The onus was on businesses worldwide to lead a "green" revolution by sharing technology and costs before authoritarian governments slapped them and citizens with life-altering regulations, according to panel members.
"Perhaps I am naive, but I don't think the green consumer will be the answer," Patrick Atkins, director of energy innovation at Alcoa aluminum company, said during a Global Innovation Outlook forum led by IBM Corporation on Thursday.
"People need to reach a tipping point at which it clearly effects their lives, and then they will address the problem and galvanise the innovation of the world."
Executives from major firms such as Halliburton and Intuit packed an auditorium in the San Francisco Museum of Art, where academics and technology veterans brainstormed solutions to pollution and transportation woes.
"Business has a key role to play," said Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
"Here we are. It is up to us to create a sustainable path in the world. If we don't, I don't like where we are going."
When Stigson asked how many people in the room believed in the "green consumer," a person willing to pay more for eco-sensitive products such as electric cars or organic produce, only one hand was raised.
"You can't tell poor, struggling people to just pay more," Hugh Aldridge of the Cambridge-MIT Institute warned. "If you price things out of reach for people you don't have stability, you have rebellion."
If business doesn't step in to fix the quality-of-life ills in major urban areas, heavy-handed governments will, predicted Aldridge.
"The oil clock is ticking. The greenhouse clock is ticking. And, we can't even clarify the problems"
World Resources Institute
Technology being "seriously discussed" in England would remotely redirect cars and stop them to lessen traffic congestion, Aldridge said.
"Governments are thinking in authoritarian ways to deal with these problems because they don't think market forces will do it," Aldridge said. "That, to me, is a huge danger and we need to come up with innovation to stop it."
It would be misguided to expect business alone to solve environmental problems, but shifting costs to the wallets of consumers was a doomed strategy and waiting for government regulation foolish, pundits said.
IBM will create a databank of "eco-patents" that will be free to legitimate users of the technology, said Nicholas Donofrio, vice president of Innovation and Technology at the company.
"The oil clock is ticking," panelist Lee Schipper of the World Resources Institute said, gesturing as if holding up a watch. "The greenhouse clock is ticking. And, we can't even clarify the problems."
People should not expect technology to be a panacea, Lee said.
"There is always a fool smart enough to violate a foolproof system," he quipped.