Copenhagen climate summit: Nations fiddle while business learns

copenhagen-climate-summit-nations-fiddle-while-business-learnsThe eyes of the world are turned to Copenhagen and the pivotal environmental summit taking place in that quaint, lovely Scandinavian city. The task faced there by the leaders of the world is simple to articulate: Save the planet from the carbon menace and all the ills associated with the curse of greenhouse gasses.

Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting ice, stormy weather, drought and famine -- the potential side effects of a Mother Earth enshrouded by mankind's effluvia are dire, numerous and rapidly approaching. Yet before the summit even began, the heads of the planet's most powerful nations, including China, the U.S., Russia and Brazil, made it clear that this summit to save the world would do no such thing, and that no formal agreement on discrete carbon emission reduction targets would emerge from the ballyhooed gathering.
In all likelihood, Copenhagen will be remembered as "Nopenhagen," the summit to nowhere. Yes, some governments made promises. The U.S. promised to reduce its carbon emissions to 17% below 2005 levels and also unleashed the Environmental Protection Agency, declaring that the executive-branch department would start policing carbon emissions more aggressively -- with or without the backing of a hesitant U.S. Congress. China promised to reduce its energy intensity by 40%. India and Brazil made their pledges too.

But island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives cried out that more delay could mean their soil would be submerged within a few decades, their terra firma terminated. The sage leaders of the big economies wrung their hands, but would not budge. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the rising stars of the developing world, India and China, bristled at the suggestion their carbon emissions would need to be monitored by Western-sanctioned bodies in order to make any sort of global greenhouse gas treaty a going concern.

Still, some huge progress was made during December. The surprise is that it wasn't the nations of the world moving rapidly toward green goals. Rather, it was large corporations who produced a steady drumbeat of announcements hammering home their commitments to a greener future. The giant retailer Kohl's Department Stores (KSS), with sales numbers greater than the GDPs of small countries, announced it would become a carbon-neutral entity within two years. In other words, Kohl's would adhere to the most basic college dorm logic -- if you take someone's food out of the fridge, make sure to replace it. Coca-Cola (KO) announced a costly initiative to replace all of its hydrofluorocarbon-based refrigeration systems by 2015. When completed, this initiative to reduce global carbon emissions would be have an effect equal to taking 11 million cars off the road for a year.

Corporations Discovering Value in a Different Kind of Green

In a New York Times op-ed piece provocatively titled Will Big Business Save the Earth?, the respected scholar (and expert on failed civilizations) Jared Diamond crystalized a truth that many in the environmental community had whispered, but that few had dared utter aloud: Namely, it was The Man who was now leading the eco-charge, not the white hats in the government. If the world's governments cannot manage to come to some sort of compromise on global warming and carbon emissions while the printing presses of the Western nations' mints are running full tilt, and even ridiculous subsidies like "Cash for Clunkers" are embraced as economic masterstrokes, then how can we possibly expect to underwrite the costly transition to a lower-carbon existence when the monetary spigots have gone dry?

Thus, it truly may fall on the shoulders of the corporate world to re-green the planet. Admittedly, there is a lot of two-faced greenwashing in this business of corporate greening. Oil and coal companies have funded expensive lobbying campaigns to torpedo cap-and-trade legislation that would have set up carbon exchanges and mandated carbon and emission accounting in the U.S. for large polluters. And some companies, such as Coca-Cola, have embraced green, but have a long way to go until they reach a place where their primary energy consumption comes from green sources and their waste flows are drastically diminished.

Nonetheless, it is the corporations who have assumed the lead in the race to go green, with the icons of American retail culture right out front. Walmart (WMT), the enormous retailer with the most ambitious green agenda in the country, has already proven it may be a stronger force than the U.S. government in terms of forcing suppliers to account for the sustainability of their products. Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), a long-time proponent of green policies, has put its money where its mouth is yet again with an extensive rooftop solar initiative for hundreds of its restaurants. In fact, hardly a day goes by without some company publicizing its detailed plan and detailed goals related to enhancing sustainability.

As the inaction at "Nopenhagen" illustrates, the day when governments' policies drove green initiatives may be over. No, those companies are not protecting our clean water or our air -- but they could and probably will. Expect to see more businesses taking up the mantle of responsibility for saving the Earth as they come to recognize that sustainability is a life and death issue, with planetary consequences if the ball is dropped.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at
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