Credit where credit's due

Our view : Saving the bay is a good way to do business

July 09, 2008

Marylanders cherish the Chesapeake Bay. Smart entrepreneurs are tapping into the nation's environmental ethos by going green, investing in and promoting products that are less polluting. Might there be a way to take advantage of these two trends to the bay's benefit?

Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials think they've found one. They're helping develop a Chesapeake Clean Water Fund that would operate much like the increasingly popular carbon credit accounts used to combat global warming.

Businesses would take stock of their nutrient footprint - essentially, how much excess nitrogen they emit through such sources as electricity (provided by coal-burning plants), vehicle use (from exhaust), stormwater runoff (paved parking lots are a common culprit) or sewage (enough said). Then companies could buy nutrient offsets each year to partially or perhaps even fully compensate for their water pollution.

Where would the money go? Most likely, to reduce runoff from farms in the watershed. Organizers say that's by far the most cost-effective investment available. It could mean developing forested buffer strips near waterways, planting cover crops to thwart erosion or installing livestock fences to protect streams.

It's a promising idea that has won a $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The fund would be privately run and entirely voluntary. If effective, it might even save tax dollars in the long run.

There are obstacles, of course. Measuring a business' nutrient footprint is no easy feat, nor is it clear how much it might cost to offset the footprint. Investors will need proof that their contributions are having an impact.

But these appear surmountable. The real question is, will customers be more likely to patronize establishments that earn the fund's seal of approval? If they do, businesses are going to put their money where the pollution is - and that's certain to help the Chesapeake.

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