Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Copenhagen

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Copenhagen

It's been 19 years coming, and it looks like it's going to be a big one. As things heat up for the Copenhagen talks, it's easy to get distracted from what's at stake -- both from an environmental and business perspective.

From environmentalists to businesspeople to politicians (and some, hopefully, are all three), thousands of people have descended on COP15, all intent on having their voices heard. But if you believe -- as I do -- that the solutions to climate change are inextricably linked to the success of business, then it's important to keep your eye on the target.

There will be a great deal of promises, careful speeches, and photo opps, but COP15 represents some the highest stakes for business in decades.

But to call it "Hopenhagen" is dismissive: There is a strategy here, and it's important that we understand how it will impact business, especially in the U.S.

Companies need governments to help pave the way for success, but always under the umbrella of responsibility to the good of the nation. This must always be paramount. Whether you're talking climate change, health care, or energy security, the good of the nation is what's really at stake; it's often not a question of what needs to be done, but how it will be done. For example, few would dispute the importance of energy security, but the debate lies in how it will be executed and what we are prepared to do to in order to secure it.

In the case of climate change, however, a vacuum has resulted in the absence of leadership since the Kyoto Protocol, and has given rise to a false debate regarding action. Some question whether we need to act at all. This is symptomatic of any organization (including a country) without a long-term view; we get hung up on the details and analysis until progress is simply impossible. COP15 is poised to deliver the necessary vision and leadership required to galvanize entire nations into action, one way or the other.

Internationally, countries are looking to the U.S. for leadership. Investments in the developing world have been carefully eyeing provisions in Waxman-Markey regarding CDM in order to project the opportunity cap-and-trade may bring to their country, and many of these nations have openly claimed they are waiting for the U.S. to lead. Developed nations are also awaiting U.S. leadership, delaying innovation, investment, and regulation for fear of incompatibility with what the U.S. implements.  As a result, global business has been forced into a holding pattern.

And this holding pattern is ready to break. It's been on the verge for some time, as I have seen first-hand in the carbon and energy management space. There are of course early success stories but far more ideas and innovation are brimming in almost all sectors. The calculations have been made and the P&L's have been vetted, but a glass ceiling exists in the marketplace because business throughout the world cannot guarantee alignment with America's policies, regulations, and direction. And without this alignment, innovation is stifled, investment is hedged, and the analysis on "what could be" will continue.

The Obama administration is making some significant attempts to develop a united front among its trading partners prior to its participation in COP15 because it knows how important breaking this glass ceiling can be -- and how dangerous it can be for a nation to allow business to break through it themselves. This can result in entire economic shifts, where businesses move resources and operations to countries that allow them to operate more effectively. The U.S. has had a long history of capitalizing on markets to attract business and innovation, and COP15 represents another watershed moment in U.S. economic growth where it must seize the moment when it comes to the business of carbon, energy, and climate change.  Conversely, COP15 also represents a significant risk to U.S. economic growth if it does not seize the opportunity because, for the first time, there are serious contenders.

International opportunities have always had a major driver in American business innovation and success. Current market forces in carbon, energy, and climate change, however, present several risks for the U.S. and business if we fail to lead in Copenhagen. If things take too long, the world will look elsewhere for their leaders, and others are emerging as willing candidates for that role, such as China and the EU. The glass ceiling will be broken by other economies and the business opportunities -- and the jobs dependent on them -- will go with them. In this light, the U.S. opportunity in Copenhagen is not only one of promoting business and reducing climate change, it's about economic survival.

So what's at stake at Copenhagen? Leadership. All of the opportunities and risks for the U.S. and its economy rest in this one concept, which is one that could make or break a new U.S. economy and fundamentally shift global economic markets. An economy will eventually emerge as the winner from Copenhagen, and the Obama Administration has the formidable task to break the glass ceiling for business to ensure it is the U.S. that comes out on top.   

Michael Meehan is president and CEO of San Francisco-based Carbonetworks.

Click here for full coverage of COP15 from the GreenBiz.com and ClimateBiz.com teams, including posts from Copenhagen by Executive Editor Joel Makower and Senior Contributor Marc Gunther, and from dozens of guest contributors from the business world.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user radiant guy.