Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Corporate world needs to act now, regardless of Copenhagen 2009

November 2009

There are clearly hopes in business circles that next month’s United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen will provide the catalyst for companies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Numerous business groups have called for the world’s politicians to provide a framework within which companies can work to tackle what is increasingly seen as humanity’s biggest challenge. Copenhagen 2009, designed to hammer out a successor to the rather limp Kyoto Protocol, has a chance of delivering that framework.

There is more urgency now, and a greater consensus among governments, than when Kyoto was agreed. China and India are more engaged in the debate, and the US has a president unequivocally committed to dealing with climate change. But the squabbling over who does what and when will not go away, and it is unwise to expect the talks to deliver much in the way of an action programme. Many NGOs and independent experts fear another ‘talkfest’.

It is good that business has been lobbying governments to get their act together on climate change. If Copenhagen produces tough targets, the corporate world will undoubtedly be spurred into greater activity. But if it doesn’t, it would be a dereliction of corporate duty to sit around and do nothing.

Like any private person, companies don’t have to be told by government to reduce their carbon footprint. Politicians have proved themselves too timid to face up to climate change. But politicians only have the power to promote or hinder a cause; they cannot prevent the inevitable from happening.

Businesses have three obvious incentives to act of their own accord. First, reducing their direct and indirect energy consumption saves costs – if not immediately, then assuredly in the longer run.

Secondly, showing respect for the environment enhances their public image, certainly in a world ever more concerned over a potential catastrophe. And thirdly, acting ahead of the regulations that are bound to come brings with it first-mover advantage, at least in avoiding the charge of being two-faced – usually against state regulation, but in this case waiting for regulation before doing the right thing.

Plenty of enlightened companies have already taken it upon themselves to address their climate change impacts. The recent Carbon Disclosure Project results named some of these businesses – among them BASF and Cisco Systems. And the pioneering US-based multinational Interface believes it is already 60 per cent of the way to reducing its environmental impact to zero (see page 7). Whatever the outcome of Copenhagen, progress is in the hands of business, not government.

Peter Mason | Global | Emissions


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