By Joel Makower
Published December 07, 2009
To start with the basics: I don’t expect this week’s United Nations Climate Change Summit, a.k.a. COP15, to produce much from the perspective of global political change. I’m guessing, cynically perhaps, that the two-week event will yield more posturing and pageantry than productive policies.
But that isn’t stopping me from making the trek to Copenhagen. I’ll be there, albeit relatively briefly, to see how business, especially big business, is engaging with and responding to the proceedings and all that surrounds them. After all, while national governments will be responsible for creating commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the responsibility for implementing them will fall largely to those economic entities that produce the carbon-emitting goods and services — that is, the private sector.
So, what are companies expecting from COP15? To garner a glimpse, I asked my colleague John Davies for help. Davies, whose title is vice president of GreenBiz Intelligence, heads up the research division of Greener World Media. Part of his charge is the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, consisting of more than 2,500 professionals who have volunteered to participate in a monthly survey we conduct to learn what the companies are thinking about and doing on a range of issues.
I asked Davies to query a subsection of the panel — nearly 1,000 members, dominated by those in companies with annual revenue in excess of $1 billion — about three questions: Whether someone from their company was going to COP15, whether they expected the UN event would have an impact on global climate policy, and whether the proceedings of COP15 “will have an impact on your company.”
Surprisingly, to me at least, there was considerable optimism among the 274 panel members that responded. Nearly one in three (28 percent) said they planned to attend the Copenhagen summit. Seventy percent agreed or strongly agreed that COP15 will have an impact on global climate policy. And slightly more than half (52 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that the proceedings of COP15 will have an impact on their company; only 17 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with this.
You can download a more detailed summary of the survey here (PDF).
Of course, the GreenBiz panel isn’t representative of all companies. Its members are those already predisposed to have an interest in environmental issues, and they hail overwhelmingly from the U.S. and other developed nations. Nonetheless, my takeaway is that the private sector seems to have higher expectations of COP15 than I would have imagined (perhaps higher than many of the idealistic nonprofit environmental groups from which I’ve been hearing), though clearly there remain some very loud business voices that adamantly oppose most policies restricting greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, the corporate response to climate change to date has been all over the map — a response due in large part to the lack of political leadership in the United States and most of the world’s other large greenhouse gas emitters. It’s that cacophony of nationalistic voices that will be the focus of the 192 nations gathered in Copenhagen for the next two weeks in an attempt to forge some kind of consensus. Lacking clear, consistent regulatory signals, companies have been left to their own devices to determine what, if anything, they should do to respond to the threat of global warming.
The result, as you well know, has been a hodgepodge of responses: A relative handful of large companies staking out leadership positions, sometimes out of enlightened self-interest, due to measures they’ve already taken or the products and services they offer that stand to profit in a world where carbon emissions have a monetary price. (The climate deniers and anti-regulatory crowd have taken these companies to task, branding them as hypocrites or worse for aligning their political interests with their economic ones, with absolutely no sense of irony for the countless millions of dollars spent by the incumbent economic interests — oil and coal companies and other large emitters — to cast doubt on global warming’s existence.)
Beyond that are companies that view global warming as a moral imperative for which they hold a social responsibility to act. These are companies most often at the front of the pack of social and environmental issues: the Stonyfield Farms, Nikes, Patagonias, and Interfaces, and many of the members of BSR, Ceres, and other progressive business associations.
And then there are those who have adopted a no-regrets policy (though they likely don’t refer to it as such), taking the stance that even if, as U.S. Senator James Imhofe believes, global warming somehow turns out to be a hoax, that the emissions-reducing investments they have made will still be worthwhile, as they will have improved efficiencies and reduced costs, and done so at an acceptable rate of financial return. The fact that they may win PR points for doing so — or may actually contribute to reducing global warming — is often icing on the cake.
And there’s also everyone else: the companies that have offset their emissions by purchasing renewable energy credits or other mechanisms, perhaps even claiming to achieve carbon neutrality without necessarily significantly cutting their actual emissions . . . the companies that have incrementally, almost symbolically, reduced their emissions but have taken great efforts to tell the world . . . those that have one great climate story to tell — a single product or brand or facility that has set an admirable example — leaving the rest of the company largely untouched . . . the greenwashers, with their empty “carbon-friendly” marketing claims . . . and, not insignificantly, the clueless and the laggards.
They’ll all be in Copenhagen — either in person or via their industry groups or other representatives. From the looks of the unofficial program — the countless dozens of events taking place in and around Copenhagen over the next two weeks that aren’t part of the official UN agenda — scores of them will be visible, variously making announcements, speaking on panels, exhibiting at trade shows, or holding endless discussions and coffee klatches.
My visit will coincide with the so-called “business weekend” starting December 11. On Friday, the Geneva-based World Business Council on Sustainable Development will host Copenhagen Business Day, “a day for business leaders to explore, share and project their vision and commitment to implement climate solutions now and for the next four decades.” On Saturday and Sunday is the Bright Green Expo, a trade show hosted by the Confederation of Danish Industry (a group to which I spoke during my recent speaking tour in Scandinavia). Saturday afternoon and evening will see a CEO-heavy event held at Kronborg, Hamlet’s Castle in Elsinore outside Copenhagen, gamely titled To Be or Not to Be? (The event concludes with “a candlelight dinner in King Frederik II’s Wine Cellar.”) There will also be a slew of other business events, from groups like Ceres, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (or BICEP). Plus company-sponsored events from the likes of Cisco, Dell, General Electric, HP, IBM, Johnson Controls, Microsoft, and pretty much every other high-tech or cleantech company of note.
I’ll look forward reporting back on what all of these business voices have to say — whether they’re merely talking the talk, or whether COP15 does indeed stand a chance of changing corporate and governmental policy.
And whether all of this offers a snowball’s chance of making a difference in the climate.