Big Business No Longer An Excuse For Inaction


The Copenhagen talks are lurching toward an uncertain conclusion. The secretariat and hosts have had their hands full managing one crisis after another. Talks have been suspended and nations have walked out, depleting time and goodwill. While a substantial agreement remains possible, the truth is that any one of the possible outcomes will disappoint many.

When major summits reach indifferent conclusions, it is customary — as in the fictitious holiday of Festivus — to move straight to the Airing of Grievances. In environmental politics, business has usually come in for a large share of the blame. Protesters and NGOs have often been quick to blame corporate influence for the failings of politicians. Last week, Swedish State Secretary for Enterprise, Energy and Communications, Ola Altera, showed up at a business function to declare himself "not very impressed by business" — claiming that "organised business" had opposed every significant climate reform he could think of.

At times, this criticism has been justified. Business lobbies have a long history of attempting to obstruct progress in climate negotiations. Prior to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, there was business support only for "no regrets" climate measures — that is, initiatives that would not disrupt existing industries. Throughout the 1990s, industry group the Global Climate Coalition backed "research" to debunk the climate threat and spent $13 million campaigning against the Kyoto Protocol. NGOs blamed US car producers and energy companies for US obstinacy over Kyoto.

But the role of business lobbies is no longer so clear-cut. As the consensus on climate science solidified, big business splintered. The Global Climate Coalition began to fall apart in 1999 with the departures of major firms including Chrysler, GM (big names in those days) and Texaco. The Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future was founded and attacked the advertising of fossil fuel lobbyists.

This is not to say that obstructionist business lobbies are out of business altogether. In America, the Competitive Enterprise Institute ("Advancing liberty — from the economy to ecology") continues its vocal "Carbon: We Call It Life" campaign: "The fuels that produce CO2 have freed us from a world of backbreaking labour," cheers one commercial, showing an African pummelling the ground with a rudimentary implement to illustrate the point. Paul Simpson of the Carbon Disclosure Project has estimated that, out of some 2600 climate lobbyists in Washington DC, 200 have been pushing for a strong deal at Copenhagen and 2400 have been resisting one (these figures have been strongly disputed by Jim Rogers, CEO of US energy provider Duke Energy).

At the conference itself, business advocates are pushing a very different agenda. Laurent Corbier, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commission on Environment and Energy, acknowledges that his members have "different perspectives" but argues that the ICC’s role is to take the "convergent point": "We need clarity and predictability," says Corbier, to ensure "minimal instability in our decision process". To this end, the ICC is supporting a post-2012 agreement to "make sure there is no gap" in the international regime and, therefore, in the national regulations that businesses must order their affairs by.

Corbier stresses that business has "not waited for an international agreement to be in place" to invest in innovation, but "scaling up" this effort would be greatly assisted by a "framework" beyond the first Kyoto phase. The ICC is seeking "more clarity", not just for the long-term but for 2010.

This message was echoed by speaker after speaker at the "business day" in central Copenhagen organised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. José Manuel Entrecanales, chairman of Spanish renewables conglomerate Acciona, spoke for many when calling for "a framework" and "clear rules of the game" — with carbon pricing the most important element.

Businesses yet to embrace this agenda came in for pointed criticism. China Dialogue CEO Isabel Hilton likened some to a "teenager who had squandered his carbon allowance and was hoping to win the carbon lottery". There was also frustration with government. One participant said that "it’s important that government listens to the new folks with the new ideas," instead of always listening "to the old folks with the old ideas". A woman in the audience thought more needed to be done to get government attention: "If you think you’re in the vanguard of clean energy, get out there, shout!" This drew spontaneous applause.

Here was a strongly unified message, but no one could disagree with Jim Rogers’ observation that "self-selection" was at work. The businesses present in Copenhagen do not represent business in general. Nevertheless, technology leaders, financial innovators and the growing climate services sector now have a significant voice in the public debate on climate.

With respect to the many well-meaning business advocates, this change does not reflect a sudden burst of altruism. It reflects the emergence of new business models and sectors, which the Kyoto architecture has itself done much to create. London School of Economics academic Robert Falkner wrote Business Power and Conflict in International Environmental Politics. Falkner says that one of the successes of Kyoto was that it "created its own fan club of business interests" — carbon traders, Clean Development Mechanism verifiers and clean energy producers.

This "fan club" convenes in Copenhagen at the Climate Spark forum, where each night a series of businesspeople introduce their clean business models to an audience of networking corporates. Such events are not organised — nor endured — for fun. Climate change has become serious business.

There are precedents for this role shift. The chlorofluorocarbons which contributed to ozone layer depletion were only phased out by industry after market leader DuPont decided to support CFC control. Industry support for change was enough to see off anti-regulatory forces in the US administration of the time. The resultant Montreal Protocol has generally been judged a huge success in arresting the depletion of the ozone layer.

In terms of greening industry, the proactive push at Copenhagen might be seen as the end of the beginning. The beginning of the end remains a long way off. Future-proofing in the absence of stronger regulation will only carry industry so far. Even the firms lobbying for a strong outcome here know that reshaping the wider corporate landscape will be fiendishly difficult.

Much of the world remains "in the middle of a huge recession", acknowledged Gerard Mestrallet of energy provider GDF Suez. "It has never been more difficult to impose additional constraints on corporations."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.