Businesspeople join the ranks of climate treaty proponents

From the legions of environmental Cassandras gathered here for international climate negotiations, an unlikely batch of advocates has emerged to champion a new global warming agreement: businesspeople.

Corporate leaders, the rarest of commodities at the first climate talks nearly two decades ago, have staked a claim to the title of biggest player in Copenhagen aside from the official negotiators.

They have blanketed the host Bella Center with company logos and glossy brochures touting business efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An army of chief executives descended on the conference Friday to urge the assembled government officials to curb emissions and unleash a new wave of so-called clean energy investment. On Sunday, Coca-Cola will co-host a business round table here with the World Wildlife Fund.

Some of the executives, including major players in the utility and technology sectors, see massive profit potential in a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels and toward wind, solar and other low-emission energy sources.

Other companies say they are looking for uniformity in the increasingly global economy, where major markets, such as Europe, limit emissions but the United States and most of Asia do not.

Government leaders here say the increased corporate engagement has given new urgency to the negotiations and improved the chances of averting what scientists say could be the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“This climate problem is too big, and the need for investment is too great, for government to do it alone,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told an overflow crowd Friday.

The big-business side to the talks has angered some climate activists, who decry “green capitalism” and call for massive wealth transfers from the richest nations to developing countries struggling to cope with climate change. One speech Friday at Klimaforum09, a parallel gathering of environmentalists, was titled “Global Warming: the Capitalist Catastrophe and the Eco-Socialist Alternative.”

And though increasingly vocal, business leaders remain somewhat divided on climate policy, with groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging “realism” on global efforts and opposing emission limits pending before Congress. Several economic studies funded by business groups have warned this year that emission limits would saddle U.S. companies with higher energy costs, stunting growth.

The chamber said in a news release Friday that its message to climate delegates is “businesses are committed to continuing to improve their environmental stewardship to address climate change . . . [but] any agreement must not undermine economic competitiveness or shed jobs.”

When international leaders gathered for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1991 to discuss global warming, only a few corporate chiefs joined them, said Norine Kennedy, vice president for energy and environmental affairs at the U.S. Council for International Business. This week, hundreds and perhaps thousands of executives made the trip to Copenhagen.

“Our thinking has evolved as the treaty has evolved, as it has grown into new areas,” said Kennedy, whose group represents 300 companies and is pushing for a more active business role in climate negotiations. “We see a larger and larger range of companies -- not just in terms of their sectors, but sizes and nationalities -- participating.”

The shift stems from a combination of responsibility and opportunity, said several of the executives who swung through the conference to lobby for an agreement.

“What has changed in the last 10 years is that businesses have understood that to be sustainable is a must, and there is no future without concern for the environment,” said Philippe Joubert, president of Paris-based Alstom Power, which operates power plants around the globe and recently opened the world’s first pilot-scale plant for capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions from coal.

Joubert and several other business leaders in Copenhagen said they want the climate talks to yield long-term rules that will set a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

The sentiment, oddly enough, echoes the consensus of oil and gas executives who gathered for a conference in Houston early this year.

“There’s one point which the whole energy sector agrees upon, which is the need to make a decision on the future price of carbon,” said Peter Brun, senior vice president for government relations at Vestas, the Danish wind company whose blue logo graces the giant turbine spinning outside the Bella Center.

Companies are also watching closely to see whether various pledges to reduce emissions could, at least in the short run, change the dynamics of global supply chains -- by, say, making energy sufficiently cheaper in Cambodia than in China to attract manufacturing across borders.

U.S. companies have raised the issues of energy costs and competitiveness with Locke, the Commerce secretary.

He sat Friday morning for an hourlong chat -- over water, no coffee -- with representatives of Intel, Microsoft, GE, FedEx and two dozen other companies. Locke said the conversation revolved around the opportunities of emission reduction.

If the world keeps cutting emissions and the United States does not follow suit, Locke said the executives told him, those companies “will establish plants in other countries to meet their changing [energy] needs.”