This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post. It has been republished here with their permission.
Call it Hopenhagen if you like, but make no mistake — President Obama’s decision to attend and speak at the United Nations climate conference has significant implications for governments and corporations around the world.
The White House has said the President will speak toward the end of the conference in order to push negotiations over the top, but it is the content of his speech that will determine whether or not he is successful.
The world is looking to the US for guidance, and as the leader of the global economy, a formal US position on climate change carries significant weight with the global community. President Obama’s delivery of the US position on climate change will likely determine whether the US will play a leadership role in climate change, or surrenders that position to China or European Union.
What’s at stake? Primarily, America’s ability to capitalize on the economic opportunity of climate change. To say that nothing will come of Copenhagen is short-sighted. COP15 will undoubtedly have significant impact; however the nature of that impact and how it will affect the US is not yet clear.
The US is known for capitalizing on markets to attract business and innovation, and COP15 represents another moment where it must seize the opportunity — this time with climate change. But COP15 also represents a significant risk to US economic growth if it does not act because, for the first time, there are serious contenders abroad.
Progress in Copenhagen could spur breakthroughs in fuel cell, biofuel and solar technologies, allow the manipulation of catalysts at the nano scale, and lead to the invention of a number of other technologies yet to be discovered. Unlike Kyoto however, failure by the US to establish a clear leadership position may not stall the international process as it did before; rather it may open up new opportunities for other countries to take the lead.
In recent months, fast growing nations such as China have signaled commitment to progress on reducing emissions and developing carbon markets, and it is exactly this opportunity they have in mind.
In the 1990s, China was exempted from reductions imposed under Kyoto because the UN considered the country a developing nation, facing economic challenges so serious it could not possibly meet imposed targets. Today, China is transforming its procurement and use of energy and the policies that govern it. They are investing in wind turbines, nuclear, solar and a host of technologies that reduce their reliance on oil and coal, and diversify their long-term energy strategy in the process. By 2011, China plans to reduce emissions at the level of nearly twice Germany’s annual emissions output. Impressive environmental goals, but it is clear that economics are driving these decisions.
Of course cleaning up emissions is the right thing to do for our environment and our economy. I got the idea for my own company while studying environmental management in my undergraduate program in the mid-1990s. I firmly believe we must be responsible stewards of the earth and providing business with the proper incentives is the best path to environmental stewardship. But we also must realize that progress on emissions and energy reductions from a policy perspective represents a potential boon for U.S. innovation and business.
My company is growing fast because our customers - mostly Fortune 500s - can save money by using our technology to better manage their sustainability metrics (energy, GHG, water, etc). I am proud to say we are a living, breathing example of innovation that is creating “green jobs” .
America has a long and vibrant history of innovation. But without clear direction from policy on climate change, our innovation engine is idle. We need to take charge of our own destiny; companies need government leadership in policy to help pave the way for success, and that’s why Obama’s speech is so critical.
A vacuum has resulted in the absence of leadership since the Kyoto Accord, and has given rise to a false debate regarding whether or not we need to take any action at all. But it is clear that the world needs action from both an environmental and economic perspective. While the science behind global warming will likely always be debated, it cannot be argued that the environment is changing and that the global economy needs a new engine. With clear, aggressive, and comprehensive policy on climate change, we may get to solve both problems with one solution. But as long as we lack clear direction from our leaders, global business will be forced into a holding pattern.
President Obama faces a significant challenge. It will be difficult for him to make significant and binding commitments on climate change, especially while such legislation is still being debated at home. But if Mr. Obama can successfully channel his ability to gather consensus in Copenhagen, it may pressure Congress to pass binding legislation.
Right now, the US is recognized as the leader in clean tech innovation. But if clear policy signals are not received from the current administration at COP15, business is not likely to react and the opportunity will be seized by other economies. And the jobs will go with them.
In this light, the US opportunity in Copenhagen is not just about climate change, it’s about remaining at the epicenter of the clean tech economic revolution. The Obama administration has the formidable task of ensuring that the US comes out on top, and to demonstrate that what’s good for the environment is also good for the US economy.
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.