How long is the lag time between political rhetoric and action? Years, months, weeks, decades?
It is a question that will have been vexing many business leaders the world over these past few weeks as President George W Bush joined many of his global counterparts in committing to tackling climate change.
In his state of the union address Bush appeared to accept "the serious challenge of climate change" and committed America to a clean technology revolution designed to limit the country's dependence on oil and help people "become better stewards of the environment".
Specifically he set a target of reducing US petrol usage by 20 percent in the next decade through greater use of bio-fuels and improvements in hybrid and battery powered cars. He also pledged to "increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017".
His targets may have been too modest for many environmentalists, his belief in the benefits of bio-fuels may have been denounced by some scientists, his failure to deliver mandatory caps on carbon emissions may mean the targets have no teeth, his claims that market driven mechanisms and incentives for new technologies will single handedly tackle climate change may have been contested by those who believe strong regulation is also required, and the smirk on the face of his right hand man as he made the pledges may have enraged the liberal blogosphere; but targets are now in place for the first time and a consensus is building that for national as much as climate security the US must limit emissions and expand its use of renewables.
Meanwhile, over in Switzerland at the World Economic Forum the same environmental and economic issues were being discussed by 2,400 politicians, business leaders and academics. Again the issue of climate change and the required response dominated the agenda.
Delivering her keynote, German chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Bush's apparent change of stance on climate change and echoed his claim that renewable and cleaner energy generation can improve national security, urging European economies to invest in alternative energy as a means of reducing their dependence on Russian gas.
Sir Nicholas Stern also reiterated his calls for wider adoption of green taxes in order to correct the "market failure" that sees businesses and individuals pollute without any risk of picking up the associated costs.
But what does this emerging consensus mean for business leaders?
Well that depends on the answer to the initial question about political lag times. The rhetoric of the past week proves that the risk of a massive increase in environmental legislation has never been more pronounced, but there is still no clear timeline on when that risk will become a reality.
So far the organisations that have embraced green business models tend to have been either consumer facing or energy intensive companies that see either brand or cost benefits in adopting more sustainable practices. Mitigating the risk of future legislation or green taxes is an extremely valuable side benefit, but it was not the initial reason they made their public pledges to become environmentally friendly.
For those businesses where the brand and cost benefits of transforming their business are less pronounced the decision to shift towards green business models will be determined by risk analysts gazing into their crystal balls and trying to work out how long it will take for political comments such as Tony Blair's claim that the Stern Review was the most important report he had seen in his time in office to translate into higher green taxes, greater incentives for sustainable corporate behaviour and tougher environmental laws.
The information they are acting on to determine the length of this lag time is, of course, incomplete and often contradictory.
Only last week the case for a lengthy, if not never-ending, gap between rhetoric and action was reinforced when EU legislation to improve the fuel efficiency of cars was unexpectedly delayed amidst complaints from the car industry that it would drive up prices, force production overseas and have little impact on emissions.
However, at the same time John Ashton, a senior British diplomat at the foreign office, argued that if climate change was rightly seen as a security issue first and foremost then political action could be mobilised very quickly.
Speaking to Channel 4 news ahead of the comments from both Bush and Merkel about the need to improve national security by increasing reliance on renewable power, Ashton said that the migration and conflict that would almost inevitably result from climate change means it should be interpreted as a security issue and as such governments should try and develop an international, cold war-style security response to tackling the problem.
"We tend in our societies to take security more seriously than anything else and you can do a lot of things in response to a security problem that you can't do in response to another type of problem," he observed. "You can mobilize, for example, public investment much more quickly and on a much bigger scale."
On top of this contrasting evidence corporate strategists also have to factor in the fact that the whole tenor of the global climate change debate could still change as fast as you can say "US presidential elections".
The accuracy of risk analysts' estimates on the pace at which an environmentally-friendly legislative framework will emerge will be of critical importance to the commercial success of their employers. Firms that make a rapid shift towards green business models in an anticipation of political action on climate change will, of course, improve their brand image, limit energy costs and boost staff morale. But if tougher environmental regulations and taxes do not materialise within a couple of years they may have to answer difficult questions from shareholders and analysts about why they invested heavily in programmes that were not required by law, not emulated by their rivals and in some cases may not have delivered clear commercial benefits.
In contrast, firms that wrongly bet on the rhetoric failing to transform quickly into action could find themselves rushing to comply with new environmental legislation and avoid new green taxes at the eleventh hour. What is more they are likely to be trying to develop more environmentally friendly business models at the same time as all their rivals are rushing to do the exact same thing. As a result the cost of environmental services and technologies will spike as demand increases and the competitive advantages of green business transformation will be completely lost.
In short, if the politicians' will matches their rhetoric then the global regulatory and tax climate will be massively different within four years. Alternatively, if things continue to move at the sluggish pace displayed in the last ten years it could take a couple more decades to develop a clear environmentally sustainable legal framework.
Businesses have already done a great deal to move towards more environmentally friendly practices but if governments want them to truly lead the green revolution then they have to make it much plainer that the legislative changes they continue to talk about will become a reality. Fail to do this and many firms will be able to continue to do little or nothing, while quite rightly pleading that fiduciary duty means their hands are tied.
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