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OpinionColumnistsPeter Goldmark

Goldmark: Identifying the polluters and the greens, with standardized tools

Smoke is emitted from chimneys of a cement

Smoke is emitted from chimneys of a cement plant in Binzhou city, in eastern China's Shandong province. (Jan. 17, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

We have begun a chaotic, life-or-death, worldwide economic transition. It's from an economic pattern that assumes natural resources are virtually limitless to a system that is low-carbon and highly efficient. One that is resource-conserving rather than resource-wasting. Our survival as a civilization depends upon the transition's success.

For 200 years, from large-scale farming to textile mills to steel foundries to the oil-and-automobile era and now the high-tech world, our economic model has assumed that water, minerals, fuels and trees were readily available and essentially without cost; we thought we could emit limitless gigatonnes of greenhouse gas and other pollutants. The fundamental costs of economic enterprise were thought to be capital and labor.

We know now that this old formulation leads to a planet without enough food, water, energy, forests or other resources; one where the oceans rise relentlessly and where storms, droughts and heat waves devastate many regions of the globe.

From the American rust belt to Shanghai's industrial parks, private and state-owned companies are starting to wrestle with this challenge. But how can we tell whether our industrial base is changing in the right ways, and fast enough?

A highly respected, independent nonprofit organization named Ceres is working to develop a credible monitoring system. Ceres works with large businesses and investors across the United States to help them reduce destructive environmental impact and integrate environmental criteria into investment decisions. Sometimes this takes the form of friendly collaboration; occasionally it looks more like Ceres clasping the corporation in a powerful bearhug and quietly giving them a strong reality check.

There are more than 100 organizations that attempt to rate the products or activities of businesses according to social or environmental performance. Mindy Lubber, the chief executive of Ceres, told me she knows companies that have to assign several employees full-time just to filling out the forms that raters send them, because if they don't they get criticized for avoiding their "good citizen" responsibilities. Some of these rating instruments are solid and serious; others are flaky and cloak their methodologies in fog.

So Ceres and Tellus, a nonprofit institute devoted to bringing scientific rigor and analysis to the civilizational transition upon which we have embarked, have launched the Global Initiative for Sustainability Rating (GISR). Their goal is ambitious: They will set minimum standards for sustainability rating -- the basic metrics a business has to cover and the threshold standards it must meet. What's an example of a minimum standard? An obvious one is for a company to report greenhouse gas emissions transparently in comparable, consistent metrics. Companies care about these ratings because they influence what consumers buy and whether investors will put money into them.

GISR will also drive toward convergence -- a polite word for more uniformity -- among the wild array of criteria and methodologies now in use. Every new set of norms and standards has eventually faced the need for some degree of international uniformity, from accounting to weather forecasting. Getting convergence on sustainability metrics will be difficult, because it means taking on some politically powerful corporations and it implicitly involves rating the existing raters.

Does this all sound a little remote?

Think again. This is a key element in determining what kind of world we leave our children and grandchildren. Independent, tough tools are indispensable in measuring whether we are winning or losing the race to leave them a workable planet. This is the new frontier -- it's not about expanding our territory, but about making the territory we're all crowded into livable.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.