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Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Sustainability

Question: What does society as a whole need to do to advance sustainability so that we are pushing the whole system faster, further?

Jay Light:  Well there is some low hanging fruit here and some not-so-low-hanging fruit, but let me talk about the low hanging fruit.  I could use the Harvard Business School as an example, so Harvard University some four years ago dedicated itself to the proposition of bringing down the emission of greenhouse gases and the uses of energy and so we took that on as a challenge and decided we were going to bring that down 30% over 10 years, so we will as of next year have brought it down 31% over 4 _ years.  We did that largely through conservation measures, but also through some other really small investments in energy saving pieces of equipment or structures or supplies and in fact, those are all figs that I’m absolutely sure in the short run will pay for themselves relatively quickly.  So the low hanging fruit is that if you really say to your organization we need to change and we really need to do it for sustainability reasons the low hanging fruit turns out to be the economic thing to do anyway.  The not so low hanging fruit is okay, but what happens if we now talk about investing in let’s say alternative energy sources where in fact in the short run there is going to be a negative cost differential even though in the long run 20 and 30 years from now you think it will pay?  That is a harder set of justifications to make, although I think it should be done.  And then the really high hanging fruit is there are a number of things that we probably all should do as citizens of the world, but that frankly may never pay off all that much to us individually just to us collectively and those are the harder things to frankly justify.

Investments in areas like alternative energy sources have a negative cost differential in the short run, even though they may pay off in 20 or 30 years. And what about those things that we need to do as a society, but which may not pay off in our lifetimes?

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