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The business of going green

Close up on green man, road-crossing light in front of a Tesco's fascia sign. Photo credit: Reuters
UK supermarket chain Tesco is planning a 'green labelling' scheme to help guide shoppers

The business of going green


A small but influential group of CEOs are stepping up to face the climate change challenge. Roger Harrabin reports

It was a story many environmental activists could only have dreamed about a few years ago: top business leaders worry about climate change at World Economic Forum.

Many of those same business leaders are now scrambling to be first with new low-carbon products and services, and appear more willing than politicians to tackle climate change - just set the framework and leave the rest to business, they say.

So what brought about this turn of events? The hardening of climate science was a factor, like the increasing acceptance of climate as an economic risk. But this revolution did not just happen? the CEOs have been led by a few key individuals whose names may one day be written in the annals of climate policy (if the mainstream scientists are proved right).

Business leaders are scrambling to be first with new low-carbon products and services
Agents for change

Let us shine the spotlight on four of these agents for change, starting with Maurice Strong. This urbane Canadian made a fortune in energy and property before slipping into government, to create the Canadian development agency CIDA. He then moved back into business, then to the UN, and was chosen to organise the first Earth Summit in 1972.

At the Rio summit 20 years later, he realised that climate change would not be tackled unless business was on board - so he set up the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. WBCSD has been criticised for pandering to the lowest common denominator of its member CEOs - but when Tony Blair wanted a business voice at the G8 summit two years ago it was to the WBCSD that he turned. Their presence reassured President Bush and the organisation continues to play an essential role in on-going climate talks between the G8 and the richest 12 developing nations.

Change Agent No.2 is John Browne. While Exxon Mobil funded 'think-tanks' denouncing climate science, Browne pulled BP out of the climate-sceptic Global Climate Coalition and began to voice his concern about the effects of a warming world on future profits publicly. BP is still wedded to its core oil business but Browne imposed a unilateral emissions cut on his firm via a system whereby branches traded permits with each other. The success of the scheme gave politicians confidence to press ahead with the EU emissions trading scheme.

From the IPCC 4th Assessment Report
• Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilised
Rupert Murdoch may seem an unlikely member of the climate-positive crew, but it seems to me that his shift in opinion has removed one of the great barriers to acceptance of climate theory - particularly in the US. For many years Murdoch was sceptical that human-caused emissions were influencing the global climate. Murdoch's Fox TV cast environmentalists as hypocrites and scaremongers and his Times of London employed climate-sceptic columnists.

But recently Murdoch himself changed - apparently persuaded by the argument that the risks entailed in a changing climate were so huge that it was irrational to ignore them in the hope that mainstream science was wrong. His Sky TV recently ran a 'Green Week' on climate themes.

Last, the wild card: the future king of England. He sponsors the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group: an informal coalition of top CEOs concerned about the effects of climate change on the world economy. Together they presented a formidable counter-case to traditional business wisdom that emissions caps would harm profits.

As drivers of Britain's industry, they gain easy access to Tony Blair, who in turn plays a disproportionate role in global climate talks. They have also lobbied the EU's environment commissioner Stavros Dimas - and given him ammunition in his battles with the EU industry directorate over emissions policy.

The green bandwagon

Thanks to the climate of opinion informed by leaders like these, the green bandwagon is rolling - Marks & Spencer and Tesco have amazed environmentalists by promising to join HSBC Bank in the carbon neutral club.
But not without self-interest? Investment bank Lehman Bros published a report warning that the firms that adapt fastest to the new low-carbon business climate will survive and thrive: those that resist will perish. It remains to be seen whether even the most ambitious of business leaders will accede to the CO2 cuts of 80% scientists say will be needed by 2050 - we should expect massive resistance along the way. But, for the time being, the fashionable colour in business is green.

Roger Harrabin
Roger Harrabin, BBC Environment Analyst, has worked for the BBC for many years, reporting on Panorama, Newsnight, Assignment and The World at One and was founder presenter of Radio 4's Costing the Earth environment series
Visit the BBC Climate change portal

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