Carbon volunteers

Why are some corporations green activists?

Pundits agree that the Obama administration has no hope of getting serious legislation on climate change before 2012. Other than waiting for a rational US Congress, what can be done? Research, fine. EPA standards – let’s hope against hope. There are other things too.

A global coalition of the sane – “make me do it”
As with Kyoto, the coalition will have to go ahead initially without the prospect of early US participation. The next round of climate negotiations is coming up in Cancun in November. An agreement could be designed with first-mover advantages that will put pressure to ratify on the likely holdouts (China, US, India). Fortunately the American delegation will represent the executive, not the Congress. There’s no reason for it to be obstructive; in 2000 the Clinton Administration signed the Rome Statute setting up the International Criminal Court with no hope of getting it ratified. The Administration should not carry on fighting carbon-dumping tariffs in the WTO.

I made a counter-intuitive argument here that the optimum strategy for Brazil and like-minded developing countries is not to hold their national policies hostage to the holdouts, as playground equity requires. They should go ahead anyway. It’s basic national-security prudence; absent a real global effort, the world is going to hell, but your country will be in a higher circle of hell if you have moved towards a low-carbon economy already.
Lighter carbon footprints
There are a lot of things each of us can do to lower out carbon emissions, making better choices on transport, housing, and shopping. I’ve no non-obvious ideas to contribute here. We can, for now, offset what we can’t cut.
Greener corporations
It’s a bit strange, but a number of large corporations are not only moving to cut their direct emissions, but that of their supply chain: Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer (the largest British clothing retailer), even – incredibly – Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. These aren’t niche players like Body Shop targeting especially green customers.

These look real, not token efforts, so are very good news. Why are they doing it? First, there are a lot of low-hanging fruit out there, just like McKinsey says. The direct energy-saving measures must save these firms money. The pressure on their suppliers is different. Here the motives must be reputation, strategic risk, and personal conviction. Reputation probably comes first; a growing number of shoppers want to wrap their purchases in a clean conscience. Lobbying by activist consumer groups can drive this forward. So can that of investors – CALPERS is doing its bit. Strategic risk is a a variant of my Brazil argument: if bad things are coming, dig your bunker first.

Let’s not discount conviction entirely. The top managers of major corporations are after all educated and intelligent men and women; often scientifically or technically trained. They also probably have more esprit de suite, mental discipline, than politicians and journalists. The day’s work includes slogging through fat reports with lots of numbers, and seeing through misleading sales pitches. It’s hardly a surprise if many of those who’ve looked into it are personally convinced by the consensus of the real scientists on climate change.
Collectively though, business doesn’t lobby for climate change legislation. As with health care, class solidarity seems to trump rational self-interest, and the lobbies are reverse-captured by political ideologues (cf. the GOP’s notorious K street project). Still, the corporate culture is changing, and for the better.

We shouldn’t hope that corporate greenery can do the job on its own. It’s a safe generalisation that the further away firms are from retail customers, and the less choice they have on technology, the less green they will be. Peabody Coal, Italcementi, Delta Airlines, and Arcelor-Mittal Steel are not SFIK offering to go carbon-neutral – they can’t. Corporate activism will at best buy feckless politicians and suicidal voters a little time.

What can wonkish bloggers do to support this trend? Spread better analytic methods, for one. My next post [update: here] will try to do just that.

Credits for photos untraceable.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

2 thoughts on “Carbon volunteers”

  1. I've been thinking recently about sitting down and trying to get a good idea of what my carbon footprint actually is. "Green" has become such a buzzword that you begin to feel like you're never doing as much as you could, which then leads to a sort of hypocritical pessimism. And one thing I get hung up on is the relative footprint of each aspect of daily life. Some things are easy – but are they really that important? For instance, we bring cloth bags to the grocer, saving maybe 5-6 bags in the process. But what is the carbon/environmental footprint of one bag? How many minutes does that equal in power consumption, or miles driven for consumables, or driving instead of biking, etc.?

    I'm reminded of the period I spend in my twenties trying to eat vegan. I would check labels to make sure they didn't contain the slightest bit of dairy products, such as casein. Yet I then realized that every time I broke down and succumbed to my overwhelming desire for a cheeseburger, fried chicken or bacon, that I was essentially ingesting the equivalent of a lifetime supply of casein-tainted products.

    At which point, chastened by the realization of my own hypocrisy, I gave up completely – no less concerned by animal welfare, however. I do think though, that having better information could at least allow one to make more serious commitments, comfortable in knowing less hypocrisy is involved, and that sacrifices being made are the right ones.

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