Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Green Is Good

The Nature Conservancy wants to persuade big business to save the environment.


Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy, recently took a tour of the largest chemical-manufacturing facility in North America: the Dow plant in Freeport, Texas. The Nature Conservancy, which is responsible for protecting a hundred and nineteen million acres in thirty-five countries, is the biggest environmental nongovernmental organization in the world. Tercek, accompanied by two colleagues, had come to Freeport because the facility—a welter of ethylene crackers and smokestacks built next to a river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico—is at the center of a pilot collaboration that he hopes will reshape conservation. The key idea is to create tools that can assign monetary value to natural resources. Tercek, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, thinks that environmental organizations rely on fuzzy science and fail to harness the power of markets. With the help of sound metrics drawn from the world of finance—“a higher level of accountability,” in his words—some of the ecological harm caused by the very same corporations can be undone. Nudging big business in a green direction, he believes, can do far more good than simply cordoning off parcels of Paradise.

It was a chilly February day, the wind coming from the west. On the horizon, smoke curled from a brushfire; some of Dow’s tankers, part of the largest privately owned rail fleet in the country, trundled down their tracks. Tercek, who is fifty-seven, is a practiced listener: during his decades as an investment banker, he has sounded out a lot of executives. He seemed engrossed while a Dow operations manager explained proudly that the chemicals produced in Freeport ended up in “upstream intermediate products that go into all sorts of applications.”

The pilot program centers on finding ways to help the chemical plant save money by enacting environmental reforms. Tercek’s staff had worked with Dow to produce hard numbers: the rate at which certain trees absorb pollutants; the extent to which a plot of restored wetland can slow a storm surge. “Have we achieved any breakthroughs, to Dow’s way of thinking?” Tercek asked. Calm and conciliatory, he doesn’t question the logic of committing billions of dollars—and using hundreds of tons of dangerous chemicals—to create shatterproof lenses, de-icing fluid, and liquid-crystal displays. 

In front of us was the Brazoria Reservoir, which is run by Dow; it both cools the plant and makes its way through the local water authority to the taps in surrounding towns. I wondered how safe the arrangement was, but Tercek asked the Dow team about the numbers: “As businesspeople, you obviously think a lot about the cost of water versus the utility of water. Is that a big deal?”

Retail environmentalism—coaching individuals to be eco-minded consumers—isn’t his thing. At one point, we discussed whether the train or the plane is the better way to get from Washington, D.C., where the Nature Conservancy’s headquarters are, to New York, where much of the money Tercek needs to raise is made. He told me that he was “something of an expert” on the commute, and brought up speed and weather considerations, but not carbon emissions. “Should you have a fake or real Christmas tree?” he said. “I have no idea.”

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