Coke coolerCoca-Cola has pledged a “gigaton-scale commitment” to phase out HFC refrigerants by 2015.Photo: The Coca-Cola companyIf there’s one thing Americans agree on in these divided times, it’s the urgent need to move toward cleaner energy. Polls taken as recently as November show a majority of Americans favoring comprehensive energy reform that limits pollution, develops domestic sources, and stimulates renewable power. We’re not likely to get comprehensive reform in the year ahead, but I still see strong paths toward a cleaner, more sustainable economy.

That’s because smart entrepreneurs are taking the lead. They see the “green” in green, and don’t want to miss out on the next big industrial revolution transforming the global economy.  

Corporate cleantech innovations were, in fact, the buzz at the recent international climate treaty talks in Cancun, Mexico. At a side meeting for business leaders, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris announced that his company is reaping $50 billion in annual revenues from the sale of its cleantech products. Solar shingles, coatings for energy-saving “cool” roofs, and sugarcane-based plastic, which emits far fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum-based plastic, are just some of Dow’s budding green technologies.  

Technology giant Siemens’ clean energy portfolio likewise topped $37 billion in 2010. Nearly half of its 8,000-plus inventions last year involved technologies that improve energy efficiency and sustainability — innovations like coatings for power-plant turbine blades, ultra-efficient lighting systems, and electric-car charging technologies.

Perhaps most impressive was Coca-Cola’s announcement that it has removed the potent global-warming pollutant hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from 200,000 of its refrigeration units, and that it hopes to make its entire supply chain of 10 million refrigeration units completely HFC-free by 2015. Even better, Coca-Cola, Greenpeace, and other stakeholders convinced a consortium of 400 global consumer goods manufacturers to join their effort, and the group has now pledged a “gigaton-scale commitment” to phase out HFC refrigerants by 2015. Getting their peers onboard means that scaling up this new technology will happen more quickly and cheaply. A win-win for everyone.

Beyond corporate initiatives, emerging economies also give me hope for green progress in 2011. These rising tigers — some with the fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions in the world — are taking concrete steps to reduce their contribution to global climate change.

India began levying a carbon tax on coal producers in July, just one month before the U.S. Senate abandoned its efforts to pass a comprehensive climate bill. India will use those revenues to finance clean energy development.  

Brazil passed a national law requiring 32 emissions-reducing activities, and adopted a voluntary goal of reducing its emissions by more than one third by 2020.

And China is globally dominating the wind and solar power industries. Though it still relies heavily on coal, China has pledged to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020.

While these actions foster hope, they also leave me wondering why the U.S. is still stuck on fossil fuels and continues to cede the green industrial revolution — and the jobs that come with it — to other nations. China already boasts more than a million renewable energy jobs, five times the U.S. total.

Without strong national policies to incentivize clean technologies, voluntary business initiatives can only go so far. As Dow’s Liveris put it, “We have the technologies for a global clean economy, but they will not deploy in significant numbers without greater public policy certainty and incentives.”

The U.S. instead continues to seek short-term fixes from dirtier and dirtier sources of energy.

Take the proposed 1,900-mile, $12 billion Keystone oil pipeline designed to bring up to 1.5 million barrels a day of crude from Canada’s oil sands to U.S. refineries as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. While the prospect of buying oil from Canadians, rather than unstable regimes, may sound appealing, there’s a catch. Extracting crude from sticky oil sands emits far more greenhouse gases per barrel than conventional oil, and it is causing widespread environmental and health problems across vast stretches of Alberta, as outlined in a new report [PDF] by the Royal Canadian Society.

Why seek out dirtier sources of oil when we could be innovating electric cars and clean fuels for jets and improving vehicle efficiency standards — all of which will help us regain our competitive footing in the global economy and put Americans back to work?

And here’s the real kicker: Many of these clean technologies already exist. We just need the right policies and priorities to scale them up.

Last month’s vote in Congress to extend renewable energy tax credits — which will create 20,000 new jobs this year in the wind industry alone — is a good example of what I mean. And there are other smart policies we can adopt in the coming months — whether to expand energy efficiency or strengthen truck mileage standards — that will move the U.S. toward a cleaner energy future. Now that would really fuel my optimism.