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What the Election Means (Or Doesn't) For Sustainability

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Obviously some things have changed in Washington and around the country in the last 24 hours. But what will this shift in power mean for the green business movement and for the sustainability agenda in general? It may not change as much as you think, and I see a number of reasons to maintain hope.

Here are my three big takeaways from the elections in general, and the defeat of Proposition 23 in California specifically. (Quick reminder: Prop 23 was an oil-funded ballot measure that would've suspended the far-reaching environmental law AB32).

1. Federal legislative action on climate and energy is dead. But we knew that already -- the defeat of the climate bill this past summer, even when Democrats held huge majorities in both houses, sealed that fate. But to be more nuanced about this point, this election does not mean that all government action is stymied. At the national level, the EPA will move forward with plans to regulate carbon, and it will continue its transparency initiatives, such as the mandate for the largest facilities in the country to measure and release data on greenhouse gas emissions. But let's not kid ourselves: the new majority in the House, with some Democratic support from coal states, will be attacking the EPA aggressively. So all federal action will be a tough slog right now.

But the regional and local players will continue to advance sustainability agendas that affect businesses and consumers alike. Yesterday, I gave the keynote address at the State EPA Innovation Symposium in Wisconsin. I sat in on some sessions and heard about some really innovative ways states are using stimulus funds (or continuing existing programs) to reduce emissions and save money in schools, businesses, and homes. The innovation will not stop. Cities are promoting green lifestyles and business aggressively. Cleveland recently announced a program to give sustainable businesses a leg up on getting city contracts, for example.

But the best indication that climate action in particular is not on hold comes from California. The state announced yesterday that it's moving ahead with a cap-and-trade program, and the defeat of Prop 23 ensures that the program will continue. Which brings me to...

2. A broad consensus on building a clean economy future is not dead. The defeat of Prop 23 shows that coalitions for clear economic and environmental winners can be surprising. As green job advocate Van Jones put it a few days ago, defenders of the landmark clean energy legislation AB32 put together "a beautiful coalition," including clean tech business leaders, faith-based groups, Governor Schwarzenegger, President Obama, and people from "every political, ethnic, faith, and socio-economic spectrum."

But I believe that one of the main reasons the logic of AB32 won the day was that a range of business interests saw that tackling climate was good for the economy. The greening of industry and society makes perfect business sense.

3. Business can, and will, lead the sustainability movement. It will have to. With federal support on the ropes, business will continue its leadership. For some that statement may sound odd, but I believe that over the last five years, the private sector has shown more sustained, creative drive toward a lower-carbon, resource-efficient economy than the government has. Corporate giants such as Wal-Mart, HP, IBM, and P&G have set tough goals for suppliers that are often much more strict than federal standards. They have also reduced energy use aggressively in stores, data centers, and fleets saving billions of dollars.

Clearly not all companies have kept up the momentum during the recession. But most of the leaders have. And the green business movement continues for one fundamental reason: it's profitable. As GE's Jeff Immelt said a few years back, "green is green."

So on some level, when it comes to green business, the election doesn't matter at all. Economic logic always wins out and sustainable businesses will be more profitable. Of course, without government support, the pace of change may not be fast enough to fully beat back the challenges of climate change, water scarcity, or biodiversity loss. But business and some unusual coalitions will continue on the sustainable path nonetheless.

For those of us who are working for a more sustainable, healthy, and profitable future for companies, communities, and our country, we should channel Martin Luther King, Jr. who once said, "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

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