Turning attention to the environment

BRUSSELS — “Our business model is to try and change the world,” Mike Lamond says confidently of green.tv. The company aims to get free environmental programming in front of “as many people’s eyeballs as possible," hopefully spurring "positive action."

Green.tv’s parent company, Large Blue, launched the online channel a few years ago, with partners including the World Wildlife Federation and the United Nations, and sponsors such as Kyocera. Programming resembles hip, dynamic MTV productions — except it's focused on natural resources and how to preserve them.

Lamond says perhaps the venture will someday make a profit. It’s a cynical but realistic view, he noted, that the catastrophic state of the environment means there will be plenty of work in this sphere for decades to come.

Lamond was showcasing green.tv at Europe’s annual “Green Week,” devoted this year to the theme “act and adapt.” Hundreds of exhibitors and extraordinary speakers made this a very impressive event, but the real question is not whether the EU can pull off Green Week, but whether it can secure a green future.

EU Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas says it must — and now. “This is without question the most important year we have faced in the war against climate change,” he said at the opening session of the four-day Green Week event in Brussels. “It is the future of our planet that is at stake and time is running out.”

But some EU governments say that in these tough economic times, money is also running out, making them reluctant to take actions that could be pricey for governments and uncomfortable for business. Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren, whose country takes over the EU’s rotating presidency on July 1, wrote in a recent op-ed that the “financial crisis has sent shockwaves around the world and it will largely set the political context in which the EU's environmental policy will evolve over the next few years.”

United Nations experts say industrialized countries need to cut their emissions by 25 to 40 percent to avert the worst effects of global warming. The EU has already agreed to cut its combined output of greenhouse gases by 20 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2020. The other parts of the “20/20/20” plan include getting 20 percent of fuel from renewable sources and a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency.

In an effort to battle both the economic and environmental crises simultaneously, EU officials are pushing the view that solutions are complementary. A “strategic effort to reduce emissions can be used as a catalyst to modernize our economies,” commissioner Dimas told a Green Week audience. Carlgren backed that up with a promise that Sweden will use its leadership role to “try to shape environmental policy so that it also contributes to the economy's recovery and long-term competitiveness.”

In a novel move, the Swedish presidency intends to hold a series of meetings that put ministers for environment, economy and competitiveness at the same table.

But in bureaucratic terms, it’s already close to the Copenhagen conference, and the enthusiasm some EU leaders have for stringent emissions caps has not been contagious even within the bloc.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reversals on environmental policies clearly illustrate how difficult it is to manage the interests of business and the environment when both are suffering. Merkel, who is also facing a reelection battle, initially championed the green targets of 20/20/20, only to later demand exemptions for German industry, dismaying Germany’s large green lobby but delighting other member states inclined to do the same thing.

Nick Mabey, chief executive of Third Generation Environmentalism, criticized the EU leadership for downplaying its own 20/20/20 policies as it tried to pull Europe out of the recession with spending plans. “At the moment, most of the stimulus package is going into building roads and supporting the car industry without any environmental conditionality,” Mabey said.

But there are companies that are twinning profits and environmental principles even without the requirements of regulation. One of these is Unilever, a British-Dutch corporation that manufactures some of the world’s leading consumer products, including Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

Lettemieke Mulder, hosting the company’s booth at Green Week, was ebullient describing the company’s sustainability activities, which she said are applied to the entire life cycle of products. For example, in an item that uses palm oil — which has a bad reputation for its impact on the environment of poor southeast Asian nations — Mulder said Unilever starts by making sure that the oil is harvested in an environmentally responsible way and absorbs any extra costs entailed.

In the long run, Mulder believes sustainability practices actually save money “because you manage things better, you use less pesticides … but it’s not an overnight thing.” She doesn’t deny that ultimately the company hopes consumers and investors will reward Unilever’s conscientiousness, but even if that doesn’t happen, she said the “commitment is there at the top level and we’re not going to turn back on that.”

Independent observation backs up Mulder’s statements. In the decade the survey has existed, Unilever has topped the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in the food and beverage sector each year. The annual report ranks companies based on their social, environmental and economic policies.

As Green Week wound down in Brussels, EU leaders were acutely aware of a landmark event taking place across the Atlantic that will undoubtedly affect European chances to spearhead progress on emissions reductions at Copenhagen.

In his final speech to the gathering, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso expressed hope that the House of Representatives would pass legislation that would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by the year 2020. That’s pretty modest given the fact that Europe would like to see almost double that figure agreed upon in Copenhagen.

But it’s the first time such a measure — branded both “economic suicide” and “homicide” by critics — would be passed in the U.S., a fact not lost on Barroso. “We want the U.S. to go as far and as fast as they can on climate change,” he said. “But above all, we want Waxman-Markey to succeed.”

By just seven votes, it did.

Read more about the environment:

Are levitating air conditioners the future?

On whales, drinking water and the Great Lakes

Saving the 'Coral Triangle'