VERGING on Holy Writ stands the proposition that what is good for the environment is bad for business. In this calculus the cost of clean air and water, of conserving land and nature comes straight out of economic growth, jobs, and prosperity. Like other tenets of conventional wisdom, the supposedly inherent conflict between environmental protection and productivity is turning out to be a fallacy. Yet it retains a stubborn grip on too many minds.
Under the pressure of evidence, experiment, and ecological threat, that grip is loosening. In the field of energy, at least and at last, a new perception is dawning: Efficient use of natural resources is a win-win formula for competitiveness and conservation. Americans have a chance to be leaders in applying this new equation both at home, where a number of farsighted corporations are already trail-blazers, and at the Earth Summit now going on in Rio de Janeiro.
Vigorous environmental diplomacy can be a market-opening lever into a promising new field of advanced-technology trade. Congress is adding a legislative impetus to the advance of energy efficiency. Legislation that has passed the Senate and companion legislation moving through the House would, among other things, stimulate United States manufacturers to be strong competitors in the emerging domestic and global markets for energy-saving appliances and technology.
A voluntary partnership between government and business is already an encouraging example of the new strategy at work. More than 425 corporations have enrolled in EPA's "Green Lights" program, pledging to install energy-efficient lighting in their facilities. This will result in a projected $700 million a year in lower electricity bills and 7.3 million tons a year in reduced output of carbon dioxide. That amount of greenhouse gas equals the emissions from 1.6 million automobiles.
On their own, well-managed US companies are also adopting the new economics of ecological awareness. 3M Corporation, for example, has committed itself to a comprehensive energy-management drive - Challenge 95 - to cut the energy it uses by 20 percent between 1990 and 1995. In the utility field, Pacific Gas and Electric has an ambitious program of more than $2 billion in financial incentives for its residential, commercial, and industrial customers to become more energy efficient. PG&E estimates that over
10 years its efficiency program will save 18.3 million tons of CO2 and make customers more efficient and competitive.
The New England Electric System, while continuing aggressive efforts to help power users be power savers, is switching to cleaner-burning fuels and making significant environmental improvements at its own plants. Its goal is to meet increased demand for its energy without increasing CO2 output and, through the use of emission offsets, actually to reduce other greenhouse gases.
According to "America's Energy Choices," a recent study by the Alliance to Save Energy and three environmental organizations, by the end of the century the US as a whole could meet the New England utility's target of stabilizing CO2 emissions at 1990 levels and effect net savings to the economy in the process.
The legislation in Congress sets minimum efficiency standards for lamps, electric motors, and small commercial heating and ventilating equipment, promotes increased use of natural gas - the cleanest of the fossil fuels - and spurs utility regulators to reward efficiency gains. It positions American manufacturers to compete successfully in a world awake to the threat of global warming and resolved, at the 11th hour, to fight back.
The Rio meeting of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development will test that awareness and resolve. Unfortunately, too many Bush-administration officials and US business leaders still regard the Earth Summit with alarm. Instead of welcoming both the political challenge of leading a planetary alliance for environmental security and the commercial opportunities that would come from implementing an international agreement on CO2 stabilization, they perceive the short-term costs of change a s a threat to America's economy and trade competitiveness.
Their anxiety is misplaced. There is too much to be gained by advancing toward energy efficiency and too much to be lost - improving our environment and enhancing our competitiveness - by standing still. For corporations, the challenge can be met by implementing energy-efficiency investment programs and adopting formal environmental-management plans. Those efforts must be complemented by congressional initiatives. And the administration must sign up to provide leadership and vision. The time to act is no w.