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Environment: Will U.S. Sensibilities Catch Up With Those Of Europe?

by Paige Marie Morse
October 25, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 43

Concerns about the environment have been a part of the business agenda in Europe for many years, starting with early efforts to define sustainable development concepts, strengthen chemical regulations, and address climate change. Similar discussions have been much slower to develop in the U.S.

Speaking to C&EN at the recent annual meetings of the European Chemical Industry Council and the European Petrochemical Association, several veterans of the environmental scene tried to explain why these issues have evolved differently on the two sides of the Atlantic and whether much progress will be made in the U.S. “Europe has created a framework that is a lot more advanced than in the U.S.,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and a professor at Columbia University. He cited several reasons, including “greater vulnerability to climate change and high population density.” This personal connection is what pushes environmental agendas forward, asserted Christoph Schmitz, a partner in the European chemical industry practice at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. “To make progress, we have to trade ecology against lifestyle,” Schmitz said. “This will only happen if people feel personally threatened and then start accepting the need to trade their standard of living against the environment. Before that, there will not be big moves.”

The U.S. has been insulated from environmental concerns owing to its large land mass, healthy domestic energy supply, and robust consumer demand—but that may be changing. “The U.S. economy has become disadvantaged,” said Jeremy B. Bentham, vice president of Global Business Environment at Shell International, “simply because the use of energy per head is much higher than anywhere else.” In an era of high and volatile energy prices, this fiscal reality can encourage energy conservation and emissions reduction. But price-driven demand shifts are inherently fickle, and actual progress will require “the financial industry to focus on the long term,” cautioned Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends. “You can’t take a long-term view when a company is pushing for quarterly results; we have to rethink the demands from the investment community.”

Although meeting attendees see multiple incentives for the U.S. to become more environmentally aware, they offered little hope for short-term progress. “Europe is way ahead of the rest of the world,” Sachs said. “And with the expected political deadlock in the U.S. after November elections, we will be in for a few more years where U.S. leadership simply isn’t there.”



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