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.

Why Climate Change Will Matter to Every Company

BSR has recently fielded inquiries from a range of member companies asking how climate change is relevant to their business.

The timing of these questions is obvious: With prospective climate change legislation and policy discussions in the United States and elsewhere, intensive international negotiations culminating later this year, and ongoing stakeholder interest, companies are scrambling to develop or boost their climate change strategies, assess their internal and supply chain emissions, and examine the potential risks and opportunities throughout their operations, value chain, and industry.

For energy companies and heavy manufacturers, it has long been clear that climate change regulation would have a significant impact on business. And while some representatives from other industries still insist climate change is not relevant for them, the best available research indicates it is material for virtually every company, both in the traditional accounting sense and the sustainability context, which incorporates wider stakeholder concerns. Unlike issues such as animal welfare or toxic waste that may be irrelevant to some firms, climate change is never off the playing field for any company.

It’s About Owned Operations

For companies that generate large quantities of greenhouse gases or purchase large amounts of energy, climate change regulation is clearly a significant issue that is likely to affect future costs. As recent negotiations in the U.S. Congress have shown, however, climate change regulation is not just about greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. It has significant implications for international trade, agriculture, transportation, and other areas.

In addition, physical risks and opportunities presented by climate change are already becoming manifest. Companies need to think about how a changing climate affects things such as heating and cooling needs, water availability, and emergency preparedness for catastrophic weather. An extended drought in Australia, for instance, has forced the food company Heinz to curtail production of tomato paste there, and to consider shifting other production out of the country. Meanwhile, nations and industries have begun to discuss the possibilities presented by expanded shipping through the Northwest Passage.

Taking action in a company’s owned operations can also lay the foundation for business opportunities and reputation building through engagement with peers, suppliers, and customers. Although the retail industry is responsible for only a small amount of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, some retailers such as Walmart and Tesco have been applauded for addressing climate change throughout their value chains — efforts that are founded in part on efficiency and renewable energy programs in their own stores.

It’s About Supply Chains

For many companies, the most important climate change risks and opportunities may lie outside of their owned operations. As a 2008 McKinsey study noted, between 40 and 60 percent of manufacturers’ carbon footprints often lie in their supply chains. BSR has worked closely with food-processing companies and retailers whose supply chain emissions are more than three times larger than those represented by their own facilities and purchased energy. It’s important for companies to realize that climate change regulation may have significant implications for supply chain costs in carbon- and energy-intensive industries.

Greenhouse gas emissions and physical climate change impacts also have significant implications for logistics and transportation choices in the supply chain. Companies that have “Just-in-time” inventory systems may rely heavily on air transport for rapid shipment of goods to keep inventories low. However, air transport — which contributes more than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — has a much larger climate change impact than trucking, rail, or ocean cargo shipping. Increasingly, aviation is brought up as an area for regulation. In effect, climate change is a material issue for companies that have intricate supply chains or otherwise rely heavily on air travel and transport.

Climate change will also have significant physical impacts on supply chains. At BSR, we have seen more companies focus on this area, including Kraft, which is addressing growing climate and other risks to high-value tropical crops like coffee and cocoa by working with organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support its suppliers and encourage sustainable production.

The supply chain also presents climate-change-related opportunities. The confectionary company Cadbury, for example, is working closely with dairy suppliers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such actions benefit companies like Cadbury by strengthening the firm’s supply chain understanding and relationships and by improving its reputation for addressing climate change. It’s also possible that these efforts will provide financial benefits if the company is able to obtain carbon credits for use or sale.

It’s About Customers and Consumers

In addition to “upstream” supply chains, climate change has growing implications for companies through their “downstream” customers and consumers. Nearly a decade ago, Ford Motor Co. was one of the first large companies to publicly address this issue through its corporate citizenship reports. Information technology companies like IBM and Cisco are touting the benefits of lower climate change impacts from their energy-saving products, while apparel companies such as Levi Strauss and Co. have begun using garment labels, promotions, and store staff to encourage customers to adopt reduced-energy washing practices.

Companies whose products generate substantial greenhouse gases during use aren’t the only ones for whom consumer climate change issues should be important. There are growing efforts to encourage consumers to select products with a smaller total greenhouse gas footprint (such as peanut butter rather than lunch meat), while physical climate change itself may shift customer preferences and needs. Farmers may begin planting more heat- and drought-tolerant crops, for example, while the spread of dengue fever and other diseases (PDF) is likely to significantly affect pharmaceuticals markets. Companies that understand and are prepared to meet these trends will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

It’s About Industry Dynamics

Physical climate change and related regulation will also lead to long-term changes in industry structures. Climate-related regulation, market incentives and other factors may encourage new competitors to enter an industry, as we see in the auto and energy fields, while climate change reporting and compliance requirements may increase barriers to entering other industries.

It’s clear that climate change is one of the largest and most persistent sustainability megatrends of this generation — and for many companies, the pinch points are obvious. For others, climate issues are more subtle, affecting the company indirectly through the vulnerabilities of its partners. And for others still, climate change may affect the company in such broad but low-intensity ways that is hard to know where to begin.

In any case, although some companies may not identify climate change as the most pressing issue they face today, these examples should demonstrate that the breadth and magnitude of the likely physical and regulatory impacts — from owned operations and industry dynamics to supply chains and customers — mean the issue is relevant for virtually all companies. It presents a wide range of risks, as well as new opportunities to reduce costs, differentiate products, and work with suppliers and consumers.

First posted at GreenBiz.