Environmentalism for Billionaires

Lately, I've been inundated with phone calls from venture capitalists, private equity guys, and hedge fundistas. They're coming to me because I'm their environmentalist friend and they all want to know one thing: how they can make a buck off the surge in interest in combating global warming.

In a way, that's a sign that the environmental movement has finally arrived. After decades of struggling to convince the titans of finance that protecting the planet and making money weren't mutually exclusive, the tycoons are now coming to us.

But many of these capitalist converts need watching. While Wall Street's eco-splurge has generated a flood of financing for legitimately clean ventures like wind and solar power, it's also spawned extremely dangerous projects that are painted green by their unscrupulous backers, but that at their core are as black as, well, coal.

The green sheen plastered on some of these projects -- like burning down the rainforest to generate electricity for homes -- has actually convinced some members of Congress to start throwing billions of taxpayer dollars their way. Of course, not all those representatives and senators are gullible enough to believe that making forests into electricity is really good for the planet. Some just think voters will be so dazzled by the spin doctors' lovingly applied emerald veneer that they won't notice them pocketing these eco-pretenders' campaign donations.

Take that burning-the-rainforest-to-power-your-iPhone proposal. All over the tropics, international agribusiness giants like Cargill, as well as smaller domestic operators, have turned pristine rainforests into millions of acres of soy, sugar, and palm oil plantations. Much of that provides raw material to make biodiesel, touted by its numerous backers as a quintessential green fuel.

Unfortunately, rainforest biodiesel is triply bad for the planet. When rainforest is burned to clear the land, the carbon that had been safely stored in tree trunks, orangutans, and other living matter gets incinerated and becomes the carbon dioxide responsible for warming the planet. Also incinerated: vital habitat for endangered species (like the orangutans) and indigenous people who need intact rainforests to survive.

Then, the farms that replace the forests spew out greenhouse gases as workers drive their tractors and spray pesticides made in factories running on coal, natural gas, or more biofuels. And when that biofuel finally arrives in your gas tank or the local power plant, it may actually produce slightly more cancer-causing toxins than regular old gasoline, according to a recent Stanford University study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (though the study didn't evaluate rainforest biodiesel, but other biofuels instead).

But you don't have to go to the tropics to see billionaire faux-environmentalism at work. Just drive out to West Virginia, where Big Coal executives are hoping for a renewed mining bonanza if they can somehow convince members of Congress that coal is clean and that liquefied coal can replace gasoline. They're lobbying hard for taxpayer guarantees for liquid coal projects that they argue can help free America from its reliance on foreign oil. That's the kind of sweetheart deal that could make even oil executives jealous.

But not only is the proposal expensive, it's also extremely dangerous to the environment. Turning hard coal into an automotive fuel takes a lot of energy, which is why liquid coal produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of regular coal. Liquid coal backers claim that, with the right amount of additional taxpayer support, they can use advanced technology to capture and store that extra global warming pollution. Even if that's true (and taxpayers are willing to take the hit), it doesn't do anything about coal's remaining non-climate environmental hazards: the soot and smog that kill more than 30,000 people every year and the destruction of mountaintops across Appalachia and elsewhere.

That's bad, but it's nothing compared to the scam being pushed by the timber lobby. The logging industry not only cuts down the forests that act as the planet's lungs, they also use tremendous amounts of energy to turn dead trees into furniture and paper. If Congress takes serious action to stop global warming, the loggers would have to clean up their act. But their resident wonks at the American Forest and Paper Association have found a way to reap a financial windfall from likely climate legislation.

Call it the Sofa Scheme. They're arguing that every sofa, Post-It note, and Kleenex tissue they produce should be counted as carbon storage, just like forests are. Their logic is that even when these forest products are discarded and put in a landfill, they're keeping that carbon safely in the ground rather than sending it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

If the timber lobby gets its way, that could mean big money for the logging companies. Under the carbon trading schemes likely to be a part of any global warming legislation, they could use all the credits they get from producing furniture and paper to avoid having to make any actual reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions or preserving actual living forests. Alternately, they could sell those credits to other polluters who would use them to avoid making their own reductions.

That could perversely endanger recycling programs, which are huge energy savers (it takes less energy to make paper from paper than from virgin trees). If wood and paper are given value just for lying in a landfill, it could create an incentive for trash operators to dispose of them that way, rather than recycling them. Indeed, whoever is able to get credit for landfilling the 59 million tons of forest products disposed of annually would reap more than $1 billion in profit, based on the price of carbon pollution permits being traded in European markets.

The good news is that some lawmakers are starting to get wise to these polluter schemes. Facing worries about the impact of increasing demand for palm oil grown in ecologically sensitive parts of Southeast Asia and Colombia, Europe may ban biofuels grown unsustainably. During the debate over the energy bill, the Senate defeated an attempt to provide billions of dollars in subsidies and loan guarantees for liquid coal. And there's growing support for giving financial value to living forests instead of forests that have been turned into toilet paper.

But even if these particular scams are beaten back, environmentalists and others must remain vigilant. Capitalism is, for good and bad, an infinitely creative phenomenon. America must be sure to harness that creativity to solve the climate crisis rather than letting rogue billionaires make it worse.

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