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Industry Must Be Part Of The Solution At COP21

via Flickr greensefa

Gearing up for the COP 21 via Flickr (user greensefa)

Former Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver is reported to have said something along the lines of—if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. Well, unbelievable as it may seem, a group of corporations, apparently at President Barack Obama’s behest, have taken upon themselves to be part of the solution to a problem they are widely seen as being very much a part of.  By signing on to the American Business Act of Climate pledge, they are agreeing to variety of green measures designed to slow climate change. Just in time for the Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris next month.

In the U.S., any discussion involving climate change tends to deteriorate into an argument between two factions—those who feel that climate change is a very real threat to the planet, and those who say it is nothing but a scare tactic. History shows that the former are labeled tree huggers and bleeding heart liberals, and the latter tend to be what’s generically called Big Business. However, both sides do agree on one thing—climate change conferences are, more often than not, a colossal waste of time.

With the announcement of the commitment of American business to fight climate change, the COP21 may just prove to be something more than an exercise in futility—if the participants are serious about this undertaking. So far, governments, keen to avoid a repeat of the disastrous Copenhagen conference, have largely toed the line of pledging to decrease CO2 emissions. Even China and Russia pitched in. On the private sector side however, Exxon Mobil and Chevron , two of the most controversial corporations, were conspicuously absent from the list of companies pledging to act. In fact, 63% of all carbon emissions between 1850 and 2010 were produced by just 90 companies involved in fossil fuels and cement—Exxon has single-handedly emitted 3.2% of historical carbon emissions.

Exxon has stated, in effect, that technology alone can handle the problem. A curious statement from a company that historically has denied that there was a problem of any sort, and worked hard to prove it. Evidently Exxon Mobil has known about the dangers of carbon emissions from the product they were producing since 1977, but has done nothing about it—except to deny, and work in conjunction with tobacco industry warriors in an attempt to cast doubt on the issue. Exxon’s reason for not signing the pledge? According to their CEO, they are not going to take the pledge because they don’t want to “fake it”. He may have a point. If this is to be nothing more than image building, why do it? However, as John Kerry pointed out, the onus rests on the oil and gas sector to encourage governments to adopt carbon limits and voluntarily curb emissions. But why would he single out specifically the O&G sector, when agriculture is just as polluting? Simple, because most economic activity depends on the way electricity is produced. It’s pointless to buy a Tesla if the electricity powering it comes from coal burning.

Consider aluminum production. Ubiquitous aluminum—from beverage containers to the vehicles we drive, it is a large part of our everyday life. Regarded as more eco-friendly than steel, the problem arises when we note that production requires substantially more electricity. However, depending on where in the world it is being produced, this can be a non-issue. According to a recent AluWatch study, producing one ton of aluminum emits 16,5 tons of greenhouse gases. However, those numbers are set to drop if the private and public sector join hands to invest in building renewable energy sources. China, the world’s number one producer of aluminum relies almost entirely on coal to fire up its smelters, while Norway, Iceland and Russia use hydroelectricity, a much greener way of generating power.

Energy companies would do well to study the supply chain behind aluminum production, and develop a similar strategy—in concert with government—working to find a means to shift a good portion of production of oil to the much cleaner natural gas or by  ‘going green’, meaning investing in solar, wind or biomass. Should Obama’s newfound corporate friends start a trend, legislators and consumers could very well compel other companies to follow suit.  Something for COP21 attendees to consider.

Is the pledge the beginning of something of substance? It is far too early to say, but in order to force industry to toe the line it may be necessary to hit them where it hurts – their bottom lines. Carbon taxes and measurable yardsticks with punitive penalties for failure to meet targets should stay on the table. Admittedly, it is difficult to impose anything resembling a punitive financial penalty on a corporation that can easily buy its way out of any problem. Obama’s pledge falls short of this by allowing participants to set their own benchmarks on their own timetable. It is simply a promise to do better in the future. But it is a start.

Or rather, another start – we have witnessed a multitude of efforts in the past – and we would like to think that COP21 will deliver the best possible agreement.