This week the EPA made a surprise move by discontinuing their well-respected climate leaders program. The program was considered by many to be a shining example of how a voluntary environmental reporting program could gain mainstream adoption in the US. In reality, however, the EPA Climate Leaders was likely not a long-term commitment. This is a good thing for Cleantech and Climate Regulation in the US, and here’s why.
The EPA’s role is to safeguard the environment and the health of all US citizens. This covers a wide range of issues, including climate change. When the Climate Leaders program was created, there was little movement on climate change in the US. There were few regulations, uncertainty around carbon in DC (which remains today), and few state or local initiatives to fight global warming. There were few, if any Chief Sustainability Officers at major corporations, and the concept of sustainability as a business driver was pretty much a foreign concept. The Climate Leaders program was created to help companies create strategies around climate change, and introduce them to the importance of sustainability – specifically climate change – as an important aspect of their business. In many respects it has been a great example of how governments and the private sector can work together on important issues.
But it’s a different world today, for the better. There are many state and local climate initiatives underway that affect business much more than the EPA’s voluntary reporting program. Regulatory climate change initiatives from the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), MidWestern GHG Reduction Accord, and others are well underway, with some of their participants already participating in carbon regulation.Over a thousand US cities have already committed to initiatives to reduce their impact on the climate, including many of the corporations that make those cities their place of business. When you consider that over 50% of the US population is impacted by these new climate mandates, it’s not hard to see why the EPA feels that there are enough alternatives for them to move on to more important things.
The EPA has bigger fish to fry regarding climate change. With the climate bill stalled in the senate, the EPA has become the sharp end of the stick for climate regulation, utilizing the Clean Air Act to introduce binding legislation. This is the real opportunity for the EPA, not the custodian of a non-binding program designed to raise sustainability awareness in corporations. Now that US Corporations see sustainability as a key business driver, it’s time for the EPA to move on to more important things.
For Cleantech, this is good news. For better or worse, there is a big difference for corporations between voluntary reporting and binding regulation. Many believe that voluntary reporting is simply not enough, and may even distract companies from making real changes to the way they run their businesses. With the EPA now focusing onstandards, additional climate regulations, and policy, supporters of climate change legislation in the US are now focusing on the EPA to do the heavy lifting, and so far it is working. For Cleantech, the EPAs change of focus from voluntary participation to more binding legislation means that sustainable technologies may become more of a “must-have” rather than a “nice to have”.
So when you look at how things have changed in the world of climate change and business, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the EPA has discontinued the Climate Leaders Program, and those of us in Cleantech should be thanking the EPA. If companies want to continue to create voluntary reports for sustainability, there are many resources outside the federal government, including the CDP and GRI, and many proprietary reporting indices. But this may be the beginning of a more serious effort on the part of the EPA to get companies focused on real reductions, not voluntary programs. For the Cleantech business, that’s music to our ears
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.