Defunct Climate Leaders Program Lives On in NGO Awards

Defunct Climate Leaders Program Lives On in NGO Awards

Many Climate Leaders members felt burned when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced, in September 2010, that it would shutter the popular program, which provided technical assistance and public recognition for companies that sought to reduce their carbon emissions.

The cross-sector Climate Leaders program spurred companies to calculate their greenhouse gas emissions and set goals to reduce them. Participants earned recognition for their achievements. The program had nearly 200 members operating in all 50 U.S. states, collectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 50 million metric tons per year. It was a win-win, hailed as an example of a voluntary carbon-cutting program that encouraged action in the absence of federal climate legislation.

The reasons given for terminating Climate Leaders included the existence of other programs available to help with greenhouse gas inventories and goal-setting, and compliance developments, such as the EPA's first-ever emissions reporting rule. Some participants complained the EPA wanted to play a more regulatory role, noting that the agency had also discontinued Performance Track, another voluntary program, the year before.

Other programs do fulfill pieces of the Climate Leaders program (though no individual program covers all parts). However, one piece that had been lacking was a similar recognition program to that offered by the EPA.

On Tuesday, a group of nonprofits stepped up to announce an awards and recognition program that will serve as a legacy to the Climate Leaders program. The EPA will jointly sponsor the new program, which plans to hand out its inaugural awards early next year.

Strength in Numbers

The EPA accepted a joint proposal from The Climate Registry (TCR), the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) to co-sponsor a program with the agency. The groups began discussing the possibility of working together on an awards program at the Climate Leaders' annual meeting in October, held a few weeks after news of the program's demise was announced.

"The seed was planted there," said Denise Sheehan, TCR executive director. "When the EPA came out with its request for proposals, it occurred to all of us that to provide a strong proposal, it would be better to submit it together than individually."

Each group brings a set of skills and strengths to the table. TCR offers carbon accounting methodologies and a platform for emissions reporting disclosure. The Pew Center is well-known for its analyses and research on climate issues, in addition to its work with the private sector. ACCO, meanwhile, invests heavily in building knowledge and skills of individuals working in the climate change arena.

"I think the EPA has selected three excellent organizations to play this particular role," said Bruce Klafter, managing director of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Applied Materials and a critic of the EPA decision to end Climate Leaders. "The Climate Registry, Pew and ACCO are all excellent groups. I think they put it in good hands, which is nice. Time will tell if the awards program carries the same type of cachet that EPA's did. There was clearly something about receiving recognition from a government organization that people craved."

Expanded Award Categories

Awards programs play a vital role in spotlighting emissions-reducing efforts voluntarily undertaken by companies outside regulatory regimes, Sheehan said.

The new awards program will be a broader than Climate Leaders, which spotlighted goal achievers, goal setters and new partners, Sheehan explained. New awards will be handed out for climate leadership in supply chains and from whole organizations and individuals.

Over the next few months, the partners will work on drafting the criteria and eligibility for the awards, the application and nomination process, and assembling panels to review applications. At the same time, they will work on a parallel path to put together the all-day conference where the awards will take place.

The EPA is also considering another joint recognition program, the agency said on its website.

Filling the Void

Other programs in the marketplace offer similar functions as Climate Leaders, in terms of assisting organizations with calculating and reporting greenhouse gas inventories, including TCR and the Carbon Disclosure Project.

TCR has seen steady growth in the last six months or so since the demise of Climate Leaders was announced, though Sheehan declined to declare a direct relationship. In response, TCR has moved to expand its program in order to create a "bigger tent" under which companies can participate.

"We used to require facility-level reporting, but we have moved to reporting at the entity or organization level," Sheehan said. "We tried to add flexibility to our program and also make it an easier transition from other programs to our program while also maintaining the integrity of our program."

There is another piece of the Climate Leaders program some members would like to see made available, Klafter said.

"Many of us are still waiting for EPA to provide access to some of their modeling and other technical tools that were underpinning their Climate Leaders program," he said. "That would be the third piece."

Stay tuned.