Should businesses be allowed to make money out of tackling climate change when they are largely responsible for having caused it?
It is a question that hangs over the Cancun Summit just as it has hung over every international climate change summit for the past 20 years and informs many of the tropes that are familiar to veteran observers of the negotiations.
What we have seen time and time again over the years is a plea for businesses to get more involved in driving the low carbon economy and the formation of numerous policies and mechanisms designed to encourage them to invest in the necessary infrastructure. This is then followed by a backlash that warns that businesses are taking over the development of low carbon policy and exploiting green incentives to make "obscene profits".
You can see this narrative playing out in virtually every major low carbon initiative, be it the concerns about energy companies generating windfall profits from the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS), the fears that the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is being "gamed" by disreputable emission reduction projects, and the repeated attempts by the media to tie any report about low carbon energy investment to scare stories about soaring energy bills.
Almost all of these stories are valid and journalists undoubtedly have a vital role to play in keeping an eye out for dubious corporate behaviour in markets that are developing at a breakneck pace. For example, the EU ETS and the CDM are littered with loopholes that need to be identified if they are to be closed, just as the proposed REDD forestry scheme being considered in Cancun will need to include stringent safeguards if it is not to end up doing more harm than good.
But there is something more than good old fashioned investigative reporting going on here. More often than not reports detailing how businesses are exploiting the opportunities offered by the low carbon economy employ a tone that questions whether businesses should be involved at all.
For example, Friends of the Earth's report on the REDD proposals last week stated forest deals are "set to harm the environment and reward corporate investors", warning that "large transnational corporations including BP, Shell and energy companies" are preparing to invest in REDD schemes.
Similarly, the World Development Movement's Kate Blagojevic last week railed against news the British government had invited along and covered some of the costs for a number of business leaders to attend the summit alongside its official Cancun delegation, raging that the move was "damaging to our international credibility in climate negotiations and [shows] that the government has corporate interests, not a just deal, at heart".
These green groups do a huge amount of admirable work and undoubtedly there are valid questions to be asked about the extent to which REDD will protect forest communities and the apparent ease of corporate access to top civil servants. But where precisely is the billions of dollars a year going to come from to improve forest protection if not through a market mechanism? And if you agree a market mechanism, can you really afford to turn down money from companies you don't like, however poor their environmental record? Equally, the main reason the British government, like many other governments, finally has the pursuit of an international climate deal at heart is because it has realised such a deal would serve corporate interests.
As one green investor observed to me recently, businesses are getting increasingly frustrated that when they do act in a progressive manner they are expected to almost apologise for the fact they will make a return on their investment. "Heaven forbid we should actually make any money," he complained.
Of course, many businesses have themselves to blame for this situation. From the Gulf of Mexico to the melting ice caps, the litany of corporate crimes and misdemeanours is so long that it is a miracle we trust them to do anything. Business leaders have a huge amount of work to do in Cancun to re-build trust and convince politicians and green groups that they are willing to play by the rules of the low carbon economy.
But at the same time those critics of green investors have to ask where the alternative lies?
There are essentially two options now available: you either develop mechanisms that harness the power of the market, put a price on environmental externalities, provide incentives for businesses to invest in low carbon infrastructure, and use regulations to nudge them in the right direction; or you put all your faith in the formation of a global socialist utopia that quickly and efficiently instructs economies to wean themselves off their carbon habit. Achieving either option would be a pretty daunting task, but given the starting point and the, shall we say, historic problems that come with command economies, the market-based approach is the only realistic hope of delivering the deep cuts in emissions we need.
Yes, we need to ensure they are not rewarded with abnormal profits that drain funding from other low carbon projects. Yes, we need to put in place safeguards to ensure emissions are actually reduced and vital natural resources and habitats are protected. But it is time to accept that savvy businesses will get rich off climate change as a reward for their investment in the development of the low carbon economy. Deny them that opportunity, and the only people getting rich will be life boat manufacturers.
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