A Tale of Two Copenhagens

May 28, 2009
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

This week’s World Business Summit on Climate Change left me feeling both optimistic and pessimistic about the chances of delivering a successor to the Kyoto treaty at the COP15 conference back here in Copenhagen in December.

To quote the Ian Dury song from the 80s, here are my “reasons to be cheerful…one, two, three.”

  1. Unlike several years ago, this is truly a global effort, with the two biggest emitters clearly in the game. The fact that executives from China Mobile and CNOOC—one of the three big Chinese oil companies—so seamlessly fit into meetings like this underplays the enormity of the development. China is present, and while China Inc. does not always see the world as others do, it is part of the discussion, which is essential. So too is the United States. American participation was not as numerous as one would expect, possibly owing to the holiday weekend. But if there was one question on everyone’s mind, it was, “how serious is the Obama administration?” And it is clear that things are moving in a positive direction, with the U.S. as a full participant in the negotiations to come.
  2. Governments in general have adopted the rhetoric of the low-carbon economy. Listening to European Commission President José Manuel Barosso is like walking into any room at the BSR Conference. Same with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. While it is a big leap from talking about a low-carbon economy to actually building one, political leaders are devoting increasing amounts of their time and advocacy to the topic. Again, a big change from several years ago.
  3. And perhaps most significantly, several business leaders are investing time and resources in positioning themselves to transition their enterprises to be fit for a low-carbon world. At a small dinner in Copenhagen, the CEOs of Unilever and Novozymes led a discussion about how they are changing their value chains to reduce emissions. Make no mistake—they see a better bottom line as one outcome. Equally so, however, Paul Polman and Steen Riisgaard are demonstrating real leadership within their companies, and by example, for others. And they are not alone in digging into the new world they aim to shape.

But there was another Copenhagen, and it offered reason to temper enthusiasm.

There continues to be altogether too much pride taken in small initiatives taken by individual companies, and the opening plenary featured lots of credit taking for initiatives that are not exactly game changers. And when Adam Werbach of Saatchi & Saatchi S suggested that some CEOs might not match their words with actions (a very reasonable claim, in my view), Martin Sorrell of WPP fired back a blistering response that led me (and many I spoke with) to think Sir Martin doth protest too much…

In the final analysis, the real dilemma is in getting an agreement that tackles an immensely complex task effectively. The Unilever-Novozymes dinner featured a lively debate about the role of regulation as opposed to markets and innovation. The fascinating thing about the debate is that ideology was not the driving factor in people’s positions. Rather, there were questions about which subjects could be handled through markets and which needed regulation.

Björn Stigson of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development made a strong case, for example, that efficient buildings would only come through smart policy mandates. Others focused their attention on changing consumer behavior through pricing. In fact, both are correct, and this raises the stakes on policymakers and business to make the right choices.

In the final analysis, this Copenhagen was just a warm-up act for the negotiations that will take place in the same convention hall in December. Like an exhibition basketball game, there was lots of reason for optimism this May—but some pretty grueling practice sessions needed to win the championship come the end of the year.

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