10 Climate Trends That Will Shape Business in 2010

[Editor's note: This article was authored by BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability.]

As 2010 begins, there are looming questions about climate change action: Will the political agreement made in Copenhagen in 2009 be developed by the next "COP" meeting to include detailed targets and rules? Will those targets and rules be binding?

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.

Upcoming Climate Events

World Economic Forum: Jan. 27-31 (Davos)
Winter Olympics with sustainability on display, Feb. 12-28 (Whistler)
GLOBE conference: March 24-26 (Vancouver)
Easter: April 4, Result likely from U.S. Senate vote on domestic climate change legislation
Earth Day: April 22, 40th Anniversary
World Environment Day: June 5 (Pittsburgh)
UN Global Compact 10th Anniversary Summit: June 24-25 (New York)
UN Commission for Sustainable Development update of the Marrakech Process with Sustainable Consumption: Summer
International Day of Climate Action: Oct. 24
BSR conference: Nov. 2-5 (New York)
G-20 Leaders Summit: November (Seoul)
Greenhouse Gas Protocol to publish Scope 3 guidance, December 
COP16 (tentative): December (Mexico City) 
China's 12th Five-Year Plan unveiled: TBD

1. A Better Dashboard

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.

2. Enhanced Attention to Products

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.

3. More Efforts to Build Supplier Capacity to Address Emissions

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.