else in the country. The 'wedge' between those two trends "is expense and cost."

Sunil Paul had a bunch of great stats on the scale of the challenge to take billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. (He launched the Gigaton Throwdown to tackle the problem). By his calculation, we need about $8.4 trillion investment in the next 10 years to reach the climate stabilization goals scientists tells us we need. And the capital has to come from the private sector which has $125 trillion in assets (vs. $300 billion in philanthropy and $18 trillion in government). And finally, from Sunil, a thought on making new technologies easy and scalable: "Saving the world should be mundane."

Overall, Creating Climate Wealth, and much of the discussion I heard around Earth Day in D.C. was about business and growth. Clearly Earth Day has expanded its reach from being a personal protest mission for millions of Americans to being a chance to step back and think and talk about what kind of world we want. Let's hope the conversation continues.