How to fix America’s environmental woes — without Congress

June 5, 2014, 3:41 PM UTC
Fortune Brainstorm Green 2014
Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Green

It’s pretty much impossible to have a meaningful conversation about climate change without mentioning the fact that, on this issue, Congress has proven itself utterly useless.

Congress is so hamstrung on climate change policy that President Barack Obama resorted to his executive authority when he delegated the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a rule to reduce power plant emissions on Monday.

Congressional gridlock was a constant topic of discussion at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, but that hasn’t stopped the conference’s attendees — among others — from tackling big environmental challenges themselves. By the end of the three-day conference, they – unlike Congress – had come up with a few possible solutions.

Here are the big-ticket environmental questions they took on:

1. Speaking of Congressional inaction: How do we build a business-friendly, bipartisan movement for climate action?

There was a blip of promise for comprehensive climate legislation during the beginning of the Obama administration, when the House of Representatives passed legislation that subsequently died in the Senate.

But now, hope for legislation to address climate change in the next few years is all but lost. “The bad news is that the politics are more toxic right now,” said Mike Robinson, vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs for General Motors (GM).

The key to breaking that impasse, during the current administration or the next, is to make inroads among Republicans. “Environmental protection is really the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” said Christie Todd Whitman, who served as the head of the EPA during the Bush administration. “Conservation is conservative, by definition.”

Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina, made a proposal at Brainstorm Green that could win over members of the GOP: Eliminate all subsidies for solar and wind power, electric cars, coal, oil, and natural gas, and impose a tax on carbon pollution that would capture the costs of climate change, so that companies cannot freely pollute the atmosphere.

“All costs in. All subsidies out,” Inglis said, “Let’s see what happens.”

2. How do we put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2017?

Back in 2011, the Obama administration had set a goal of reaching the 1 million mark by 2015, but last year the Department of Energy backed off that aim to focus more generally on promoting electric vehicles and lowering their cost. Since 2010, about 167,000 plug-in vehicles — mainly Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts — have been sold, according to

One of the main hang-ups for potential buyers of electric cars is range anxiety, or the fear that their plug-in automobile will simply run out of juice. Brainstorm Green attendees proposed a sort of “perfect parking” system as one potential fix. The program would bring together different industries — from utilities, to Internet companies, to car charging installers, to energy and car companies — to form a coalition that would make electric car-charging stations easier to find.

“Drivers would have real-time information on available parking and would be able to reserve an empty charging spot ahead of time,” Rick Needham, director of energy and sustainability at Google (GOOG), told Brainstorm Green attendees.

This is how it could work: GPS technology would alert a driver to the nearest spot, and–for a price–the driver could reserve it. No more searching endlessly for spaces. This would not only make it easier for drivers to charge their electric vehicle, it would also reduce congestion and save time. Plus, by knowing where a car will be parked and when, power companies could tap into energy from the car’s battery during times of peak electricity demand.

3. How do we double investment in clean tech?

The total amount of venture capital invested in clean technology globally was $6.8 billion in 2013, according to the Cleantech Group, down 15% from $7.9 billion in 2012. But there are still plenty of signs of life: more than 1,000 deals were done for the third year in a row. And the pace of dealmaking increased as the year went on.

Some cleantech investors have made big profits in recent months. Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of smart thermostat-maker Nest, announced in January, and the $116 million IPO of energy-efficiency software company Opower in April each offered healthy rewards for the companies’ venture capital backers. Shares of electric carmaker Tesla (TSLA) have been soaring.

But the cleantech industry faces challenges that go beyond raising funds, or as Michael Ellis, the leader of the advisory practice at the Cleantech Group, put it, “Accelerating investment in cleantech not only in total dollars, but also in terms of accelerating time to market.”

Jonathan Wolfson, the CEO of Solazyme, which makes oil products out of algae, said that it is essential to have “good corporate partnering hygiene” when big companies put money into cleantech startups. That means agreeing on realistic goals and timetables to reach them.

Another possible fix: developing deeper ties and better partnerships between the cleantech business and universities — the source of most basic research in the sector. Without that, there’s a danger that some of the best and brightest students at university labs will migrate to the next hot industry.

4. How do we replace the most hazardous chemicals of concern in consumer products with safer, cost-effective alternatives by 2017?

U.S. companies currently use thousands of chemicals that lack adequate toxicological studies to evaluate their health effects on humans and the environment. More and more, scientists are identifying and detecting “emerging chemicals of concern” (ECCs) in consumer products.

“There’s really no action at the federal level,” said Dara O’Rourke, co-founder and chief sustainability officer at GoodGuide, which rates the health, environmental, and social impact of consumer products. But among NGOs and chemical manufactures, there’s been plenty of progress on this front, he said. “The question is, how do we build platforms for partnerships and figure out how we all work together?”

The best, and maybe most obvious answer, is greater transparency and sharing “from retailers to brands about what’s in the products,” O’Rourke said.