Beyond Brokenhagen

February 1, 2010

Business and Climate Change in the Post-Copenhagen Era

By David L. Levy

(This is an updated version of an earlier posting)

BrokenhagenPresident Obama’s decision to speak at the COP-15 climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 cannot have been easy. Obama surely did not want to invest his shrinking political capital in backing the doomed international conference, but at the same time wanted to reassert US leadership after decades of denial and obstruction have cost it dearly in international credibility and influence. President Obama announced his decision to attend Copenhagen just as I was leaving the city after attending a conference on business education and climate change. Perhaps the President was inspired by our effort at Copenhagen Business School to infuse climate change into the business school curriculum, but I surmise that he had other strategic calculations.

Copenhagen was rebranded from a somewhat sleepy European capital to Hopenhagen,  the shiny new star on the global climate stage, showing off its clean tech sector with Vestas ads on every metro train. The conference I attended was, of course, also timed to cash in on the climate cachet of the city. I met a staff person from Copenhagen Capacity, whose organization is trying to attract clean tech investment to the region, and hoping for a boost from the media-grabbing climate conference. The city’s green credentials do not just rest on high tech renewables but on decidedly low-tech bicycles – Copenhagen is the biking capital of the Western world, with nearly 40% of commuters, many dressed in suits, pedaling to work through cold and rain. Whether they are motivated by environmental enthusiasm or the 200% tax on cars is hard to say.

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen brand is looking tarnished and, as the talks collapsed, many observers quickly renamed it Brokenhagen. The estimated 40,000 delegates, observers, and assorted groupies who descended on Copenhagen were unable to produce a binding treaty, despite the cost of more than $62 million borne by the Danish government, according to the Guardian in a special 10-page Copenhagen supplement. The Guardian noted that the delegates would emit more than 40,000 tons of CO2 during their travels and travails, which now looks like a rather bleak investment from a climate perspective. At least it must have been boom times for the retail carbon offset business.

Despite last minute by Obama and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, the conference only generated a vague declaration of principles the Copenhagen Accord, which sets a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C and recognizes that all nations need to work to that goal. A key part of the draft, a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2050, was removed at the last minute, apparently under pressure from China. Yet even this watered down accord didn’t win broad endorsement (Click here for a Dr. Seuss-style satirical summary from the BBC).         

The Copenhagen debacle has been endlessly dissected and analyzed. Many blame the Chinese for thwarting an agreement, while some blame the US for lack of leadership and bullying developing countries. Both countries are wary of multilateral agreements that might infringe on sovereignty. The main stumbling block was the distribution of economic costs and benefits, with the axis of contention being the divide between rich and poor countries. Developing countries demanded emissions cuts in the industrialized world of around 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, while the “offers” were in the 15-25% range with various baselines (not to mention flexibility from offsets). Developing countries also argued that any new regime maintain the Kyoto principle that only industrialized Annex I countries have legally binding emissions targets, while the US and Europe demanded that a new agreement include binding and verifiable targets for the larger developing countries, especially China and India. China’s total GHG emissions edged past the US in 2008, to reach 6.1 GTonsC02e. Developing countries also demanded up to $200 billion a year in aid designated for mitigation and adaptation. Industrialized countries did finally promise short term funding of $30 billion over the next three years, mainly for adaptation in vulnerable developing countries, as well as longer term funding of around $100 billion a year from 2020.

Observers are not optimistic about the prospects for completing a binding treaty at COP-16 in Mexico at the end of this year. Most countries are filing their GHG targets by the Jan. 31 2010 deadline, though some are vague ranges. The problem is that country negotiators more closely resemble corporate managers concerned with “competitiveness” than adverse impacts from climate change. Moreover, the financial crisis has weakened national treasuries and resource constraints are stark. Fundamentally, collective action is very difficult when there are so many actors with divergent interests.

