Post-Copenhagen Corporate Climate Management: State of Green Business Forum 2010

For many, the future of climate change legislation appeared even more uncertain at the close of 2009 than it did when the year began.

During that time, a climate change bill squeaked by in U.S. House of Representatives before another bill stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, the U.N. Climate Change conference ended with an accord many have criticized as being too weak.

The situation was the focus of a panel discussion today at GreenBiz.com's State of Green Business Forum that examined corporate climate strategies at a time when the shape of regulation is largely unsettled. The questions is, according to moderator and GreenBiz.com Senior Contributor March Gunther, does the regulatory deadlock put the onus on businesses to do more to address climate change or does it let businesses off the hook?

"It absolutely does put the onus on business and everyone to do more," Holly Kaufman, president of Environment & Enterprise Strategies.

Kaufman pointed to moral reasons for companies to reduce their environmental footprints, such as the climate change impacts already occurring, but the business case is also compelling, she said, arguing the cleantech competition is being ceded to China the longer the U.S. fails to act.

Low carbon products and services are a major market opportunity, according to panelist Sarah Skinkne, corporate engagement manager at The Climate Group. Yet moving to address climate change also holds many benefits for companies, from improving their brand to bottom-line savings from improved efficiency.

The paths companies choose are diverse. Some, for instance, are following the formula of reducing their impacts through efficiency and renewables before offsetting the unavoidable part of their carbon footprint. A program called Climate Smart, offered by Pacific Gas and Electric -- the event's host and also a participant on this panel -- has seen its membership surge past 700 since its inception in 2007, including consumer-facing companies such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., according to Robert Parkhurst, the company's climate protection and analysis manager.

Another path is being explored by Yahoo, which announced last year that it would abandon carbon offsets, reversing a 2007 goal of using offsets to become carbon neutral. In the two years since setting that original goal, the company measured its carbon footprint, discovering that 92 percent of its carbon footprint could be traced to its electricity consumption, namely its data centers, according to Christina Page, a panelist and director of the company's climate and energy strategy.

It realized it could have a much larger impact on its footprint by targeting data center efficiency. "Energy was being spent choosing the right (offset) projects," Page said.

The focus on data center energy use also enabled the company to lend its expertise to the government, which is grappling with how to address IT and data center energy use and set metrics around consumption. "If you're not seated at the table," Page said, "you're on the menu."