Dotcom Lessons for Going Green

Article excerpt

The Super Bowl has gone carbon-neutral. Wal-Mart has "seen the light" - and it shines from a compact fluorescent bulb. Even President Bush now feels the need to at least talk about the human contribution of greenhouse gases.

Seemingly all at once, the politics of climate change have shifted - and the free market smells profits. There's talk of a greenhouse-gas "rush," with literally billions to be made in lessening the eco-impact of our insatiable appetite for energy.

Pundits are heralding a new era of technological innovation, new business models, and radical changes in our consumer behavior and personal habits.

It's the kind of hype that calls to mind the broken promises and unimagined positive outcomes of the dotcom era's adolescence a decade ago. Many fundamentals of the dotcom era are different from those of the current era of "climate change chic" - and the stakes are much higher. But one common warning applies: Whatever is said and believed can overwhelm actual achievements. That's why it's important to bear these dotcom lessons in mind:

* Tax-incentive training wheels. One of the first major Internet policy dust-ups dealt with e-commerce taxation. "New economy" gurus, worried that adding sales tax to our Amazon.com orders would snuff out innovation and entrepreneurship, helped keep e-commerce largely tax-free for years.

Likewise, today, enemies of fossil fuels will continue efforts to assign a tax to these energy sources commensurate with their tax on our planet; and eco-entrepreneurs will rely on various incentives to develop alternative energy sources.

That can work for a while, but market safety nets won't nourish the long-term health of a green economy. That's why new technologies and delivery systems must demonstrate a specific path to remove their tax-incentive training wheels and allow real competition.

* It's all about the network. Construction of the information superhighway arguably began in the 1960s with the Pentagon's ARPANET, but even until the 1980s, it was like one straight route from point A to point B without any exits or onramps. The Internet didn't become a network until the 1990s, when the "last miles" were added: personal AOL accounts and T1 lines that helped millions connect to the Internet highway - and to one another.

Today, any low-carbon energy source must be able to quickly find and flow along the "first mile" that leads onto America's 100-year- old power grid, with all its vastness, complexity, and occasional dysfunction. …