As humans, we’re wired to focus on the now. I want a new gadget now. I want a slab of pie now. I’m busy now, so I don’t have time for politics. The consequences—consumer debt, a sagging waistline, a Congress beholden to special interests–all arrive later.
You can think about global warming as a now-and-later problem. Governments need to take unpopular actions now to deal with a problem that will do most of its damage later. Businesses need to look beyond the next quarter to the next quarter century.
This evening in Elsinore, Denmark, top executives from such companies as Coca-Cola, Duke Energy, Goldman Sachs and Google took the long view in a fitting venue: Kronborg Castle, a 15th century castle best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Sitting in a magnificent castle that’s been preserved for six centuries makes you wonder what impact the goings-on on Copenhagen this week will have on the world in 60 or even 600 years.
In that context, it seems prudent to invest now to insure against a climate catastrophe, no matter how distant–even if the short-term result is a slight drag on short-term economic growth
As Tracy Wolstencroft, global head of environmental markets for Goldman Sachs, put it: “The economy is a wholly owed subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.” That is, if we ruin the environment, there’s no economy left.
Or, as Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola said: “It is absolutely imperative that our voices be heard and our commitments to low carbon be fully understood.”
It turns out there’s a big contingent from corporate America in Copenhagen. Among the high-profile companies here: GE, Microsoft, Cisco, DuPont, Johnson Controls, Nike and North Face. (Here’s a column by Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, about efforts by some companies to lobby for a strong climate deal.) Not surprisingly, most favor a global agreement to regulate carbon emissions.
A strong agreement, they said, will drive companies to make the investments needed to usher in low-carbon economy.
As an example, Wolstencroft recalled that China’s five-year released in 2005 made a commitment to low-carbon energy. What followed, he said, was a $5.4 billion acquisition by Toshiba of Westinghouse’s nuclear energy business and capital investments of another $5 billion in Chinese solar power companies, which have since emerged as world leaders.
“What we hope comes out of Copenhagen,” Wolstencroft said, “are even clearer rules that help give investors the confidence…to put money into clean technology.”
Clean tech, he said, is “one of the largest emerging markets the world has seen.”
Duke Energy’s CEO, Jim Rogers, also said that China has the ability to both plan long-term and act rapidly. “They lead in the production of solar panels and wind turbines,” he said. “They’re building 13 nuclear panels with more on the drawing board. They’re ahead in battery technology.”
Duke has a joint venture with a Chinese firm to build a coal plant that, if all goes according to plan, will capture and store carbon emissions.
“The Chinese can scale and deploy this faster than in the U.S.,” Rogers said. Duke’s investment in so-called clean coal won’t pay off in the short run, he said, “but we need a full-court press to make that a reality.”
Google, too, is investing in energy and climate projects with long-term horizons, said Dan Reicher, the firm’s climate guru. Its engineers have reconfigured Toyota Priuses into plug-in electric cars, and they are deploying Google Earth software to track deforestation.
Google’s Power Meter, which is being tested with utilities around the world, gives consumers real-time information about their electricity use, to incentivize them to conserve energy. Waving his cell phone, Reicher said: “I can get information about electricity use at my home in California on this smart phone.”
Several of the execs noted that many low-carbon technologies are available today, albeit at a price. Denmark gets 20% of its electricity from wind turbines, but wind-powered electricity costs more than coal-fired power. Denmark also has big plans for electric cars, but they require just-as-big government subsidies.
In theory, at least, there’s a future payback for those current outlays. Anders Eldrup, president and CEO of Copenhaven-based Dong Energy, which has 1 million customers in northern Europe and is shutting down many of its coal plants, says clean energy technology has surpassed agriculture as Denmark’s leading export.
While there’s no way to know for sure, my sense is that the companies here in Copenhagen don’t reflect the mainstream of corporate America, where big lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers oppose the climate bills pending in Congress. They’d rather pay later than pay now.
That’s a big a gamble, of course. It’s been a long time since I studied Hamlet but, to the best of my recollection, at the end of the play, just about everybody dies.