Copenhagen's Business (As Usual) Day

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Friday was dubbed "Business Day" here in Copenhagen — a chance for the corporate community to come together to discuss their considerable role in addressing climate change.

Significantly, business has been all but shut out of the discussions taking place a few kilometers away at the Bella Center, the site of the official UN COP15 negotiations. There, governments from around the world are talking about a slew of critical issues surrounding the commitments the everyone hopes will emerge a week from today from the global community on climate mitigation and adaptation.

Today, Friday, several hundred business leaders from around the world have gathered in for Copenhagen Business Day, convened by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, a membership group of 200 global companies, and the International Chamber of Commerce, "the voice of world business championing the global economy as a force for economic growth, job creation and prosperity." They were there to have the conversation they weren’t able to have in the Bella Center. As Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the COP15 convening organization, put it: "This is an intergovernmental negotiating process and they’re working hard to keep business out."

The day began with a challenge from de Boer. "You’ve been focusing on the wrong issues. You’ve been focusing on risks and problems. You should be talking about green growth. And most of the groups are talking to themselves. The private sector plays a key role in green growth. But we don’t really know what you’re selling."

Indeed, what is business selling? De Boer wasn’t referring necessarily about specific products, but about ideas and ideals — the kind of world we want to build and which companies hope to operate profitably in the years to com. That question loomed large at this event: Can global business speak with a unified voice on climate? It was an expression made repeatedly throughout the day.

A series of breakouts explored three scenarios — scenarios for 2012, 2020, and 2050. I attended the short-term one: What are the technologies, business models, and lifestyle changes that are realistically available in the next few years?

An intriguing question, though the conversations that took place among the small groups of 10-12 people in our 2012 session quickly devolved into what seemed like the same-old, same-old questions: What’s stopping consumers from adopting low-carbon lifestyles? How do you get beyond green being equated to sacrifice? How do consumers know what’s really green? How do companies reconcile sustainability their the need for profits and growth? Is there a role for regulation in spurring behavioral change?

And then came the parade of CEOs, who were holding their own roundtable discussion during all this. They were assigned to break into two groups looking back from 2050 — one from the perspective that we’d successfully crossed the bridge to a low-carbon economy, and how we did it; the other from the perspective that we failed to cross the bridge, and what went wrong.

James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, gave the report-out. Among the CEOs’ conclusions: "Business needs to have one voice calling for a government framework and having it in place now, because we need predictability long-term — one voice, government framework now."

It’s hard to see how such a unified voice will emerge. The conversation taking place among this high-powered group of global CEOs wasn’t that different from that taking place at a lot of the conferences I attend — a hodgepodge of well-formed opinions about what needs to be done, with little consensus on who, actually, will do it: companies, consumers, government, investors, NGOs, and all the rest. Of course, it’s everyone’s responsibility, which is one of the limits of a business-only conclave: It fails to bring to the table all of the parties needed to solve the problem.

That wasn’t the only limitation. I couldn’t help but notice the make-up of the room: primarily white male, mostly European and North American. There were a smattering of Asians and Indians in the room, but no Chinese, South American, Indian, or African CEOs, business leaders of countries that comprise the bulk of the world’s population — and the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions.

There was no shortage of earnestness among those present. These are truly committed executives from proactive, if not progressive, companies that seem to understand the climate challenge and the opportunity, and who are hungering for a price on carbon they can use to make predictable business decisions for the foreseeable future.

("A price on carbon," by the way, is a mantra-like phrase that every speaker seems to utter, despite the fact that there is no clear consensus in the room about what that price should be or how it would be implemented — carbon tax, cap and trade, etc. Nonetheless, those four words are received by knowing nods from the audience with each utterance.)

In the end, de Boer pretty much had it right: Most of these good people are talking primarily to themselves. The people who really need to be in the room are conspicuous by their absence.

It was sobering. If this group of fairly homogeneous executives can barely agree upon the nature of the problems and the most effective solutions, how can the bigger, much more diverse and unruly group of country representatives meeting at the Bella Center possibly do so?

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