October 14, 2015

Can business be pro-environment?
Can environmentalists be pro-business?

Name of Publication:
The Atlanta Business Chronicle
Link to Article:

Excerpt of Article:
By: Daniel R. Ferreira, Ph.D.

In my environmental science classes, I often explore with my students that environmental problems rarely have straightforward solutions. Most often, trying to find answers to environmental problems involves weighing two or more competing viewpoints or needs and figuring out how to balance them appropriately.

Since the environmental movement started in the 1960's there has been a tension between environmentalists and businesses. This tension has since escalated to the level of a feud, largely because both sides make unreasonable demands that neither could possibly be satisfied with.

One of the main goals of any business is to maximize profits for shareholders. Business owners view environmental regulations as an unnecessary expense that intrude on their ability to grow their business or provide dividends to their shareholders.

The main goal of the environmental movement is to protect the environment from unwanted and dangerous pollution and physical degradation. They view the pollution that businesses generate as something that needs to be eliminated in order to keep the environment safe and pristine.

The big problem with this scenario is that neither side is willing to consider the other side's point of view as somewhat reasonable. Compromise can only be found when both participants in a negotiation are willing to acknowledge that the other side's perspective has some legitimacy.

Businesses need to understand that the environment provides all of us with necessary and valuable goods and services. When pollution damages the environment, it decreases the ability of the environment to provide resources that are valuable to all of us. This externality can't be ignored simply because the losses are widely distributed. The cost of environmental degradation to the population as a whole must be accounted for when considering the overall costs of generating the pollution.

Environmentalists need to realize that pollution is a necessary result of the industrial and technological society we live in. It is not reasonable to demand that pollution be eliminated without considering the cost to the business or the consumer. We all depend on the energy and products that businesses produce to maintain our standard of living. Pollution is an unavoidable byproduct and can't be eliminated simply because it is undesirable.

This dichotomy of the views these two camps hold was clearly on display in the comments of an article I recently read about the closure of Georgia Power's coal-fired Plant Branch in Putnam County. One group of commenters lamented the loss of tax revenue and jobs in the county and blamed "environmental extremism" and "failed energy policies." Another set of commenters suggested that Georgia Power replace the plant with a solar farm. Neither group is assessing the situation realistically.

To support coal as a power source without considering the damage that it does to our environment is an indefensible position. The combustion of coal leads to acid rain, generates particulates that aggravate breathing conditions such as asthma, creates toxic fly ash, and releases mercury into water bodies that make their way into the fish we eat.

Cleaner and cost-effective alternatives are available, and switching away from coal makes sense. However, advocating that the solution is to switch to solar power is an equally untenable standpoint.

Solar power technology has not advanced to the point where it makes sense from a large-scale energy production standpoint. The cost of electricity generated with solar power is cost-prohibitive, especially in Georgia where our incoming solar radiation is relatively low.

What bothers me as a professor of environmental science is that neither of the camps at either extreme of this issue consider the realistic alternative: natural gas.

Natural gas power plants are cheaper to build and maintain than comparable coal-fired power plants and natural gas releases far less pollution than coal when combusted. Georgia Power is obviously aware of the practicality of the transition from coal to natural gas. Their energy mix has changed from 65% coal five to six years ago to 65% natural gas today.

The EPA is not going to stop tightening regulations on pollution emissions from coal combustion, so it makes perfect sense for Georgia Power to get out in front of those changes and start transitioning away from coal now. The choice to transition to natural gas is both financially sound and environmentally friendly.

That is the kind of practical environmentalism that both sides need to discuss to create real and lasting change.

Daniel R. Ferreira, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Environmental Science in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology at Kennesaw State University.