Corporate sustainability, by the numbers: Who’s up, who’s down, who cares?

This has been a big week for corporate sustainability rankings, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project releasing new reports. Vote Solar and the Solar Power Electric Industries Association showcased the  top 20 corporate users of solar power in the US. A book called Good Company just landed on my desk, along with its own 2012 Good Company Index. And October will bring the World Series, Halloween and, of course, the annual Newsweek “green” rankings of big public companies.

All of which raises a couple of questions.

Do these ratings and rankings matter?

More important: Should they?

Undeniably, they do matter, mostly but not entirely because of the prestige they confer upon companies that do well. Press releases are flying! “Carbon Disclosure Project Salutes Con Edison” (Really?) “PepsiCo Earns Sustainability Accolades.” “GM Named Top Solar User in the U.S. Auto Sector.” This is all well and good. Some middle-management executive had to fill out those CDP forms or buy those solar panels, and why not recognize their efforts with a salute or an accolade? [click to continue...]

Environmental Defense: living up to its name

Fred Krupp

What a different just a few years can make. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time not long ago when Congress appeared to be on the verge of a bipartisan agreement to regulate global warming pollution.

Republicans John McCain, John Warner, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty all supported efforts to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Gingrich and Pawlenty went so far as to appear in commercials with the Environmental Defense Fund supporting climate regulation. And now?  “It was a mistake, it was stupid, it was wrong,” Pawlenty says.

The radical shift in the political climate means that big NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club now must fight merely to  preserve the status quo in Congress.

Environmental groups are playing defense rather than offense in Washington, said Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund,  during a panel today on climate policy that opened FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference.

He noted that House Republicans have voted to block funding not just for EPA’s efforts regulate carbon pollution (efforts that are required by a Supreme Court decision) but also for EPA efforts to control, on public health ground, mercury pollution from cement factories.

On climate issues, Fred said: “It’s hard to have a meaningful exchange of viewers, a serious conversation in Washington.”

That’s a big, big problem because, as he noted, every major piece of environmental legislation in the U.S has been enacted with bipartisan support. Fred himself was a leading advocate for the  late 1980s cap-and-trade system–to regulate sulfur dioxide pollution–that was put into place by President George Bush and his EPA chief, Bill Reilly. [click to continue...]

Your parents were wrong

The Sierra Club and American Electric Power, the nation’s largest coal-burning utility, don’t agree on much, but there is this:

Money does grow on trees.

Along with other big environmental groups and such businesses as Duke Energy and El Paso Corp., they are part of a coalition that wants to use markets to protect the world’s forests and curb climate change.

Jeff Horowitz

Jeff Horowitz

The coalition—called Avoided Deforestation Partners, a name that will never win a branding contest—is the brainchild of Jeff Horowitz, a 58-year-old architect and newcomer to the environmental movement who has quietly become an influential player as climate change legislation inches its way through a divided Congress.

Protecting forests “is our single most important strategy, with respect to solving the climate crisis,” Horowitz says. “If we don’t tackle forestry immediately, we can’t buy enough time to get at the technological advances we need and scale them.”

I met Jeff in December at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, and visited him last week at his office in a lovely, hilly neighborhood of Berkeley. A mechanism to protect forests by steering millions of dollars from the developed world to poor countries, known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), was endorsed by governments in Copenhagen, so Horowitz felt good about the climate talks. “As far as we’re concerned, Copenhagen was a tremendous victory,” he told me.

Now he wants to make sure that forestry offsets are part of a U.S. climate bill. That will enable regulated polluters in the U.S. to offset their carbon emissions by paying to protect forests elsewhere. Protecting forests is a cheaper and quicker way to curb emissions than by switching from coal or natural gas to low-carbon energy sources like nuclear, wind or solar power. [click to continue...]

COP15: CEOs in Hamlet’s Castle

Helsingoer_Kronborg_CastleAs 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. [click to continue...]

Why a coal guy is turning green

3. 12. 41.

Of all the companies in the U.S., Duke Energy is the 3rd largest emitter of CO2. Of all the companies in the world, Duke is the 12th biggest emitter. And if North Carolina-based Duke were a country, it would rank No. 41 in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of entire nations in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Rogers_JE_color_5x7And yet…Jim Rogers, Duke’s longtime president, CEO and chairman, is pushing as hard as anyone in corporate America to get a climate-change bill passed by Congress. His company helped the U.S. Climate Action Partnership get going, and he was key in getting some (but not all) utility-company CEOs to support carbon regulation.

“We’re very focused on legislation getting done in the U.S. this year,” Rogers says.

Indeed, Duke is “operating today as if climate legislation has already passed,” Rogers says. The company is investing in nuclear power, cleaner coal, wind, smart grid technology, efficiency and solar energy. Rogers says:

We’re in the most transformative period in the history of the power industry, Our mission is to decarbonize our entire fleet.

[click to continue...]

The Great Wall embraces Wall Street

Here comes a new carbon finance market, this one with Chinese characteristics.

In the latest sign that China takes the threat of global warming seriously, Chinese business executives with close ties to the government have launched a voluntary market in Beijing to buy and sell carbon credits.

Just don’t call it cap-and-trade, which is the regulatory approach embodied in the climate legislation pending in the U.S. Congress. The “cap” part of cap-and-trade remains anathema in China. As a developing country where billions of people earn less than $3,000 a year, China simply won’t accept mandatory limits on its emissions of greenhouse gases.

David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund

David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund

But the Chinese have enlisted western partners to build a market that will, as they put it, “limit and incentivize.” The theory is that a voluntary market in carbon credits will limit emissions by providing financial incentives to Chinese companies to develop renewable energy, promote energy efficiency and, above all, find environmentally-friendly ways to burn coal. Some of that money would come from outside China and would would come from within.

This could lay the groundwork for a mandatory market in the not-too-distant future.

That, at least, was my takeaway from a Low Carbon Conference held today in New York that brought together leaders of the world’s big stock exchanges, energy industry executives, environmentalists and experts in carbon finance. [Disclosure: I hosted the event for BlueNext, a French company that recently announced a partnership with the China Beijing Environmental Exchange to develop carbon trading in China.] [click to continue...]