Politicians have failed, business is now our only hope

| 21st December 2009
Dan Box
This blog is unlikely to win me many friends among readers of the Ecologist, but it needs to be said: after Copenhagen, we must accept that big business is just about the best hope we have left

This, I know, will provoke some to anger and others to stop reading in disgust (goodbye, thanks for your time), but hear me out.

Firstly, our political leaders have failed. That Copenhagen – and the two years of talks that went into it – delivered only a few pages that said the world should not warm more than 2C, and that this document was not even properly agreed but only 'noted', is proof enough of that. They have been collectively found unable to move fast or act smart. And we do not have time to wait.

Our campaigning NGOs, such as Greenpeace, mean well but are too small and weak to change the way the world works. It's nothing personal.

Business the key

Business, by contrast, is big, powerful and it does get things done. Few companies would have sat around for two years agreeing effectively nothing, because they would have been losing money with every moment – the one thing they really don't like to do.

This is the key. Companies exist to make money; some enjoy it, others have a legal duty to do so in order to enrich their shareholders. You may not like it, but in fact it makes them easy to motivate.

Had Copenhagen come up with a great way of allowing companies to make money by cutting carbon emissions, or a binding treaty on emission cuts - creating a level playing field on which clean energy could compete with fossil fuels - business would have taken that opportunity and run.

In fact, the combined efforts of almost all the world's governments succeeded only at talking down the price of carbon traded on the European market, which suffered its biggest fall in six months as the conference ended.

No enemy

For this reason it is lazy to cast big business as the enemy. Almost all business leaders in the West at least are now resigned to the prospect of a low-carbon future, all they want is government to agree the necessary regulation.

The chief executives of Exxon Mobil and Shell have both been calling publicly for a carbon tax – yes it will cut their short-term profits, but it will also cut those of their competitors equally, leaving no-one at a competitive disadvantage.

By making one area of their business more expensive it also makes others more profitable. At the end of the day, a carbon tax probably won't have much long-term impact on the share price.

Get them on board

Finally, it is naive – or a lie – for anyone to pretend this problem can be solved without business on board.

In an open letter to the heads of state at the climate summit, the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment group, representing businesses with $18 trillion of assets between them, said that at least 80% of the money required to fight climate change will have to come from the private sector, yet I have heard no government either openly admit this, or explain how they expect business to provide this sum.

Sadly, through cock-up or conceit, those gathered in Copenhagen failed to accept that anyone else could be part of the solution.

My lasting memory of the conference is one cold morning when many business leaders found themselves standing silently for hours outside the centre gates – along with scientists, NGOs and delegates from developing states – their passes for some reason refused.

At Copenhagen, they were excluded. We cannot let it happen again.

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