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Sustainability expert points to leading role of business in 2011

Posting in Energy

"Food efficiency" will be one of the most galvanizing sustainability themes over the next 12 months.

(Updating Jan. 7 to add source for factoid about food waste in the United States.)

When I'm seeking guidance to recalibrate my corporate sustainability coverage, there are a select organizations I look to for inspiration. The World Resources Institute is definitely one of them because it has so far stood the test of time, so I made some time this morning to call into a Washington, D.C., briefing by the organization's president, Jonathan Lash.

Lash's topic: Stories to watch in 2011. Yes, everyone's at it this week, sorry.

I won't list everything that he chatted about this morning, but here are several themes foremost in my mind after listening to his presentation.

  1. Expect businesses -- not the government -- to keep taking the leading role in activities related to adopting clean energy, cutting carbon emissions. Lash asks (not entirely rhetorically): Why is it that the politics are going one way and the business advertising and initiatives are going another? The thing is that U.S. policymakers lag pretty much every other country in terms of taking action, notes Lash. The thing to really watch here is whether U.S. policymakers will interfere in progress on climate change. In particular, whether it will get in the way of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's increasingly activist role in setting policies for things such as carbon emissions.
  2. Watch several emerging economies really, really carefully. So, this morning, SmartPlanet reported China will invest $106 billion (with a "b" folks) in high-speed rail projects this year. Let me repeat that: this year. Meanwhile, the U.S. has backpedaled on similar investments. Lash notes that China will, in just a few years, soon have more miles of high-speed rail than the rest of the world, combined. The speed of these trains will reach 300 miles per hour in just a few hours, which will completely rewrite the rules for air travel for trips of less than 1,000 miles, he suggests. Elsewhere, watch Brazil's infrastructure investments as it gears up for the 2016 Olympics. And India is aggressively fueling its commitment to renewables, notably biofuels.
  3. We've been talking about energy efficiency for years, now we'll talk about food efficiency. In Lash's reckoning, there are 1 billion acres of "degraded" land that is prime for better agricultural uses, rather than the concept of denuding more forests to meet our growing food supply needs. Historically speaking, the focus has been getting more out of the land that is already being cultivated. But the focus needs to be on using the land better, and on reducing waste. Lash pulls out another mind-boggling statistic suggesting that the United States wastes 40 percent of its food. Even assuming this figure is too high, I'm sure you can all think of situations where you've seen almost-full plates traveling back to the kitchen from your restaurant table.

The last item, in particular has me really intrigued. Because as the economy turns around again, food prices are going on, the population is growing, and interest in biofuels is straining our food supply. Watch some of the major conglomerates carefully -- I just spent a great deal of time talking to an executive with ITC Infotech about this very topic -- to see what steps they talk with sustainable agribusiness in the coming 12 months.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure