Why Solar Should Care About Sustainability

Solar power is a poster child of sustainability, at least from the standpoint of energy users. It provides a clean alternative to GHG-emitting fossil fuels and runs indefinitely on free energy from the sun. What more, then, is there to the sustainability of solar energy?

Plenty, and the industry’s largest gathering, Intersolar, which I attended in San Francisco this week, offers a glimpse into why.

The event is an exhibition of more than 800 companies selling their wares—everything from wafer etchers, adhesives, and gauges to gears, filters, and fire alarms. They sell the equipment that makes equipment, and the equipment that makes that equipment. And they are the purveyors of exciting items like plasma applicators, robots, and lasers.

As for the attendees, it’s all black suits and ties, and the discussions are on engineering specs and market trends. It feels more like a summit for making deals, rather than achieving some vision of “ecotopia.”

While there is nothing wrong with all of this, it does bring to light an important truth: The parts that make up the whole of the solar industry are little different than those of any other. And while environmental conservation may be a side effect, the efforts, by and large, are about capitalism.

Thus, as manufacturers, solar companies may cause damaging environmental impacts from their use of water, gasses, chemicals, minerals, and nanomaterials. As designers of large, long-lived physical goods, they are seen as part of a great network of potential e-waste, with end-of-life responsibilities that extend beyond the law. And as global businesses that seek low-cost employees and supplies, the emerging markets that offer so much promise are rife with potential social challenges such as protecting human rights.

If the solar industry is to create the most value for its investors, customers, and communities—all of whom have growing concerns about sustainability and greater means for comparing companies and industries to one another—it has to make sense of all of this. The good news is that others have taken the lead. The information communications and technology (ICT) industry, for example, has started complying with best practices for responsible policy advocacy and working with their suppliers to improve labor conditions and environmental impacts. Since solar companies have similar production processes and supply chains, they can build off of the foundation that the ICT industry has already established.

Yet solar is different: It makes a promise, however implicit, to offer a clean alternative to fossil fuels. This expectation makes the industry a target, and if solar companies can’t objectively demonstrate better overall performance, they risk having their credibility undermined and their technologies devalued.

Some quick parting advice for solar companies new to managing sustainability: Consult the Global Reporting Initiative to understand the full breadth of key issues. Know who your stakeholders are, and identify and synthesize their concerns. Make sustainability a C-level concern, so when decisions are made about maximizing the all-important parameter of per-watt productivity, sustainability opportunities and risks are appropriately considered. And finally, attend this year’s BSR Conference, and join me at the panel, ”The CSR Blueprint for Renewable Energy.”

Simple Tools for Effective Climate Reporting

With the fiscal year drawing to a close for many companies, it’s writing season for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.

As usual, reports provide a medium for communicating to investors who want to see companies creating value, customers who want to know which companies and products are leaders versus laggards, and watchdogs looking for inconsistencies.

In 2010, these groups will be particularly interested in how companies report on climate. This is due to several developments:

  • Last year’s treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, which prompted major economies to start their own, independent negotiating process (additional to the consensus-oriented UN framework), and resulted in the understanding that there is much more work to be done
  • The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow spending on political campaigns
  • The Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) increased emphasis on climate policy efforts in its 2010 Investor Questionnaire (PDF, due May 31), which asks companies to detail their climate policy efforts (question 9.10), as well as how those efforts fit into overall company strategy (question 9.1)

To date, however, companies have lacked direction on how to report on climate policy engagement. BSR’s new report, “Communicating on Climate Policy Engagement: A Guide to Sustainability Reporting,” (PDF) provides some of the first guidance available for companies.

12 Top Reporting Themes
• Acknowledgment of climate change as a problem and importance of climate policy for business 

• Advancement of industry standards through working groups

• Advocacy to national-level policymakers for climate legislation

• Demonstration of how the industry — especially ICT and finance — are poised to be solutions providers

• Disavowal of support for trade bodies that pursue inconsistent or regressive objectives

• Joining of coalitions and signatory initiatives

• Launching of carbon market or other quasi-government institutions

• Leadership of voter-education initiatives

• Participation in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government partnership programs

• Publicity of unintended consequences or re-framing issues

• Sponsorship or provision of research

• Testimony to national or state law-making bodies or filing court amicus briefs

What follows is an overview of what companies are reporting on today, what we recommend that companies focus on going forward, and how companies can approach reporting on climate policy engagement.

What Companies Are Saying Today

To learn what companies today are saying about their approach to climate policy, we recently conducted an assessment of more than 150 companies’ sustainability reports and related materials such as their websites, their responses to the CDP questionnaire, and their submissions to the United Nations Global Compact Communication on Progress.

We found that most large companies report one or more of the following:

1. Public policy is a main pillar of their climate approach, largely because climate change may not be solved without it.

2. Climate change is a main focus area of public policy efforts, in part because it is one of the single greatest issues of this generation.

3. Climate policy is a strategic issue, in that it is both likely to happen and likely to disrupt fundamental business drivers—for better and worse.

