By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Going green can give businesses a competitive edge, according to regional leaders who met Tuesday to assess how the Greater Washington region can position itself as a national leader in green commerce.
This year's Potomac Conference, sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, brought together leaders from the government, business and nonprofit sectors to address the region's economic health and quality of life through environmental stewardship.
Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley did not attend because of the General Assembly special session, which began Monday night. Gov. Timothy Kaine of Virginia and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty both spoke at the conference.
The event's participants ranked their priorities for making the region greener, suggesting that setting regional greenhouse gas targets for the area would increase action.
The second-most-important initiative would be to give businesses incentives to trim carbon emissions, like tax breaks, according to the electronic poll taken in the afternoon.
Panelists at the event tried to impress upon the executives the importance of changing business and personal practices.
"We are in extreme trouble as a species," said L. Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado nonprofit that educates leaders on the principles of sustainability.
"Species that don't survive become fossils," she said. "If you don't go green, you will die."
Making environmentally sound choices can reduce a company's bottom line.
"It takes guts, but doing the right thing can also be the most profitable," Lovins said.
The strengths of the Greater Washington region could make it highly competitive in green industries, said C.D. Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, College Park.
Mote pointed to the robust research and development industry in Maryland and Virginia and the region's highly educated population, which he said increases sensitivity to the global warming issue.
Students, however, understand the area's environmental problems far better than middle-aged people, he said.
"If this room were filled with university people, we would be much farther advanced than we are today," Mote said. "Young people get it."
In the next 10 years, Mote said students and faculty at the university will have an even greater understanding of the environmental issues facing the planet, since sustainability will become a key part of the curriculum.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation works to keep the bay clean, but William Baker, its president, said even with all of the public support, the foundation is still struggling to meet its goals.
"Everything we do is about saving the bay," he said. "If you can't save the bay . . . then what hope do we have?"
The presence of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water are causing extreme damage. Researchers have the technology and support of the public to make the water clean, but government research suggests the effort would cost $28 billion while Baker said it would cost $6 billion.
"We don't have the government support because it would cost too much," he said.
The most important thing, panelists said, was that businesses recognize their role in reducing the effects of global warming. Lovins compared their task to that of the hobbits in "Lord of the Rings."
"In the end," she said, "all the kings and leaders could just stand by as the little people saved the world."