This month’s announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will eliminate its Climate Leaders program caught many business leaders off guard. The program, which works with large companies in voluntarily tracking and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, was seen as an overall success by the companies that participated.
Just a few months ago, I spoke with the Climate Leaders’ director, who said that the program was going to kick requirements for participation “up a notch,” and suggest that companies disclose their greenhouse gas inventories to the public in a step towards greater transparency. The partnership between corporations and this program was win-win all around: decreased pollution, reduced emissions, and the opportunity to work with the EPA as a partner, instead of relegated to the role as the regulated.
Now some corporate social responsibility leaders see the EPA as withdrawing the voluntary carrot, leaving only the regulatory stick. The EPA’s response is that plenty of state and regional voluntary guidelines are available, and the agency is close to rolling out its new mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reporting program. Few businesses, however, are pleased with the decision.
But as Paul Baier, vice president of sustainability consulting at Groom Energy, explains, while the demise of the Climate Leaders program is a puzzling one, other third-party protocols can step in and serve as a de facto nationwide program. Many large firms are already members of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and The Climate Registry (TCR) is already well respected among voluntary greenhouse gas reduction programs.
The reality for companies concerned with monitoring their greenhouse gas emissions is that a shake-out of various protocols and guidelines is starting to take place. Last week I attended a sustainability performance management software firm’s user forum, where several speakers pointed out that Climate Leaders’ termination, while at first unsettling, will not matter much in the long run. The bevy of carbon and greenhouse measurement systems developed by the private sector will consolidate into a handful by attrition or consolidation. The same will happen to the various registries, guidelines, and emission reduction programs that are available for companies to follow—the best programs will survive while the weaker protocols eventually disappear.
In hindsight, we will probably look at Climate Leaders as a credible voluntary emissions reduction program—yet an awkward fit for an agency that has a regulatory function, which is what Richard Nixon had in mind when his administration launched the agency in 1970. Now several programs have a chance to pick up where Climate Leaders left off—and the best few will set the standard over the coming decade.