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West Michigan sustainability efforts expected to continue, despite U.S. exit of Paris accords

BY Friday, June 09, 2017 02:13pm

Many organizations will likely stick with their sustainability and environmental commitments, regardless of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris Agreement.

That’s according to a variety of business watchers, government officials and other stakeholders, who note that environmental and sustainable business practices have become too ingrained in the normal course of business over the last few decades to be reversed now.

“I’m not sure anything changes,” Paul Isely, associate dean and professor of economics at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, said of the decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. “The vast majority of our companies are going to be wanting to trade overseas and they’re going to have to conform in ways to be able to trade in those markets. Whether we’re (in the accord) or not, to work in those markets those firms are going to have to show that they’re doing what they would have done under (the Paris Accords). It’s just going to cause uncertainty.”

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 195 nations during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2015. The historic agreement sought to limit global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius for the century by holding nations to certain greenhouse gas emissions benchmarks and other targets.

Developed global powers including the United States, European Union and China took the lead in the agreement. The U.S. pledged to provide up to $3 billion in aid through 2020 to support the efforts of developing nations, according to reports.

President Trump cited the “draconian financial and economic burdens” of the agreement accepted by the Obama administration as one of the primary reasons for leaving the accord.

While the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Paris accord touched off a wave of reactions, some believe the decision may serve as a rallying cry to strengthen the business community’s resolve when it comes to environmental issues.

“It’s a fair statement that the decision, while meaningful on an international scale, the meaning for Michigan and more locally is symbolic,” said Dan Schoonmaker, executive director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. “In the short term, it is probably going to be a positive. I think it was Stephen King that said that if you want to sell books, the best thing is to ban them. As the president has done on many issues, he’s put businesses in a position where they have to make a choice on how they feel about issues.”

While many businesses in West Michigan have not made public statements on the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Paris accord, many of them have a long history of investing in sustainability practices, said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc.

“The triple bottom line has become very embedded in the orthodoxy and the DNA of many companies in West Michigan,” Klohs said, declining to comment on the Paris accord directly. “It just makes a lot of financial sense to be sustainable, to save money, to look at your energy usage. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, that has become part of … who we are and what we do, in terms of continuous improvement.”

From an economic development perspective, Klohs said companies looking to locate in the U.S. or Michigan do not stake their decisions on a community’s adherence to sustainable principles.

“When we have a company that’s non-local, and that includes companies from the United States, they’re always very pleased at the way this city and this region are dealing with the environment, how it looks, how clean it is,” Klohs said. “It’s not going to make or break a deal, but it does impress them how we function here.”

At the city level, 16 mayors from around Michigan joined a coalition of 279 U.S. mayors who have agreed to work toward the terms of the agreement. In West Michigan, the mayors of Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City and Buchanan all pledged their support for the U.S. Climate Mayors coalition.

“Local environmental progress is going to be challenging without a federal partner and cities will have to stand together to make progress toward environmental goals,” said Kara Wood, managing director for economic development services at the City of Grand Rapids.

Wood noted that despite actions from Washington, Grand Rapids will maintain its commitment to investing in concepts like green infrastructure.

“We believe in (green infrastructure) regardless of what the federal government decides to do,” Wood said, citing the city’s $15 million investment in flood control infrastructure as one example. “The investment that private businesses, nonprofits and other businesses are making will hopefully sustain that growth.”

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