What might happen in the absence of a binding global deal? The failure to achieve a binding treaty could well send a negative signal that stalls momentum on climate action. The prospect of a strong global emissions agreement has provided the political and economic context for the beehive of climate activity in recent years, from carbon footprinting to voluntary offsets, from Walmart’s supply chain initiative to BP’s investments in renewables. According to the Financial Times, “The private sector investment needed to tackle climate change will not be made without a binding international deal on carbon emissions.” Lars Josefsson, chief executive of Vattenfall, a Swedish power company, and chairman of Combat Climate Change, a group of 60 large companies that includes BP, GE, and Unilever, stated that: “The necessary investments will only be made when you have a binding treaty and legislation. Of the money required to implement a deal, the vast majority – about 80% – will come from the private sector. That can only come when there is a stable legal framework….It is very important to get business more engaged, because they have the knowledge of the market economy and how investment decisions are made.” Wulf Bernotat, CEO of the power company Eon, has made it clear that accelerating emission reductions requires a strong global framework.

The more optimistic camp argues that the climate bandwagon will lumber on regardless. Just as a weak Kyoto, without the US or China, was not the primary motivator for a host of corporate, NGO and governmental initiatives, so a non-binding Copenhagen declaration of good intentions will have little relevance. Mat Hoffmann at the University of Toronto is researching how decentralized local initiatives can evolve into effective forms of governance even in the absence of global authority (see his blog). Climate change science remains a key driver; NASA just announced that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade on record. Action will continue to bubble up from a host of organizations, and business will pursue low-carbon investments because they recognize the longer term strategic dynamic and will be seeking profitable new markets and efficiencies. Concerns about the rise of China in clean energy technologies appear to be driving a new dynamic of competitive investments and incentives, as states strive for national competitiveness in the rapidly growing cleantech economy.

One positive sign is that the stalemate at Copenhagen did not appear to dent the value of cleantech shares. The chart below shows the value of PBD, a clean energy ETF from Powershares (in blue) over the last two years, through Jan. 12. 2010. It clearly tracks the NASDAQ closely (red line) but is also influenced by the price of oil (yellow line). The collapse of talks in Copenhagen at the end of December had no noticeable impact.

PBD performance 2008_9

In the US, climate regulation is moving forward even without a national cap-and-trade system. The EPA has mandated that suppliers of fossil fuels, manufacturers of vehicles and facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of CO2e are required to collect data and submit annual reports to EPA. The new rule, effective in 2010, will apply to nearly more than 12,000 facilities which account for about 85% of US emissions. The EPA also ruled in December 2009 that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health, which enables the agency to use the Clean Air Act to regulate GHG emissions directly without legislation. This “endangerment finding” eases the path to stronger regulatory control of emissions from autos, power plants, buildings, appliances and factories. Finally,in late January, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that publicly held companies should warn investors of any potential effects from climate change on their bottom lines.

Increasingly, business is realizing the dangers of the proliferation of multiple regulations, and standards emanating from various regions and states, and is lobbying for simple, transparent, predictable, and coordinated frameworks. General concern with the cost of carbon regulation has been replaced by fears of the compliance costs and uncertainties of trying to cope with a chaotic and fragmented climate regime. Energy intense business sectors are particularly concerned at the prospect of EPA regulation of GHGs – they would much prefer the flexibility and low carbon prices of a cap-and-trade regime. The Financial Times reported that large US-based companies are warning “that they will face a heavy regulatory burden should US Congress fail to pass climate change legislation,” as EPA and individual states develop a patchwork of regulations and measures. Peter Molinaro, head of government affairs at Dow Chemical, the largest US chemicals group, told the Financial Times that the proliferation of such initiatives would present “an enormous administrative burden” for companies that operate across different regimes. “Manufacturers are having enough trouble in this country competing with foreign companies,” Mr Molinaro said. “We’d be adding administrative and cost burden where we shouldn’t.”

The concerns regarding patchwork regulations are even more acute at the international level: Alison Taylor, vice-president of sustainability for the Americas at Siemens, the German engineering group, said businesses needed to know the price of carbon for planning reasons. “How do you have one price of carbon if you’ve got four or five different regimes?” she said. These concerns have played an important part in building corporate support for an international agreement and driving the recent defections from the US Chamber of Commerce. A string of high-profile companies including Coca Cola, GE, Microsoft, Cisco, DuPont, Johnson Controls and Nike tried to make the case at Copenhagen for a global agreement. But the business community is still far from reaching a consensus view, and the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers remain opposed to pending US climate legislation. Until mainstream business organizations become more coherent in their support, the prospects for meaningful national regulation in the US or for an international treaty remain dim.

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