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Global Warming Profiteers: Former Skeptics See a Chance to Bolster Profits

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Source: IHT

Big Corporations Alter View of Global Warming
William Drozdiak Washington Post Service
Friday, November 24, 2000

Former Skeptics See a Chance to Bolster Profits

THE HAGUE In a momentous policy shift, many American corporations say they are now persuaded by the perils of greenhouse gases and have emerged as strong advocates of market based solutions to cleanse the atmosphere of pollutants that trap heat and raise the earth's temperature.

Long regarded as skeptics in the global warming debate, many American business executives have undergone a conversion since more than 150 governments reached an agreement in Kyoto, Japan, three years ago to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. Those countries are engaged in talks here, due to end Friday, on how they should fulfill their treaty obligations.

Conscious of their image, some companies that were once branded as polluters have turned into staunch green-power advocates. These include such household names as Du Pont, Ford, Sunoco and Texaco. Instead of trying to block implementation of the Kyoto treaty, many companies have showed up here to lobby for a visionary new regime that would enlist them as mercenaries in the global crusade to curtail emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases.

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Scientists say that unless current trends are reversed, the earth's average temperature will rise between 6 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit (3.4 and 6.7 degrees centigrade) in this century, provoking extreme storms, melting polar ice caps and elevating sea levels enough to inundate islands and coastal areas in many parts of the world.

"American companies are coming around to embrace scientific findings and now want to be part of the solution instead of the problem," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which has enrolled 28 corporations in its lobbying effort within the past two years. "We need to have the private sector involved and to give these companies a good seat at the table because only they can develop innovative technologies we need to solve the problem."

To some extent, businesses were motivated by the realization that governments seemed so determined to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that they figured they may as well climb aboard the bandwagon and start reducing emissions before being compelled by law to do so. But now, some companies are finding they can reap handsome profits, as well as corporate goodwill, by going green.

BP Amoco, the British-American petroleum company, now ranks as the largest single producer of solar power equipment in the world. Along with a few other multinational corporations, it has vowed to cut its share of greenhouse gases much further than goals being discussed at The Hague. The company logo now features a green circle emblazoned by the sun, with the letters "BP" denoting "Beyond Petroleum."

Du Pont, the Delaware-based chemical company, has also undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. A decade ago, Du Pont was castigated as the largest producer of chlorofluorocarbons, which was considered the prime culprit in the depletion of the ozone layer, often cited as a major cause in the rise of skin cancer. At the same time, Du Pont was placed at the top of the U.S. government's watchlist for toxic chemicals.

But now, Du Pont is considered one of the premier success stories in the fight against greenhouse gases. It has managed to cut its release of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 50 percent since 1990 after launching one of the most far reaching corporate programs to fight global warming.

"The remarkable thing is that we found we could cut back on releasing tens of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere without too much additional cost," said Thomas Jacob, Du Pont's manager for international and industry affairs. "In the past, companies were often scared of taking environmental initiatives, but we have found it pays to be ahead of the game because it places you in a better competitive situation if and when the Kyoto treaty is put into effect."

U.S. companies have started to notice that the global warming debate affects almost every business sector. With the ferocity of storms likely to increase, insurance companies realize their risk calculations - and thus their profits - lie at the cutting edge of climate change. Since transportation accounts for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions, automobile and airplane manufacturers, such as Ford and Boeing, have launched major environmental programs.

Much of the discussions here on how to achieve the Kyoto goals has pitted the United States against the European Union. The United States wants to encourage corporate involvement by using mechanisms such as the buying and selling of rights to exceed pollution quotas, assigning credits for "carbon sinks" such as farmland and forests that absorb carbon dioxide, and offering incentives for companies to transfer clean-air technologies to developing countries.

The EU, however, insists that the United States must not be allowed to escape through loopholes and wants a substantial reduction in its domestic output of greenhouse gases, which account for 24 percent of the world's total. But European companies are breaking ranks and pushing for a more flexible interpretation because they sympathize with the U.S. view that corporations should be encouraged to make a profit in the campaign against global warming.

Aidan Murphy, vice president at Shell International, says the Kyoto treaty has prompted the British-Dutch oil company to shift some of its focus away from petroleum toward alternative fuel sources. While the move has helped the company make early strides toward its goal of surpassing treaty requirements and reducing emissions to 10 percent less than 1990 levels, he says Shell is being driven largely by the lure of profits.

"We are now involved in major energy projects involving wind and biomass, but I can assure you this has nothing to do with altruism," Mr. Murphy said. "We see this as a whole new field in which to develop a thriving business for many years to come. Capital is not the problem, it's the lack of ideas and imagination."

Frank Loy, the U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs who is serving as head of the American delegation, says backing from the private sector may be the crucial factor in determining whether The Hague negotiations succeed. "The change in attitude of the business community is really striking," Mr. Loy said. "These companies now realize that dealing with climate change is in their own interests, and they can turn it to their own advantage to improve the bottom line."

Mr. Loy and others say the dramatic turnabout in the corporate perspective is perhaps the biggest difference between the Kyoto and Hague negotiations. In Kyoto, many companies were aligned with the Global Climate Coalition, a U.S. industrial lobby that spent $13 million on an advertising campaign claiming the threat of global warming was wildly exaggerated and the price of gasoline would skyrocket if mandatory cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions were approved.

Since then, the coalition has been weakened by defections from prominent companies, Ford, BP Amoco, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Texaco.

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