To hear my friends and colleagues discuss the matter over cocktails, you’d be sure that every major company in the world knew what their carbon footprint was and that they were actively managing it through increased implementation of energy efficiency and clean technology programs. That’s why when I came across a recent Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Dow Corning I was shocked by a few of the main findings. Especially surprising was that 68% of the companies surveyed did not know the meaning of the term “carbon footprint”. With well over half of the world’s major corporations still unaware of what a carbon footprint is, those of us in the greenhouse gas management industry, like ClimateCHECK, have a lot of explaining to do. We also have an enormous potential market ahead as 100% of these companies will, sooner or later, need to deal directly with climate change. But for now things are just getting started, and while moving quickly, there are definitely all the signs of a young market out there. For instance, there are diverse motivators and diverse standards as to what makes a credible corporate response.
In another report from 2008, complaints in the US about corporate “greenwashing” were reported to have escalated to an all-time high in 2007, with a marked decrease (thankfully!) thus far in 2008. “While the market for green products was new, it was easier to mislead because the terms were not as well understood,” said the ASA’s communications and policy manager, Lynsay Taffe. It follows from this logic, that with over half of respondents to the Harris Interactive survey not knowing what the term “carbon footprint” meant, that we are going to see quite a few companies defining the term differently and thus there is a high likelihood of some taking less meaningful action than others. Couple this with another finding from the Harris Interactive study that the main driver in the US for adopting clean technology was reputation, and you see that many actions may only be skin deep – just enough to establish a green fa√ßade.
Of course, I’ve often heard one of my mentors in the sustainability movement, L. Hunter Lovins, say that “hypocrisy is the first step toward real change” and frankly I’ve come to believe it. Once you take the first step, it’s hard to turn around and it’s easier to move further into sustainability – you’ve had a chance to prove its business value and a virtuous cycle can begin. It’s for this reason, that even the most well-intentioned media criticism of carbon offsets, carbon markets, and cap and trade policy generally disappoint me – for all its weaknesses, it’s still the best game in town in for cost effective, large-scale greenhouse gas reductions and clean technology deployment. What are needed are more universal standards and a strong policy to enforce the widespread adoption of these standards. That’s the work that ClimateCHECK, as lead and contributing authors of the International Standards Organizations series of 14064 greenhouse gas accounting standards and as founders and faculty at the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute care most about. We know that education is required and we know that credible and reliable information is needed to measure real progress and accelerate it through the use of market-based tools. While there remain important details to iron out in the short-term and much still to learn about how these markets will be designed to work most effectively for all stakeholders, the potential for environmental markets to make a difference is too great to let it be dismissed so early in its development.