15 years of "ways that work" for people and planet

Eric Pooley

Slogans don’t often mean very much. But 15 years ago, when Environmental Defense Fund adopted Finding the Ways that Work as our motto, it proved to be more than just a pithy phrase.

It became our lodestar, guiding just about everything we’ve done since then.

And in truth, it’s been part of EDF’s approach since we were founded by a team of scientists and a lawyer in 1967. It’s why we’ve been both praised and criticized for being as pragmatic as we are ambitious.

In practice, Finding the Ways that Work means using science and economics to determine the best path to solving tough environmental problems. It means using the tactics that fit the specific goal.

When it’s possible to harness the power of the marketplace in service of environmental goals, we favor those market-based approaches – while acknowledging there are some cases in which that doesn’t work.

And we try to take a cooperative approach with government and businesses when we think that can drive environmental progress – just as we’re willing to pressure, protest and sue when that will work better.

Market-based strategies deliver on acid rain, carbon, oceans

Using economic levers to reduce pollution can be remarkably effective.

It’s clear that the pursuit of profit is an enormously powerful force in the modern world, and so we often seek to create conditions where investors, inventors and entrepreneurs - not to mention farmers, ranchers and fishermen - have an economic incentive to protect the environment.

We pioneered this strategy in 1990, with a market-based approach to reducing acid rain pollution. It caused previously reluctant power companies to clean up the problem far faster and cheaper than anyone expected. It delivered a whopping 72-percent decrease in average air concentrations of sulfur dioxide between 1992 and 2012.

The same approach is working today to cap carbon emissions in California, nine northeastern states, seven industrial areas in China, and Europe – where, after a rocky start, climate pollution is now being cut reliably year after year, dropping 19.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. We’ve also used market-based approaches to protect endangered species, bring collapsed fisheries back from the brink and achieve other important objectives.

Environmental pragmatism brings results

But we only advocate for that tactic when we think it is the best option to achieve our environmental goals.

Problems such as global climate change and over-fishing lend themselves to market-based solutions because what matters is reducing the total amount of environmental damage. It doesn’t matter exactly where the reductions happen, so we can take advantage of market efficiencies by building flexibility into the system.

In other cases, such as toxic mercury which pollutes locally, we have sued to stop a market-based approach. Letting companies trade “mercury credits,” would have meant concentrating that toxic poison in a few areas.  

Partnering with businesses to cut pollution…

EDF is also well known for using corporate partnerships to achieve progress for the environment.

Just as the safecracker Willie Sutton supposedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” we work with corporations because that’s where the pollution is. Partnering with companies in a position to directly cut pollution and promote conservation can be an effective strategy.

But we’re very careful to demand ambitious environmental outcomes from these partnerships, and unlike Willie we never take money from the companies.

(EDF does not accept funding from our corporate partners or from any companies involved in energy, extraction, or other sectors that may be affected directly by our work. We do accept funding from private philanthropies, family foundations, and individuals.)

Our Corporate Partnerships program works with companies such as Walmart because their vast supply chains have enormous influence in places like China, which desperately need environmental improvement.

We hold them to tough standards but give them credit when they deserve it. We approach these relationships with eyes wide open – knowing each entity has its own agenda, but convinced that progress sometimes requires unconventional allies.

The strategy also worked in places such as Colorado, where Governor John Hickenlooper last year asked us to sit across the table from three leading energy companies and craft limits on air pollution for the state’s oil-and-gas industry.

The rules included the first direct regulations in the country to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and cut conventional air pollutants equivalent to keeping all cars and trucks in Colorado off the road.

…and taking corporations to task when needed

Of course, partnership is not always the best strategy – and we’re more than willing to take on companies or government agencies when we think that will lead to a better outcome for the environment.

Sometimes we’ll do both. In 2007, we joined Duke Energy and other Fortune 500 companies to push Congress to pass limits on carbon pollution, while at the same time suing Duke Energy all the way to the Supreme Court and winning – forcing them to clean up some of their dirtiest coal plants.

And when American Electric Power was peddling terrible legislation on Capitol Hill, we called them out with grassroots demonstrations and a billboard across the street from their headquarters asking how many lives they were willing to sacrifice by opposing clean air rules.

Coming up: A major push on climate

While our tactics vary, our mission never does: a healthier environment and a sustainable future.

We understand that human prosperity and environmental progress can and must go hand-in-hand. Some may differ with our approach – and we recognize it takes a variety of voices and strategies to achieve these goals – but we’ve seen our practical approach repeatedly yield dramatic, measurable results for the environment.

That’s why we remain optimistic about the enormous challenges we face. This fall, we’ll kick off – in partnership with many others – a new effort to cut 6 billion tons of climate pollution annually by 2020, enough to actually begin turning the corner toward climate stability.

It’s the sort of audacious, yet pragmatic, effort that will help create a better future for us all. And it’s good way to celebrate our 15th anniversary of finding the ways that work.

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