Notes from the Stunning Final Climate Leaders Meeting

Notes from the Stunning Final Climate Leaders Meeting

Image CC licensed by Flickr user omaniblog

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month that it would suspend its Climate Leaders program, which helped companies take greenhouse gas inventories, set emissions reduction goals, and share best practices.

The Climate Leaders' annual conference previously scheduled for this week ended up being the final meeting. I attended the event and left with the following observations.

It is pretty clear that the EPA has zero interest in receiving input from large companies about this program. Obviously there has been some change at the EPA level on how they want to work with large companies in voluntary programs.

The transition process to sunset this program seems rushed and amateurish. Some specifics of the program wind-down include:

• The EPA Climate Leaders website and brand logo will be retired in September 2011.
• The transition for existing companies has not been clearly worked out.
• The EPA plans to issue an RFP later this year looking for an NGO that could replace part of the program. Specifics of the RFP have not yet been finalized.

Large companies remain extremely frustrated. During the Q & A session, many large companies, including SC Johnson, DuPont, Merck and Ingersoll Rand, publicly expressed disappointment and frustration. Private conversations were even more heated. No one spoke publicly in support of the EPA decision or the wind-down process.

Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, was blunt and unrelenting with Climate Leaders partners: "Our relationship with you must change."

The EPA has not given clear answers on the reasons behind the program's termination. McCarthy said at one point it was budget, but then said later she and the EPA have plenty of budget for programs that have high impact, implying that this one did not. She left after her talk and some Q&A.
 
A few of the many issues companies raised:

• NGOs are not a replacement for the credibility that comes with an EPA program.
• What happens with publicly stated goals? Who will recognize the goals?
• How do we message this transition internally? Companies currently don't have good messaging, especially since the reasons for the program termination are so vague.
• Loss of face or credibility internally for companies, since many sustainability leaders justified budget requests in anticipation of public recognition for meeting GHG reduction goals. This no longer seems to be the case.
• Mandatory reporting requirements are different than voluntary reporting. Many invested in voluntary reporting to reduce future mandatory reporting costs.


Companies feel burnt. Companies were burnt.

I think the EPA could have done a variety of things to help ease the transition, such as allowing existing program members to use the EPA Climate Leaders logo for the next five years as they achieve their reduction goals, increasing service fees for the technical consulting, provide more time on the transition, etc.

But, it seemed very obvious to me, from McCarthy's blunt comments to the absolutely deflated EPA Climate Leaders program team sitting on the dais after McCarthy left, that the EPA has zero interest in maintaining a partner relationship or even a working relationship with the large companies.

Executives from SC Johnson, Merck, and Cummings were very articulate in their feedback. One company said they traveled to the conference in the hope of sharing ideas on how to keep the program going, but this is not an option.

Everyone, including the EPA, agrees that the program was very successful for the last eight years. Many also agree that the EPA decision is baffling, especially when you consider President Obama's public support for addressing climate change and this week's announcement that solar panels would be installed at the White House. No clear reasons have been provided.

The EPA now has a very different approach to how it wants to work with businesses. Buyer beware in participating in future voluntary EPA programs.

Paul Baier is vice president of advisory services at Groom Energy and senior contributor at GreenBiz.com.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user omaniblog.