What to Cover

In general, managers should include three themes in their climate reporting:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts: First, companies should report on their impact on climate change in terms of GHG emissions and efforts to reduce them. This is probably the longest-standing climate reporting topic, and it is more important than ever as increasing attention is focused on the impacts of the world’s largest companies. Companies should report on absolute and intensity figures using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and try to include impacts from their supply chain and other networks. One emerging best practice is to report figures in terms of the company’s share of planetary climate boundaries, as do British Telecom and Autodesk.
  • Risks and opportunities: Second, companies should communicate the business risks and opportunities created by climate change, such as the effects spurred by new regulations and/or changing physical environments. This area has followed closely behind development of reporting on GHG impacts, and is now not only expected by investors, but required in new guidance issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Risk and opportunity reporting should include the impact of legislation and regulation, international accords, indirect consequences of regulation or business trends (such as risks driven from legal, technological, political, and scientific developments), and the relevant physical impacts of climate change.
  • Climate policy engagement: Third, companies should report on climate policy engagement. Companies are expected to show what they are doing to address climate change, and many stakeholders see policy engagement as one of the most direct ways to do it. According to this view, effective climate policy is an important instrument for creating business value, and companies can build trust with stakeholders by leading more meaningful discourse.
This means companies should communicate about all policy efforts, including those that go beyond traditional lobbying, such as: 

1.    Calling policymakers to action by promoting specific legislation or endorsing the key objectives and parameters contained in them, as Johnson & Johnson has done in its 2008 sustainability report

2.    Informing policymakers through the provision of research and other technical insights on how specific policies could be most effectively implemented, as in IBM’s 2009 CDP response

3.    Enabling policy solutions by shaping the inputs to decision-making, such as by enhancing the state of knowledge among voting constituents, as Aspen Skiing Company is doing through its “Save Snow” website

4.    Setting the stage by advancing standard approaches to measurement and other processes that enable more meaningful dialogue about issues, as groups such as the Clean Cargo Working Group and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition have done

An Effective Approach

Company managers preparing the climate-related sections of their reports should detail the governance around how climate policy engagement decisions are made, the strategy describing the broad outline of their companies’ objectives and approach, and their companies’ activities aimed at addressing climate change.

We also advise that leading reporters take the following approaches:

Be explicit. Use clear statements of position and objectives to focus the message. For example, Dow Chemical Company says that it will be “fearlessly accountable” in the pursuit of climate change solutions. This clarifies the company’s aims for stakeholders, who are, in turn, more likely to appreciate the commitment and support company efforts. Vale, one of the world’s largest mining companies, takes a different approach in its document, “Corporate Guidelines on Climate Changes and Carbon,” which acknowledges the scientific evidence of climate change and provides provisional guidelines subject to change based on the state of science.

Be the first to the punch. Aim to be straightforward about the company’s climate policy involvement. Head off potentially difficult questions by taking the time to answer them in advance. For example, let’s say a company is well known for lobbying — perhaps it’s on the Center for Public Integrity’s top 100 list or is prominently involved in a major trade association. That firm should be as detailed as possible about what it is doing and why. According to a recent study, this is especially important for companies in industries such as media, information and communications technology (ICT), oil and gas, transportation, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and mining and extractives, which tend to be heavily involved in policy engagement because governments either play a strong role in shaping their markets’ structure or substantially regulate them.

Use diverse reporting channels.
Climate policy engagement is a public affair, but company managers shouldn’t count on the public seeing the message if it’s only in one place. Some companies with compelling ideas and initiative aren’t saying much about their efforts, and others aren’t communicating very widely. Still others mention work in their CDP reports or websites, but omit it from their sustainability report. At the very least, companies should communicate a comprehensive and consistent message through their own websites and sustainability reports, and through the CDP. They should also consider reaching key audiences through customized channels as needed.

It’s also important to remember that communications happen not only through formal reporting, but through events such as trade association committees or government advisory groups. At such gatherings, the messenger is part of the message, so it is crucial that representatives know all the key points and have the authority to speak those messages on behalf of their company. As Matthew Bateson of World Wildlife Fund told us, “Having the wrong people at meetings is a barrier. If they are unable to listen, to contribute, and to be constructive — that won’t work.” So, when opportunities to collaborate or speak arise where climate policy efforts might be addressed, aim to send senior and prepared leaders.

First posted at GreenBiz.

Real Climate Leadership and The Rules of Policy Engagement

As negotiators gather in Copenhagen next month to discuss a global climate policy framework, there has never been a better time for companies to influence policy instruments that could dramatically affect the future of climate change.

Business’ management of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is already improving. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (PDF), more than 70 percent of the world’s 500 largest companies are now reporting their GHG emissions, and similar efforts are spreading rapidly, especially in the BRIC countries and throughout Asia.

Meanwhile, global emissions are continuing at a pace to surpass the 2 degrees Celsius threshold of climate change caused by a 350- to 450-parts-per-million concentration level. Even if we enact the most aggressive legislation proposed today, the concentration of GHG emissions would continue to rise rapidly, according to calculations from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s C-ROADS simulator. Meanwhile, there are questions about whether countries such as the U.S. and China — which together account for nearly 50 percent of global emissions — will be able to garner political support for basic commitments.

