Costs of climate change spur greening of business

Climate concerns are pushing corporates to do good by doing well. Meanwhile, new research puts a number on the ecological impact of rich country lifestyles on poor ones.

From the time the words "global climate change" were first uttered, it was inevitable that there would be an economic dimension to the issue – the price of global warming and the cost of adapting to it.

Over the years, it's also become clear to some experts and activists that rising temperatures are affecting different parts of the world differently. Researchers this week reported on what they claimed was the "first systematic global analysis," quantifying the environmental impact on poor countries of the high consumption levels of richer countries. While, for example, greenhouse emissions from low-income countries cost $740 billion in damages to rich countries, they in return have imposed $2.3 trillion of damage, reports The Guardian.

" 'At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor,' said Professor Richard Norgaard, an ecological economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study. "That, perhaps, is one reason that they are poor. You don't see it until you do the kind of accounting that we do here.' "

In all, the researchers claim, the burden of the environmental "footprint" of high-income nations falling on low-income countries is greater than their entire financial debt, or about $1.8 trillion. NBC reports:

" 'We think the measured impact is conservative. And given that it's conservative, the numbers are very striking,' said [lead researcher Thara] Srinivasan ... ."

This ethical quandary is one reason corporate leaders can think of themselves as doing good while also doing well in business terms – at least to the extent that they reduce waste, conserve energy, and produce greener goods and services. The Economist reports:

"For some companies the gains to be had from cutting waste and improving energy use are very large. United Technologies Corporation (UTC), whose products range from aerospace to air-conditioning systems, has reduced its carbon footprint by 19% over the past ten years even as it has doubled its output, according to George David, the CEO. 'We've had an explosion of doing more with less,' he says."

While increasing numbers of corporations have signed on to such green business groups as the US Climate Action Partnership, they're also keen to influence whatever legislation Congress might enact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, reports McClatchy Newspapers.

" 'In the last year there's been a sea change' in business thinking on a mandatory federal emissions policy, said Truman Semans, the director for marketing and business strategy for a group of large U.S. companies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change's Business Environmental Leadership Council. The council comprises 44 companies with $2.8 trillion in market capitalization, a sizable chunk of the world economy. Most favor a mandatory market-based emissions policy, Semans said."

But changes in the business landscape due to climate change can also cause international rifts. The US this week warned the European Union against using climate change as a pretext for protectionism. The International Herald Tribune reports:

"The pointed comments by the U.S. trade representative, Susan Schwab, after talks in Brussels, came just two days before the European Commission introduced its proposals for cutting EU emissions at least 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. 'We have been dismayed at a variety of suggestions where we have seen the climate and the environment being used as an excuse to close markets,' Schwab said."

Even the greenest of national leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, finds balancing environmental and industrial policy a difficult task. Der Spiegel reports:

"The issues she faces are no less momentous than the transformation of industrial society, billions in investments, jobs and vast amounts of carbon dioxide. These are the elements of a debate that will decide the future of the 'climate chancellor' and everyone involved knows that the real struggle is just beginning."
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.