Monday, Dec. 14, 2009

Amid Copenhagen's Climate Din, a Corporate Silence

Glenn Prickett has been going to U.N. climate-change summits for years. But the head of Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership has noticed something different about the Copenhagen talks. For all the sheer noise in the Danish capital — more than 30,000 people are accredited at the conference, and more than 1,000 protesters were arrested over the weekend — the corporate sector has kept a low profile. That's in stark contrast to the Kyoto summit, when international business made a lot of noise — almost all of it against the idea of a global cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. "The businesses that don't want action on climate aren't making themselves heard at Copenhagen," says Prickett, who handles corporate alliances for Conservation International. "Instead you're seeing businesses that want a climate treaty — and that's a good thing."

Sunday was officially an off day at the Copenhagen summit, with Bella Center, the site of the talks, closed for the day. But with less than a week of negotiations to go and heads of state scheduled to begin arriving soon, more than 40 top-level ministers still met behind closed doors for six-plus hours. Talks remain divided over the same issues — levels of climate financing, the ambitiousness of developed nations' carbon cuts and exactly what actions major developing nations will take — but U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern told reporters that "it was a good meeting; it was a very constructive meeting," as he rushed to a waiting car. Right now, judging the negotiations is less a matter of factual analysis than personality test; it all comes down to how hopeful you are. "The good news is that we've narrowed down the divisions to a fairly small number of issues," says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The bad news is that those are still pretty major issues."

Diplomats could use a helpful shove in the right direction — and perhaps surprisingly, some of that force could come from a corporate sector that was once dead set against climate action. Early Sunday morning, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) hosted a CEO roundtable featuring top corporate leaders from influential companies like Coca-Cola and U.S. utility Duke Energy. Their message was clear: politicians should act now, as the business world will back them. "With U.S. unemployment sitting at 10%, any politician is going to look at climate action through the lens of jobs," says Carter Roberts, CEO of WWF-U.S. "They want to hear the business community say they want a regulatory framework that can give them the price signal to invest in a trend they know is coming."

It helps that many corporations, especially some in the U.S., have been well ahead of the government on climate. General Electric launched its Ecomagination initiative in 2005, which includes everything from energy efficiency to wind turbines to carbon accounting. The group claimed $17 billion in revenue in 2008, up 21% from the previous year, while GE overall has reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions 13% from a 2004 baseline. Those are numbers that would make almost any green-minded country proud, and the company is doing more by sending 10% of its Ecomagination revenue back into R&D. "This is about more than branding," says Steve Fludder, GE's vice president for Ecomagination. "Ecomagination shows that green is green."

That's an important argument to make, especially as other parts of the business world — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have launched expensive propaganda attacks on cap and trade, claiming it will destroy American business and jobs. (In fact, the general economic consensus is that the costs of cap and trade will be more than manageable — and a good deal in the face of the rising cost of unchecked climate change.) In any case, business needs to take an active role in the climate talks because corporations, after all, are responsible for emitting most greenhouse gases. Ultimately, they're the ones that will have to invest in a greener future, or perish.

At the WWF roundtable, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers made the point with three numbers: 3, 12, 41. Duke, which runs 17 coal plants in the U.S., is the third biggest corporate carbon emitter in North America, the 12th biggest globally — and if it were a country, it would rank 41st in the world. That makes Duke uniquely vulnerable if and when global carbon caps come down, but it also makes the company uniquely influential in Washington and Copenhagen. Rogers is beginning to exercise that influence. "It's important for business to send a message to the political leaders around the world that we are committed to seeing them step forward and reach an agreement and that we are prepared to invest our capital and our energy to make it a reality," he told the group. "They need to know that."

Of course, the final decision will be in the hands of the world leaders who will arrive this week to wrap up the Copenhagen negotiations. Even "green" corporations are not necessarily eager to lobby for stricter regulations, let alone caps tight enough to satisfy the scientists and activists who are fearful of a warming world. Companies like Duke Energy are helping by coming to Copenhagen and quietly showing support — though it's Washington where the real leverage needs to happen. But just as the protesters who swarmed the streets of Copenhagen on Dec. 12 have their role in keeping the spotlight on politicians, the CEOs of the world need to keep up the pressure behind the scenes in the way that only people with private jets can. It's nice that the business world isn't try to crash the climate party at Copenhagen — but it should try joining it.