Is Sustainability Reporting Sustainable?

Loving "Green" Stories When They’re Easy

In November, a study from the National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University found that green business stories “mushroomed” in America’s ten largest newspapers last year; more than half of all those published since 2000 were printed in 2007 alone.

That’s good news, but a common question among environmental journalists and other media pundits is: will all this reporting about sustainability (for which the term “green” is shorthand) be sustainable in the long run? Will reporters have the material for good stories, and will the public maintain its current interest in them?

What constitutes a “green business story” remains somewhat vague. The Arizona study’s authors, who used a variety of data from the Lexis/Nexis database and other sources, admit that their findings are “approximate at best” because “search terms like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ also tend to show up in business stories that have nothing to do with environmental sustainability.”

In addition to such content analysis, the authors sent out “hundreds” of surveys to business editors at midsize and large newspapers. Only seventeen responded, but the information gleaned from their replies is perhaps more interesting than the actual story tallies. In particular, “None of [the editors] felt that the interest had peaked yet,” and, “Nearly half said that business stories with a ‘green’ angle of some sort appeared as often as once a week.” The authors note that this trend follows other, more general, environmental currents, such as mounting corporate attention to green issues.

That hypothesis (and the idea that sustainability coverage is sustainable) gained support this week from a Tuesday article in The New York Times’ Business section by Clifford Krauss, which cited yet another report suggesting that “unlike the ’70s, energy lessons will last:”

The oil shocks of the 1970s produced a flurry of attention to alternative sources of energy, but it faded once prices dropped in the mid-1980s. Now, with oil prices again high and climate change moving up the list of public concerns, interest in alternative energy is once again at fever pitch.

Krauss asks, “Is history about to repeat itself?” The answer, from the Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), which authored the report on which Krauss bases his article, is “not likely.” The difference? These days, it’s not just about costs at the pump. Oil prices might fluctuate up or down (though predictions say up for now), but most of the public seems to have accepted that global warming will only go one way - warmer. That’s a threat to political security and the environment, according to Krauss’s summation of the report, and it is “pushing governments to demand, and subsidize, greater use of alternative energy.”

The Times article quotes the study’s claim that $125 billion was invested in renewable energy resources in 2007, a 20 percent increase from the year before. CERA projects that public investments in wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear power generation could surpass $7 trillion by 2030.

According to Krauss, the report notes that market share of renewable fuels is likely to remain small compared to traditional fossil fuels, and growth will be determined “by the intersection of government policies, economic growth rates and technological breakthroughs.” He should have included private sector initiatives as well. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that three of the largest investment banks, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley will make it harder for companies to get loans to build coal-fired power plants in the U.S. They will require clients “to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.”

Other events that might reveal something about the longevity of strong green business coverage are more ambiguous, however, and the press has seemed less willing to suggest what they portend.

Take, for example, the 2009 federal budget proposal that president George W. Bush released this week, which was a mixed bag of promise and pessimism for environmental scientists. On the upside, The Associated Press reported that, “After years of cutting budgets for tracking global warming, President Bush on Monday proposed more than a $1 billion increase over the next five years for launching more and better Earth-observing satellites.” The New Scientist called this, “a rare bit of budgetary good news for climate and Earth-science research.”

On the other hand, there are some strange contradictions in the budget that beg for elaboration by the press. Despite the three investment banks’ reluctance to fund new coal-fired power plants, Bush asked for $648 million for developing “clean” coal technology, the biggest request in more than twenty-five years, according to Reuters. That includes $241 million for carbon capture and sequestration, despite the fact that the Department of Energy recently scrapped plans to build the nation’s first zero-emissions coal plant in Illinois. The announcement’s implications got relatively little media coverage, with the exception of a good explanation in Scientific American yesterday, which reported that the DOE has restructured the so-called FutureGen project. Instead of developing a new plant, the department will now “help industry add carbon-capture-and-storage capability to advanced coal plants already in the works.”

In addition to coal, the other big budget winner is nuclear (though most of the increased funding will go toward securing weapons stockpiles). Some people consider this a “green” technology because it does not produce heat-trapping gas emissions. Still, it is clearly in a different league than renewable power sources like wind and solar, which took a significant hit in Bush’s budget-wind and biofuels would actually get modest boosts, but solar, hydrogen, and automobile electric hybrid technologies would be cut.

Many journalists have reminded readers, however, that the budget proposal is not carved in stone. The New York Times’ Kenneth Chang had an excellent explanation on Tuesday of what that could mean for physicists. The group seems to have won a major coup in the 2009 proposal after massive cutbacks in the 2008 budget where announced in December. But Chang points out that the earlier budget, as well as the one in 2007, was actually supposed to increase funding for the physical sciences. But Congress changed that, and reallocated the resources to the National Institutes of Health and energy programs. So while some physicists hope that the current proposal will put their programs “back on track,” there is no certainty. Also, Chang writes:

Further complicating the process is the presidential election. There is widespread speculation that the Democratic-controlled Congress will delay passage of the budget bills in hopes that the next president will be a Democrat and more amenable to its priorities.

That sounds good, but the Democrats’ ability to guide the future of renewable fuels is still uncertain. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times carried an interesting article about the Democrat push to include a number of tax breaks for green energy producers in Congress’s multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package. Those incentives were struck down in the Senate yesterday, largely because of the still robust GOP influence on Capitol Hill, but even a self-avowed “green economist,” writing a guest column yesterday for the environmental magazine Grist, argued that the stimulus package is not the right place to promote green tech.

Still, when it comes to the future of green business (and the sustainability of reporting on such), it may not matter that Bush’s budget might not pan out, or that the stimulus package clearly hasn’t. Even though it was written before the tax breaks were struck down yesterday, the LA Times article said it best; the future is uncertain:

But the proposed benefits for green energy mark another advance for an industry that is becoming one of the darlings of Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill.

“It’s a unique moment in history for the renewable industry,” said Scott Segal, a longtime energy lobbyist in Washington. “The one thing that the Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club agree on is that the answer to climate change is transformative technologies.”

And the press loves transformation.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.