Under current regulatory frameworks, there is virtually no economic cost for producing GHG emissions, and it is increasingly clear that reversing the current path of climate change will require policies that put a price on carbon. By stimulating innovation in processes and products that would encourage a low-carbon economy and effectively align economic and environmental interests, this would address the single largest impediment to the significant expansion of fossil fuel alternatives.

Enacting such policies can happen only with the support of the private sector. Hundreds of companies ranging across industries and geographies — from British Telecom to Aspen Skiing Company to Levi Strauss to Shell — now consider climate policy engagement a key part of their efforts. These pioneers are demonstrating that there are many levers for informing and advancing effective climate policy.

Here are some examples and ideas to consider:

Direct and indirect engagement: Aspen has helped advance climate policy directly by submitting an amicus brief (PDF) to the U.S. Supreme Court, which led to a ruling that requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate GHGs. Direct action — which includes advocacy like this as well as lobbying for specific laws — is the most obvious option for climate policy engagement. There are also important opportunities to engage indirectly, such as by empowering the public to advance policy through education, and giving them more of a voice with policymakers. Marks & Spencer, for example, is inviting stakeholders to add their views by uploading patches to a virtual “quilt” that will be presented to negotiators at Copenhagen.

Input via multiple policy cycle stages: The previous examples emphasize input into policy formulation, but companies can also affect policy at other stages. For example, Hewlett Packard and Intel are co-leading an initiative of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition to develop a standard industry approach to measuring GHG emissions in supply chains. This effort aims to inform policymakers about how companies can share information at the operations level across borders. This will play a part in framing potential policy options. Once policy has been formulated, companies can engage in implementation in various ways. For example, the EPA offers 30-plus business partnership programs (PDF), to which companies such as Dell have subscribed, that offer feedback for further policy development.

Individual and collaborative action:
Timberland (PDF), Vale (PDF), and China Light & Power (PDF) are making individual appeals for robust climate policy, but they are also working collectively. Timberland, for example, is a member of the Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (see sidebar for a list of coalitions). Other companies are focused on influencing the direction of existing business groups. PG&E and a host of others, for example, have left the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest of the organization’s position on climate legislation.

As these examples illustrate, climate policy engagement means more than simply taking a position; engagement must also include deliberate actions that inform and advance specific outcomes. This is difficult, however, because it is often unclear what the ideal policy outcome is. Indeed, companies and stakeholders are affected differently by different points of legislation.

So what should companies subscribe to? It’s safe to say that we should heed the calls of scientists to stabilize the climate. Business needs stable conditions to enable investment. It is also clear that these two issues are interdependent. Carbon-reducing investments are required for climate stabilization, without which there will continue to be persistent calls for more aggressive policies, which in turn will destabilize market expectations. And so on.

Companies should therefore call for legislation that peaks greenhouse gas emissions in the near term — ideally before 2020 — and that includes specific, robust accountability mechanisms. It also means asking for clear and durable rules that create the incentives for companies to invest in low-carbon energy and other GHG-reducing projects now.

Some companies have yet to join the policy debate due to the perception that their first step on climate issues should be to reduce their own emissions. However, engagement on policy can actually be undertaken concurrently, and may even enable more effective and efficient emission reductions.

What follows are five recommendations for engaging in climate policy based on the research BSR has conducted for a series of reports on climate policy engagement that will be published in early 2010:

1.    Start where you are. For most companies, managing climate policy proactively may seem like a brand new arena. But many of those same companies are already engaged in related activities, such as education and awareness building. Companies have pursued these activities because the public is often unclear that there is such robust scientific consensus about climate change, and public attitudes can have a strong impact on the success of legislation. Take stock of your existing efforts and capabilities, and use those successes to build the case internally for greater commitments.

2.    Follow emerging performance indicators related to climate policy. These include the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Investor Questionnaire (see question 28.1) and the Center for Political Accountability, as well as frameworks like Climate Counts. If you see room for improvement, communicate with these groups about the type of policy they should be encouraging.

3.    Focus your efforts. Identify your strongest levers for credibly influencing climate policy. The suggestions above provide a framework for considering your options.

4.    Pay attention to your company’s process. Policy outcomes are important, but so is the credibility and effectiveness of your company’s internal process. When it comes to managing operational emissions, the outcomes garner the most attention. With climate policy engagement, however, the quality of your approach is a chief success driver, because standards are emergent.

5.    Act now — and stay involved. The rules are currently being defined, and policy action is urgently needed to both mitigate climate change and reduce the uncertainty of market conditions. At the same time, key upcoming events, such as the Copenhagen climate change summit and the prospective U.S. Senate vote on emissions regulation, represent beginnings more than ends, because they will start a long process of standards development, international harmonization, and financial and technological innovation.

Given the fundamental changes that new climate policy will drive for energy, agriculture, and other markets, companies should develop more robust intelligence functions for anticipating and reacting to opportunities, and treat policy engagement as a continuous process.

First posted at GreenBiz.