Corporate Greenhouse | The Nation


Corporate Greenhouse

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Romm argues that inadequate information is the main reason that relatively few US companies have so far embraced a "cool" strategy; most corporate managers are simply unaware of how much money they could be saving. But if "any significant fraction of U.S. companies became cool," he suggests, the United States "would be able to meet the Kyoto [emissions] targets while lowering the nation's annual energy bill by tens of billions of dollars and accelerating economic growth through productivity gains."

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Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But if the great value of Romm's book lies in its can-do message, its weakness lies in his reluctance to acknowledge the limits of the strategy he propounds. Promising to meet the Kyoto targets is all very well, but it is woefully inadequate to the real challenge facing us. The Kyoto treaty calls for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by 2012 by approximately 6 percent compared with 1990 levels; but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN has concluded that emissions must decline by 50 to 70 percent if humanity is to avoid the most severe effects of climate change, including a one-meter rise in global sea levels by 2100, which would leave large parts of New York, Amsterdam, Bombay and Shanghai underwater.

Like it or not, there is more to fighting global warming than increasing corporate efficiency; what a given corporation produces in the first place matters profoundly. Romm heaps page after page of praise on Toyota and Royal Dutch/Shell for dramatically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released from their factories and office buildings, but he says barely a word about the incomparably larger amount of greenhouse gases released when the cars Toyota so efficiently produces are filled with Shell's gasoline and driven back and forth across the American landscape.

Motor vehicles currently account for nearly 40 percent of America's greenhouse-gas emissions. As long as those vehicles continue to be powered by gasoline and driven increasing numbers of passenger miles every year, it matters little how energy-efficient the factories that manufacture them are. Yes, it is welcome news that Shell has promised to invest $500 million in renewable energy over the next five years and that it has left the Global Climate Coalition, an industry front group that has long delayed progress by claiming that global warming is little more than environmental propaganda. It's also nice to know that Ford is working with DaimlerChrysler to produce a fuel-cell-powered car whose only exhaust will be climate-friendly water vapor. But the bulk of Shell's immensely profitable global operations remain dedicated to maximizing the production and eventual combustion of fossil fuels, just as Ford continues to make most of its profits by selling egregiously fuel-inefficient sport utility vehicles.

Until we as a society break decisively from our addiction to fossil fuels and the motor vehicles that consume them in such vast quantities, our chances of avoiding severe climate change are slim. To be sure, a cool-companies strategy of increasing individual firms' energy and resource efficiency is a step forward. Such a strategy can dissolve current corporate prejudices by showing that environmental investments can indeed be profitable; it can also help buy time necessary to navigate the tricky transition to a truly environmentally sustainable society. But if companies like Toyota and Royal Dutch/Shell are left in charge of that transition, it's hard to imagine that we'll make the shift in time.

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