By Michael Kehs
General Manager, Hill & Knowlton Washington
Head of U.S. Public Affairs
This December, officials from 192 countries will come together in Copenhagen to undertake the daunting task of tackling climate change – and they’ll need to do this against the backdrop of the global economic recession. As millions lose their homes due to increasingly frequent hurricanes or mortgage foreclosures, a global discourse is being waged on how to reconcile melting ice caps with the meltdowns of financial institutions. This discourse will come to head at the COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference, where top officials will agree on the framework to combat climate change that will come into force once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Among the many items on the agenda, policymakers at COP15 must agree to a shared long-term vision for reduction targets of greenhouse gas emissions (as much as 50% - 80 % below 1990 levels by 2050), set mid-term goals for individual developed countries, and create the financial, technological, and verification mechanisms that will make carbon reduction a global reality. Although Europe has consistently taken the lead on championing environmental issues, the talks in Copenhagen promise more active participation by developing countries like China, Brazil, and India, which now recognize the need for coordinated action and are ready to join the dialogue.
Regardless of new players, it’s clear that the principal factors dominating the discourse are the position of the new U.S. administration and the global economic crisis. President Obama’s distinctively green stimulus package and campaign pledge to implement an emissions trading system represent fundamental shifts in U.S. environmental policy. By positioning the creation of a cleaner energy infrastructure as the key to economic revitalization, President Obama looks to turn challenge into opportunity and set a precedent for this model to be applied globally. While the Bush Administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in its earliest days, the new U.S. administration is now poised to ride a platform of “change” right into the Bella Center in Copenhagen and assume a leadership position.
At the same time, the realities of the global economic crisis and the high costs for implementing greener technologies threaten to undercut the Copenhagen agenda, or derail it altogether. Previous emissions reductions pledges of Kyoto signatories have failed due to feasibility challenges and shorter-term financial concerns, and that was when there wasn’t a financial crisis. The pressure to address climate change and the pressure to keep national economies moving have typically pushed business and governments in opposite directions.
How will Copenhagen be any different from Kyoto? How will we reconcile the dream of economic growth with the hard reality of carbon constraint? Most importantly, in light of the current economic crisis, who’s going to pay for it and how?
COP15 will provide a critical platform to explore and address these questions. Regardless of the self interests or the desires of participants and observers, one fact is inescapable: the only way to create a viable framework for the hard choices posed by climate change is to put a price on carbon. Where that cost is assessed, how and for what are all trillion-dollar questions – but they are a follow-up to the main event. And the main event is coming… this year.
We can be sure that the decisions made will have an enormous impact on the global business community. As such, it is imperative that every company gets Copenhagen on its radar starting now. The multitude of international business forums, energy conferences, and political summits leading up to December are already shaping the discourse. In addition to three other UN climate change negotiation sessions (in March and June in Germany and September in Thailand), leading countries are likely to try to advance the climate agenda at the G8 in July and a heads of government meeting under the UN Secretary-General. Even if concrete commitments are not made during these events, the political messages conveyed will certainly lay the foundation for what’s to come in Copenhagen.
The process of fashioning a global climate change response in many ways presents a unique chance for new players to join up and help rewrite the rules of the game. Considering that December’s negotiations will be conducted by national governments - and there is no guarantee that the policies they make will reflect the desires of their nation’s citizens or industries – now is the time for companies to speak up. The window for influencing national policymakers is open, but not indefinitely. Players that arrive late to this game will surely be at a disadvantage.
The calls for an energy revolution are exciting and there is no doubt that the current climate of urgency can spark transformative change in the USA and elsewhere. The companies that will come out on top will be those that actively follow the global dialogue on climate change and respond with innovation and flexibility. Even those that harbor doubts about climate change must recognize: the companies that are “on board” the Copenhagen Express will be in the best position to steer the process toward a positive destination. Engagement in the process is increasingly being seen as a metric for good corporate governance and responsible global citizenship.