What will happen with the U.S. Senate’s vote on cap-and-trade? Will U.S. public opinion about climate change — which has a major impact on how the Senate votes — ever begin to converge with science?
There’s no doubt that the year’s most interesting stories could turn out to be “black swans” that we can’t currently foresee. But even amid the uncertainty, there are some clear trends that will significantly shape the business-climate landscape.
Carbon transparency isn’t easy — it takes science, infrastructure, and group decisions about standards to allow for more accurate information. We have started moving in that direction. Web-based information services provide illustrations: country commitments needed for climate stabilization, indications of where we are now, and the critical path of individual U.S. policymakers.
Meanwhile, more attention is being paid to real-time atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, remote sensing technology that tracks atmospheric GHGs, and a new climate registry for China. As these data tools become more available, business leaders should begin to see — and report on — a clearer picture of their company’s real climate impacts.
There are signs that more consumers will demand product footprinting — that is, a holistic, lifecycle picture of the climate impacts of products and services ranging from an ounce of gold to a T-shirt or car. Fortunately, a new wave of standards is coming. The gold-standard corporate accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, aims to issue guidance on footprinting for products and supply chains late in the year, and groups like the Outdoor Industry Association and the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition plan to publish consensus-based standards for their industries in the near future.
With more attention on products comes an appreciation of product footprinting’s limitations. Many layers of standards are still needed, from the micro methods of locating carbon particles to time-consuming macro approaches defining common objectives through group consensus. Accurate footprinting that avoids greenwashing requires statistical context, especially related to variance and confidence levels, that companies often think stakeholders don’t want to digest.
Progressive companies such as Hewlett Packard, Ikea, Intel, and Wal-Mart are therefore pursuing partnerships with suppliers for carbon and energy efficiency, and they are focusing their public communications on the qualitative efforts to build supplier capacity–as opposed to pure quantitative measurements, which can imply more precision than really exists.
4. Improved Literacy About the Climate Impacts of Business
The bulk of companies’ climate management falls short of directly confronting the full scale of effort required to address climate change. That’s partly because organizational emissions accounting tends to treat progress as change from the past, as opposed to movement toward a common, objective planetary goal. But companies are becoming more aware of the need to be goal oriented. Firms such as Autodesk and BT have begun bridging this gap by illustrating that there is a common end–which is measured in atmospheric parts per million of emissions–and that company metrics can be mapped to their share of their countries’ national and international policy objectives toward them.
5. More Meaningful Policy Engagement
Related to the previous item, more companies realize that pushing for the enactment of clear and durable rules to incentivize low-carbon investment is one of the most direct things they can do to stabilize the climate. Therefore, more companies are engaging earlier — and in more creative ways — in their climate “journey.” There is growing realization that you don’t have to “reduce first” before getting involved.
6. Higher Stakeholder Expectations
As climate management enters the mainstream, stakeholders expect companies to do more, and watchdogs will find new soft spots. Companies should be prepared for new stakeholder tactics, such as the profiling of individual executive officers, who are perceived as having the greatest impact on company positions, and heightened policy advocacy efforts. The media’s role in promoting public climate literacy will continue to rank as an important part of stakeholder expectations. Currently, the U.S. public, which plays an important role in the critical path to a global framework, has far less confidence about the importance of acting on climate than scientists do, and the media can help educate them.
7. Increased Power of Networks
Economists see energy efficiency as a solution to 40 percent or more of climate mitigation, and with the technology and finance already available globally, companies can play a significant role in accelerating progress. While the price makes the energy market, and policy helps to set the price, companies like Walmart have shown that creating expectations for performance improvement, while providing tools and training, can help suppliers and partners clear the economic hurdles they need to get started. After this initial “push,” experience shows that suppliers take further steps on their own. As more companies take on supply chain carbon management, watch for lessons on how to do it effectively.
8. More Climate Connections
Energy efficiency, which constitutes the core of many companies’ climate programs, offers a platform for broader resource-efficiency efforts. We expect to see many companies expand their programs this year to address water. Given that this is the “Year of Biodiversity,” we can also expect more movement related to forestry and agriculture. The nexus between climate change and human rights is also likely to become a hot topic, building on momentum developed during the run-up to Copenhagen.
Finally, watch for the climate vulnerability of mountain regions to gain attention, due to increased environmental instability, disruption of natural water storage and distribution systems, and stress on ecosystem services in regions near human populations.
9. Greater Focus on Adaptation
Climate management has already broadened to include adaptation, and this will receive increasing attention in 2010. This is already evident in company reporting, as evidenced by responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project (see answers to questions 2 and 5 about physical risks and opportunities). Companies are addressing many adaptation-related issues, including insurance, health, migration, human rights, and food and agriculture. It is important to note that adaptation efforts can–and must–also support mitigation, as in the case of resource efficiency.
10. More Political Venues Up for Grabs
The Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was produced only during the last few hours at COP15, as part of a last-ditch “friends of chair” effort involving around 25 countries. This nontraditional process proved to be an effective way to move swiftly in getting broad support, yet still failed to achieve consensus in the general assembly, with a small handful of nations vetoing due to a few apparently intractable disputes. In consideration, there are growing calls for additional forums beyond the regular United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, to offer more responsive action in developing the global climate agreement needed.
Most notably, attention is on the G-20 countries, a group that comprises the vast majority of emitters and has shown that it can move efficiently, even while avoiding the troublesome distinction between developed and developing nations. Country associations are also changing. For example, instead of “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), we are more often hearing about BASIC (BRIC minus Russia plus South Africa) and BICI (BRIC minus Russia plus Indonesia). The point is, before Copenhagen, most thought updating Kyoto meant developing a global treaty through the formal U.N. structures. Now there is growing appreciation of the opportunity for complementary efforts, and new countries are coming to the fore in multilateral engagement.
In 2010, business leaders will be considering their best next steps after Copenhagen. At the same time, while an overall framework agreement is important, we need to look beyond forums like Copenhagen for real results on climate — and that means looking to business. Business is important for two reasons: By engaging in policy, business can help increase the likelihood that policymakers will develop a strong framework. And by innovating and committing to progress, business will help a treaty achieve desired results.
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