HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Through all the sessions and workshops at the Clinton Global Initiative, the financial crisis was undeniably the elephant in the room.
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was one of the speakers at the CGI in Hong Kong.
For most, philanthropy had taken a back seat to the economic situation. All the attention now was squarely focused on how the world economy will play out. So perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated sessions was the one entirely dedicated to this all-consuming turmoil.
Leading finance prophets dissected and debated the issues with some degree of agreement. But it was the closing thoughts given by Laura Tyson, who served on Clinton's council of economic advisors during his administration, that really struck a chord.
The financial crisis is something we'll get through, she argued, but as for climate change, she wasn't so sure. Her advice in that case was to get through the financial crisis in order to deal with that other and perhaps more dangerous crisis of climate change.
Power to the people
It was refreshing to hear the views of people actually working in the green sector. Pinpointing the problem is the first step in solving any issue and it's no different here. For example, one issue that was brought up in a working session was the pressing need to decentralize energy systems. It would simply make what they do that much more effective.
Panelists agreed that it's a conceptual hurdle as much as a technological one - countries, states, cities need to think about getting away from centralized energy systems. There doesn't always have to be a national grid - in many countries, the national grid is insufficient. Particularly in the case of solar panels, there is the potential for every building to become its own energy center. This solution would cut out any need to enlarge the grid.
I also came across some unlikely green heroes. Wang Jianzhou, CEO of China Mobile, seemed to be an interesting choice to participate on a panel about green technologies. China Mobile has been making small but meaningful steps to improve its environmental record.
He shared much insight on some of the hurdles encountered by companies trying to go green. A few interesting projects in the works include a plan to program cell phones to turn heating systems on and off remotely, as well as sending subscribers tips on how to reduce their environmental footprint.
However, if there's going to be significant reduction in the environmental impact of cell phones, much more effort will have to come from telecom equipment providers as well as the IT equipment providers (like IBM that produce the vast energy-consuming server farms and databases that run our sweeping cellular networks). Cell phone service providers like China Mobile are perhaps ideal in coordinating these efforts but they can't do it alone.
Customer is not always right
The advantage cell phone providers have is that they have direct contact with the consumer - a key tool they were able to use for their battery recycling program. In 2006, China Mobile asked customers to send back old batteries for recycling, but from the onset, it was clear the message wasn't getting through.
With a staggering 450 million subscribers (and 7 million new subscribers every month), the company received a mere 60,000 old batteries in the first year of the program.
Somehow the "save the planet" message was getting lost or perhaps more pessimistically, it was simply insufficient motivation for most people. The following year, China Mobile launched a much more aggressive marketing strategy for the recycling program using local movie stars to push the message as well as concrete incentives like gifts. That year, they received 2 million old batteries. But in 2008 when they scaled back the marketing, the figure tumbled to 1 million.
The lesson learned there is that despite growing environmental consciousness among consumers (admittedly, this trend may be more subdued in China than elsewhere), companies still need to understand the customer. The company was on board, the technology was ready, but the customers still need to fill in the blanks.
But with an unmotivated market, companies will need to spend more to get them engaged in green initiatives, but is anyone really prepared to do that in today's climate?
Bubba's words of wisdom
At the close of the conference, Clinton addressed the crowd for one final time with the conclusions and commitments drawn from the past two days. Among them was the idea that sustainability requires profit.
For any of this to work, sustainability and business objectives need to forge a mutual, interdependent relationship. Sustainability must be in line with business objectives (the key one being profit) and vice versa.
This idea of the "triple bottom line" (of profits, people and planet) was echoed throughout the conference and while I believe it may work for some companies and some projects, the China Mobile case showed that it often needs more financial backing to make it work.
Whether it comes from government or the company, not all green initiatives are as elegant as the energy efficiency plan Clinton suggested. With the financial crisis weighing down heavily on the conference, Clinton warned that we can't afford to use it as an excuse not to go forward with these projects. Quite the opposite, he urged participants to redouble efforts in light of the crisis.
Walking away from this conference, I was nicely surprised by the key role climate change played in all the debates. I wasn't sure how prominently the environment would play at this summit seeing that there was another Clinton organization dedicated entirely to this issue (the Clinton Climate Initiative), but it became clear these efforts need to go hand in hand.
Whether it's spreading healthcare or literacy, all of this is contingent on one key premise - an effective strategy towards climate change. With the planet taken care of, we can concentrate on everything else