Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Kyoto vacuum: markets step in

It's been disheartening to say the least to witness the attitudes of the US and Australia to action on global warming.

The failure to commit to the Kyoto Protocol might not be so bad if these countries had some other realistic suggestions for global action. Judge for yourself, but in my view the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate is not a realistic alternative. Its focus on a few technological fixes is either naive or dishonest (let's face it, it's dishonest).

We need governments to commit to regulating their industries to reduce emissions sharply and fairly quickly. Industry isn't going to do it on its own.

Nevertheless, it's been encouraging to see alternatives emerging to fill the vacuum of political leadership that we're suffering at a national level. Lefties would call it people power, righties would call it the market, but however you see it, consumers or citizens are stepping up to the challenge and demanding change - and businesses are starting to respond.

Two developments this week have caught my eye.

Yesterday, the Carbon Disclosure Project entered its 4th stage - and it's much bigger than the last one.

The Carbon Disclosure Project or CDP is an initiative on behalf of fund managers who together manage more than $30 trillion. That's a lot of cash. They've written to 1,933 of the world's biggest companies (up from 500 last year) requesting detailed information on their activities and policies with respect to climate change.

Why are fund managers interested in this? Because climate change is going to be big business - it's effects are going to threaten some businesses, the demand for emission reductions are going to threaten others, while demand for clean energy and carbon offsets is going to present enormous business opportunities.

According to Reuters:

"There are business risks and opportunities (from climate change) that have implications for the value of investments in corporations worldwide," said Paul Dickinson, CDP project coordinator.

The investors have demanded disclosure on companies' risk from extreme weather events, often associated with climate change, and about their emission of carbon dioxide... and for their strategies to cut emissions.

Detailed information on emissions is seen even more key this year given high energy prices, increasing the attractiveness of companies which are less carbon and energy intensive, or which have active programs in this direction.

"It's a question of institutional investors taking a well-informed view of the profitability of companies based on energy consumption and (carbon) emission performance," said Dickinson. "You could take a view that climate change will be good for green technology companies... [while] unprepared companies could find themselves in the firing line of policy as political demands harden on the need for CO2 cuts [and] a blase attitude to climate change could also risk reputational damage.
And earlier this week came news from the US of the first State-based emissions trading scheme (in Illinois). It's voluntary (I'll leave it to you whether that's good or bad) and basically allows farmers and other landowners to earn credits by adopting various conservation measures. These can then be sold to companies and organisations who have committed to reducing their greenhouse impact by offsetting their emissions.

Essentially the scheme just represents a credible certification program and a sort of clearing house for funding of conservation projects. It's being overseen by the Chicago Climate Exchange which already runs a similar national program (I think the novelty of the Illinois one is that it has government sponsorship and involvement).

There's a growing number of these sort of initiatives (I'll research and report on the Australian ones in the next few weeks) and I find it very encouraging. I don't think it's a substitute for national political leadership but I think it will be a precursor to political action, once our pollies wake up and see that there is a political will for this, that business can do it and that there are feasible mechanisms. Then just watch them claim these initiatives as their own.

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