Five ways to make the world a better place
By Dennis Pamlin (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-06-12 07:49
The first World Business Summit on Climate Change ended in Copenhagen recently, where the world's leading companies were supposed to send a clear message to politicians across the world, but they failed.
The idea was great, but the outcome was full of vague statements and shameless requests for money to continue with unsustainable business practices. This was in great contrast to parts of the actual conference where I saw some really interesting ideas and sustainable business examples, some of them from Chinese companies, but more about that later.
One of the ironies of the fight against climate change is that many of the companies, including Chinese, most vocal at climate discussions are part of the problem. Of course, we should listen to such companies, too. But we must realize that slavery would have probably existed today if politicians back then had listened to recommendations of firms that were making the chains the slaves were forced to carry. Even if such firms conceded the need to change they would still try to find excuses and delay action by presenting improved products - for example, chains for slaves or purportedly less-polluting goods.
The global market is changing fast and a naive market fundamentalism has not only been destroying the planet and widening the income gap, but also undermining the economic values of society. It is time we understood that companies come and go as society changes, and there's no need for us to go overboard to save a company once it has ceased to deliver what society needs. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.
Today's companies need to move away from fossil fuel before we burn up all the coal and oil. Technology has the power to bring to us the services that the polluting and dangerous fossil fuel has been providing by using clean energy.
China has the unique opportunity to support tomorrow's companies and ensure that those defending outdated business models do not get importance. This is especially important because China has some of the best and worst companies existing side by side. The worst are as greedy as the greediest Western companies. They are also non-transparent and unwilling to engage in dialogue with civil society. Many of them are active in the extractive industries, and have been driven outside China because of their development has been resource inefficient. On the other hand, China also has some of the most interesting and progressive companies, which can help reduce the need for natural resources.
During the World Business Summit two firms were especially striking: China Mobile and Suntech. They provided a breath of fresh air, and focused on their core business and what is needed for low-carbon solutions. The two belong to a group that can be called "climate positive" companies. The more these companies sell their products, the more they help the world reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emission.
The "climate-positive" contribution of solar-power firms is easy to understand because the more solar panels the world uses the less GHG it emits. But smart IT solutions from companies like China Mobile are a bit more complex. They are nonetheless no less important than renewable energy because low-carbon IT solutions can allow many people to live good lives without destroying the planet. Smart working solutions that allow people to reduce traveling by car, and smart control of lights and air-conditioning are just a few examples that can help build a harmonious society.
In order to support low-carbon economy and turn the need for reduced emissions into an opportunity, as well as to help the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference in December yield a good result, China could initiate a low-carbon innovation policy package. The package would require a significant change from existing climate policies, both in China and the world beyond. As a start, China could introduce five simple, but groundbreaking, policies.
The first and probably most important step would be to officially recognize a group of companies that is or could be "climate positive". These companies should be encouraged to report how much GHG the increased use of their products and services would reduce. Representatives from this group should be invited to comment on all policy developments. The government could even move this group to the forefront of the fight against global warming to redefine the way the problem is approached. It could also accord these firms a role in global negotiations.
The second step would be to pay special attention to transformative solutions that reduce GHG emissions by 90-99 percent. This would encourage innovative solutions such as smart buildings that produce the energy they need, video conferencing, e-paper and smart work solutions - for example, a person could work from home, if need be, instead of driving his or her car to office. The focus on transformative solutions will encourage smart nanotech solutions that would play a defining role in the 21st century, and thus China could lead the rest of the world in the fight against climate change.
The third step would be to announce a plan for 21st century infrastructure. Most of the infrastructure expenditure in China is still on environmentally inefficient structures, roads, airports, and oil and coal exploration. It's high time China shift its focus and ensure expenditures are diverted toward fiber optic cables, broadband, smart buildings that can produce their own electricity, electric cars, fast trains and renewable energy. The government could create an index to track such expenditures and help the companies collaborate to build the "new infrastructure".
Four, the country would require an eight-year fossil-free plan from all major companies because the pace of climate change is faster than thought earlier. The plan would indicate how ready companies are for a low-carbon economy. By asking for a plan that requires companies to be fossil-free in eight years the government would be encouraging innovation. This can be a climate stress test, similar to the test for banks that the US government carried out earlier this year. If it's possible to conduct a test to see if banks are in good economic shape, then it should also be possible to see whether companies are ready for one of the most important shifts in human history.
Five, China could become the first country in the world to set export targets both in yuan and GHG reduction value. This would require the government to develop a methodology to assess the GHG cuts from smart exports. In fact, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is already working on this.
China has the chance to approach a challenge in a way that could turn it into an opportunity. The five suggestions would propel it to the forefront of the fight against global warming. Many countries and groups would support it if the ideas were to become reality. The proposals fit well with current policies and would show that China is not following in the unsustainable footsteps of the West.
The author is advisor for various environmental organizations.
(China Daily 06/12/2009 page9)