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Why Corporate Responsibility Is Key for Carbon Markets

On September 22, 2011, in Articles, by ....

Voluntary carbon emission transparency isn’t only responsible. It’s also pretty cool. That’s why Google just moved into our good (carbon) books. The company recently decided to publically reveal its carbon footprint (in case you are wondering, 100 searches is equivalent to producing 1.5 tablespoons of orange juice), as well as to officially let the public know that it’s doing its share of carbon cleanup. Corporate conglomerates, please take note — fessing up to your mess and taking action to undo it is good for business. And it also sets an example for other companies, individuals and, let’s hope, governments, to follow suit and get honest with their environmental impact.

We live in a world where one’s ethical actions matter only in the context of another’s. Responsibility, much like ignorance, has a snowball effect on public behavior. Reducing carbon emissions follows the same pattern. There are countries, companies and individuals, who, whether voluntarily or pressed by national compliance laws, offset their carbon footprint. Others look for excuses not to. But as European Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in an interview last week, “What is the point of extending our commitments [to emission reductions] if none of the other big economies say that they are willing to follow, if not today, then at least at some time tomorrow?”

The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) has the biggest and perhaps the most mature carbon-trading program among all other global compliance carbon markets. This means, European countries have worked hard, and continue to do so, to reverse the effects of global warming by capping in-house emissions and making strategic international partnerships. But what about those who don’t have a compliance cap-and-trade system in place, like China and the U.S.? As Hedegaard pointed out, “Europe represents only 11 per cent of global emissions. What will the other 89 per cent do?” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 82 per cent of the energy used in the United States today comes from fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas). The country is responsible for over 17 per cent of the global GHG emissions, according to latest figures. And China is estimated to emit more CO2 than the U.S. and Canada combined, making up for a quarter of the global emissions. Neither the U.S., nor China has compliance carbon markets in place. How are they to be convinced to take action?

Here comes corporate responsibility. In large economies like the U.S. and China, change comes from within. President Obama cited the struggling economy as a reason to abandon earlier this month stricter air control regulations. When businesses, like Google, take action to voluntarily offset their carbon footprints by either purchasing carbon credits or investing in emission-reducing offset projects, they not only contribute to the expansion of already existing carbon markets, but also to development of the local economies by creating jobs in the clean sector, like renewable energy production and technology. Google, for example, is among the investors in the Yadkin County project. Sponsored by Duke University, the project is using methane from hog waste to produce electricity. In addition, Google is investing over $800 million in solar and wind power sources, including a $168 million investment in California-based BrightSource Energy. Both of these initiatives have the potential to produce certified carbon credits, which can be put up for sale on the global carbon markets.

If more companies engage in such clean initiatives, governments will see the positive economic impact of these projects and will reconsider looking at carbon markets and compliance regulations as a burden on the economy. While enforcing mandatory clean air standards do bring changes and adjustments to the nation’s overall business environment, these changes are not necessarily bad and far from being economy-breaking. On the contrary, they lead to more constructive business practices and to heightened awareness of the consequences that corporations leave on the environment and society. Carbon regulations may also create a natural shift in the industrial landscape of a country, where industries like innovative technology enjoy more success and financial backing. We don’t see anything wrong with focusing funds on research and development of cost-effective and energy-efficient installations. Carbon markets will also create jobs in the financial sector, within investment companies where new carbon exchange departments will open and existing ones will expand.

When corporations lead by example, they will prove to industrially conservative economies like the U.S. and China that, in the long run, emission compliance and carbon markets enrich and don’t deplete local economies from economic opportunities. The days when doing business at the expense of the environment and its inhabitants are long gone. A new economic era has arrived, and by supporting the development of offset projects and encouraging carbon credit production and exchange, nations will inevitably step into the future.

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