In the absence of mandatory controls on the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the corporate world has been slow to respond. Now, however, in the face of growing scientific evidence that climate change is underway, corporate attitudes appear to be changing.
At a New York news conference, a consortium of scientists and corporate leaders calling itself the Global Roundtable on Climate Change announced a landmark agreement on a plan of action for significantly curbing most greenhouse gas emissions over the next half-century. "I found the most important fact of this roundtable is that, from the first day, the worldwide business community said, 'We are ready to act! We want a framework for action!' says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who is leading the Roundtable effort.
Indeed, the need for immediate action seems to be in the air worldwide. The Roundtable statement has been endorsed by some of the world's biggest corporations and energy organizations, including the World Petroleum Council, Allianz, DuPont, General Electric, Patagonia, Volvo, and Air France, among many others. Together, these entities are now urging governments to set clear target levels for greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. They are also urging other steps to take effect when the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012.
But corporate executives say there is more than altruism or public relations considerations behind their new climate-change initiative. "It's also good business," says Anthony Orlando, CEO of the Covanta Holding Corporation, a multi-billion dollar company that makes electricity out of garbage waste. "A corporation, like any other entity, needs to be sustainable for the long term, and this is a long-term challenge that I think we face as a society."
Today, renewable energy from geothermal, solar, wind, biomass and waste represents about two percent of all energy in the United States. But Orlando says renewable energy will be a much largeer part of a greener future. "If we were to take all of the waste in this country, which is 250 million tons every year that is buried in landfills, and use that in plants like ours instead, it would double the amount of renewable power in the country. That's a huge opportunity!"
Traditional coal-burning power plants are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. But Steven Corneli of NRG, one of America's largest power producers, says his corporation is exploring a technology that takes the carbon dioxide out of coal before it's burned at the power plant, without harming profitability.
"The way that is done," says Corneli, "is to heat the coal up in a controlled atmosphere, which degrades it into combustible gases. These gases then can be cleaned up to remove the vast majority of the regular pollutants."
During the next stage of the process, the carbon dioxide is chemically taken out of the gas stream and captured, and the combustible portion of the gas is run through a regular power generator and turned into electricity.
All major governments of the world will have to agree to the Roundtable's recommendations in order for its guidelines to be effective, especially large developing nations such as India and China. Both countries have been reluctant to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in their booming economies, and have cast the United States, the largest producer of those emissions, as the sole actor responsible for the cleanup effort.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs says that that strategy must change. "The fact of the matter is that while the rich world, including the United States, does a disproportionate amount of the emissions, the developing world as a whole will soon overtake over the developed countries in terms of the sheer tons of carbon dioxide being put into the air."
There is no solution to the problem of global climate change, adds Sachs, unless "the rich world and the developing world get together to agree on a strategy."
No one underestimates the political and diplomatic hurdles involved in creating a comprehensive post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. But Jeffrey Sachs is confident that, given the stakes involved, all nations will ultimately get on board.