Was Copenhagen a Win-Win for Business?
<p>Though the final accord in Copenhagen didn’t solve the world’s political or environmental mess as far as the climate is concerned, the two-week meeting was proof that money is in the air. In one presentation after another during “side events” that take place concurrently with the official negotiations, companies and business groups described how they are profiting from dealing with the climate crisis, and how a hefty international agreement, and a corollary in the US, would help them do so even more.</p>
Though the final accord in Copenhagen didn’t solve the world’s political or environmental mess as far as the climate is concerned, the two-week meeting was proof that money is in the air. In one presentation after another during “side events” that take place concurrently with the official negotiations, companies and business groups described how they are profiting from dealing with the climate crisis, and how a hefty international agreement, and a corollary in the US, would help them do so even more.
One such event was The Climate Group’s “Climate Leaders Summit.” Like most of the key business events in Copenhagen, the meeting was remarkable both in showcasing the revolution that has taken place in business engagement on the climate issue, and the lack of understanding of how business works on the part of UN negotiators.
Global bankers, investors and venture capitalists rattled off with pride lists of carbon-reducing, money-making deals they’ve done, many in partnership with other companies, governments and environmental groups. It was a mere fifteen years ago that an environmentalist wouldn’t dare be in the same room as a Fortune 500 executive, and vice versa. Five years ago most of the business sector was still fighting anything smelling of capping carbon.
Now the titans of global corporations, from Coca-Cola to Hewlett Packard, along with many small and medium-size businesses, were calling for a vigorous international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Their CEOs might not be dressing up as vegan polar bears, but they are changing the way they do business – some at the margins and many at the core, and will do so even more once they have greater certainty what the ground rules are in an emissions-limited world.
One of the best things about The Climate Group summit was that fact that it featured both business and political leaders, many of whom are working together to tackle the climate problem, like the “sister-countries” partnership between the Maldives and Scotland to reduce emissions in both countries. As Maldivian President Nasheed said, even though his country’s goal to be carbon-neutral in ten years won’t do much to help the atmosphere, he wants the Maldives to set an example for the rest of the world. He said, “This has nothing to do with getting aid money for us,” he said. “We want trade.”
For the Maldives of course, it’s also about the urgency of the climate problem, with his country’s islands losing territory now to rising water. “You can’t negotiate with the laws of physics,” Nasheed said. “350 parts per million (of C02 in the atmosphere) is not negotiable, like disarmament. If Maldivians have to migrate, where will all the butterflies go?”
Nasheed stressed one of the other key themes that predominated in Copenhagen outside the official negotiations – the role of “subnationals” – local, state and provincial governments. He suggested doing the math to see how much further subnational governments and businesses have already gone beyond what sovereign states are willing to do to cut emissions, on their own or in the context of an international agreement.
COP15 was indeed encouraging in terms of seeing how many bold, greenhouse-gas reducing moves the private sector and subnationals are making. Europeans, North Americans and Australians dominated at such activities, including at the International Chamber of Commerce’s “Business Day” and a posh gathering at Hamlet’s castle. However, China is also beginning to show up. According to Changhua Wu, The Climate Group’s China director, only two Chinese CEOs came to COP-14. This time there was a significant group. Li Xiaolin, CEO of China Power International Development, headlined with peers from Duke Energy, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs on a panel called, “What Makes Copenhagen a Success for Business.”
Unfortunately there wasn’t much other Asian representation at these business events, Brazil was the only South American country, and save for a whisper from South Africa, the fifty-plus countries of the African continent were also absent. Businesses and governments outside and within Africa, as well as any forthcoming UN agreement, have all got to help create the conditions in Africa for the “low-carbon,” high-dollar economy to thrive there as well.
With the massive crowd at this COP and negotiators working around the clock (whether or not they were talking to each other), COP15 was also distinctive in the unfortunate dearth of contact between them and the rest of the participants. There was little time for negotiators to hear what business and subnationals are doing, and even less to try to enlighten the diplomats about how to structure an agreement that fosters private sector investment in the very activities that will operationalize any climate-saving deal.
As Yvo de Boer, one of the key UN climate diplomats, called for in front of champagne-sippers at one of many receptions, “Be sure that you, business, is part of what comes out of Copenhagen. Ensure that the agreement is one that supports markets, public-private partnerships, and creates a structure to leverage private finance.” That didn’t happen. Fortunately, however, regardless of the tepid COP15 outcome, business can still fulfill US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu’s instruction: “We expect you business leaders to make tons of money and save the world.”
Holly Kaufman represented the Departments of Defense and State at the United Nations climate treaty negotiations as a Presidential appointee during the Clinton administration. She is CEO of Environment & Enterprise Strategies, a strategic advisory firm that designs and manages initiatives that integrate business and environmental needs. Clients include Hewlett Packard and the World Economic Forum.