Bruno Berthon of Accenture warns that a vocal minority of conservative businesses could undermine low-carbon progress
It's easy to be under the impression in Durban that business is trying to play a positive leadership role in the debates about climate change and the low-carbon economy. The voices of industry are increasingly heard at the COPs and their associated events – the World Climate Summit, the WBCSD's Business Day, B4E.
But, as stated by Christina Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCC, who is deeply involved with the COP17 negotiations here in Durban, the businesses that are represented at these events tend to reflect an active minority of 'progressive companies' across the business world.
The others – and we have to accept that means a majority of businesses – are not only choosing to stay away from Durban but, back home, wherever home is, they are forming a force that is working in the opposite direction. They are vocal with governments, strongly influencing them and, in many cases, successfully holding up low-carbon policy efforts in many countries.
We've got used to seeing domestic business lobbies in the US refusing any kind of carbon price and rejecting other carbon measures. But in the EU, too, business has been dragging its feet with regards to the EU's commitments on GHG emissions. In China and other emerging markets, companies are fighting for access to energy without constraints on the type of energy mix, as we see with the demand for coal in South Africa and China.
Why is it that in Durban we are hearing these two discordant voices: businesses active in UN initiatives increasingly frustrated by the lack of government determination, while governments arguing they are representing the point of views of their business constituents who are rightly or wrongly afraid of the cost of the low-carbon transition or simply retreating at a time of economic crisis?
There are several reasons, but here are three:
- Small- and medium-size enterprises fear they can afford neither the transition to a low-carbon economy nor the alternative solutions. Often, of course, this fear is due to the lack of awareness of simple, practical and commercially viable alternatives, such as solar panels replacing diesel generators in Africa.
- The conservatism of the business community is reinforced by multiple lobbies, which ignore superbly, as commissioner Hedegaard pointed out here, the cost of 'business as usual'.
- There is clearly a fear of unfair competition, both in the EU and in emerging markets, particularly with China, which is fuelling China's growing leadership in clean energy.
I wrote from Cancun last year that we are relying on business more than ever to develop practical industry-based solutions to climate change in the absence of global political agreement.
But it is clear there is a risk of a schizophrenic catch 22 within the business community.
So the progressive leaders that Christina Figueres refers to need not only press governments further, but consciously break away from the rest of the business pack in order to invent the required low-carbon economic context.
That will require strong powers of persuasion to entice their partners, vendors and other stakeholders to join them on their journey. If they are unable to do so, there is a possibility that the currently inaccurate perception that business is an obstacle could, in fact, become a reality.
Bruno Berthon is managing director of Sustainability Services at Accenture