Peter Fusaro’s Wall Street Green Summit : Unearthing new climate opportunities

Climate Leadership Interviews

Peter Fusaro’s Wall Street Green Summit : Unearthing new climate opportunities

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Fusaro’s Wall Street Green Summit celebrates 20 years of lively climate dialogue on how to make money by doing the right thing.

If you have been following the war in Ukraine, you will have heard a lot about liquified natural gas. Germany needs it to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. But it’s controversial. The German Green movement hates it, in part because if a docked ship carrying a boatload of highly condensed gas was ever breached by a bomb or missile, it would instantaneously explode and create a fireball inferno the size of three football pitches –– that could not be extinguished. 

The Germans should be talking to Peter Fusaro. He started his storied environmental career at the Department of Energy in the 1970s co-writing one of the first environmental impact statements on LNG. That was just the start, he brings an encyclopedic knowledge of energy: In the mid-1980s, he created the first energy efficiency programs for electricity and natural gas as a senior policy analyst for New York City. In the early-1990s he developed energy efficiency and conservation programs for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. He then found himself working with Toyota to develop the first breakthrough “clean car” –– the legendary Prius. He’s worked with oil companies, cleantech entrepreneurs, as well as Japanese, Korean and Venezuelan energy executives. He’s pretty much seen it all.

For the last 20 years, he brings all this knowledge together at his eclectic Wall Street Green Summit, which stands out for the sheer breadth of new ideas and expertise that cross its stage. Unfortunately, there will not be a stage as the conference will remain virtual for now.

Climate & Capital publisher David Garrison spoke by phone with Fusaro at his home in New York City. This is an edited transcript.

What’s the burning opportunity in climate change?

I’ve written seventeen books, and one thing I’ve learned is that the opportunity is to make complexity simple and compelling. 

These days, I’m focused on the nexus of technology and finance, but I spent time as a policymaker, and that taught me that scaring people — telling them the world is going to end — doesn’t work. Just because you know the truth doesn’t mean people want to hear the message. To be blunt, most of humanity simply wants to go to work and come home; they want a job, security, and a house (or apartment). They don’t want to deal with a huge issue like this. 

So, rather than scaring people by saying it’s going to be impossible or you have to take your medicine, I’ve framed the urgency here — and the Wall Street Green Summit — as opportunistic: “You’re going to make money doing the right thing.”

You’ve seen a lot of change in the decades you’ve run the Wall Street Green Summit. What’s exciting you right now?

Invest or divest? That’s a nice discussion for pension funds. And what does it actually do if Google and Facebook and Microsoft are green? Server farms are 2% of energy consumption in the country. That’s not material. I want to be talking about the major players that consume a lot of natural resources being pushed to ESG by investors. That’s a big deal.

I spent my career working with the dirtiest industry on the planet to take lead out of gasoline and make it cleaner. Now you’re seeing a transformation as the mining industry — the second dirtiest industry — starts to become sustainable and look at green copper (imagine mining copper with ESG metrics!).

That’s two big dogs coming clean. 

Industries like mining are under unbelievable pressure to clean up their act now, and that action is investor-driven. I asked a leader from a Canadian mining company recently why they were taking action. His response was that they want U.S. investors. So, there may be a green element to this, but you shouldn’t think they’re being all altruistic. 

“Industries like mining are under unbelievable pressure to clean up their act now, and that action is investor-driven.”

I believe we’re going to see a gradation of metals and mining — just like we do for energy and oil with crude and sour crude, etc. — that there’s going to be metals that are environmentally positive because of offsets. 

That’s kind of amazing. Sustainable mining?? Hell, it even sounds like an oxymoron. But I’ve seen this in the energy business moving to renewables: It starts somewhere with a seed and then it grows.

What themes are you expecting to rise in importance in the coming years?

I think we’re underestimating how AI has penetrated sustainability. The low-hanging fruit here is to make things simple; for example, to build smart devices into apartments and cities. 

Take integrated photovoltaics as an example. We could be putting them in the skin of buildings, but in general, our buildings right now are dumb. There are a few hotels in SoHo and schools in Newark, but we’ve underestimated its potential, particularly in urban areas like New York City. 

What else do you see emerging?

We’ll be seeing an acceleration in Agtech and regeneration. The world’s topsoil is being destroyed — in Iowa, it’s down about four inches, and Africa is a disaster — so we have to look more at tech-focused indoor ag, like creating major footprints in vertical farming. Brooklyn’s a hub for some of these startups, and we’re watching, for example, a Dutch technology that’s being brought to Maine for non-marijuana grow houses. 

What changes do we still need to make for an efficient, equitable, sustainable market?

We’re still not focusing on where we need to be, which is hydrogen. The reality is we’re going to blow through two degrees, probably by 2050. And unless we move quickly to hydrogen, we don’t really have many arrows in our quiver. With no emissions and water vapor, it’s a two-fer. 

“Unless we move quickly to hydrogen, we don’t really have many arrows in our quiver.”

But outside of some initiatives like the Hydrogen Council, which has about ninety members (mostly big corporates), there’s a lack of education around the movement of this country — of the world — toward a hydrogen economy. 

What’s the one piece of information or data that leaders still need to take bold action? 

It has to do with that lack of education. Leaders are monitoring this and they’re convinced, but they need to feel more comfortable with it as an emerging asset class. 

My thesis is simple: Little companies that are doing all the innovation will be acquired by the big companies. Those innovators need to scale and commercialize. And they can’t do that without a larger balance sheet. There’s no IPO market here. So, they’ll be acquired through trade sales. That’s the game: The capital base of the multibillion-dollar companies is what wins; they buy technology companies. 

What’s stopping those leaders is simply that they don’t move fast. They’re not entrepreneurial. Or perhaps it’s more that they move, but they’re like battleships — they take time to turn. They’re. Just. Really. Big. 

In climate change, we often bounce between narratives — whether they’re science-based or morals-based — that are either about fear or responsibility. Do you see the potential for a third narrative?

The third narrative is about doing. 

I like to focus on a version of this narrative where there are solutions to transform the world’s largest businesses. The truth is that we can’t do business as usual anymore — in energy, in food, or in water. 

With the Wall Street Green Summit, I’m not doing a conference on tomorrow’s technology. No, we have to start looking at responsible investing with solutions that are available today, being mindful that there’ll be better solutions down the road. This can’t be a bunch of academic papers on better carbon tech. I want to show that there are real solutions now. 

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.