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At Rio, Corporations Pledge While Nations Demur on Climate Action. But Is It Enough?

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Brazil President Dilma Rousseff at Rio+20. Photo by Blog do Planalto/Flickr, Creative Commons license

Delegates gathered this week in Rio de Janeiro at the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit  affirmed that climate change “requires urgent and ambitious action,” in an agreement that commits them to no new steps toward meeting that goal. But while nations are as far as ever from putting a global price on carbon emissions, software giant Microsoft is doing just that, and pledging to make its  operations carbon neutral in the next year.

Microsoft is one of more than 200 corporations and organizations that have made commitments on energy, the environment, or climate change as part of the Rio+20 conference, in support of the goals that have been articulated these past 20 years by the United Nations—goals on which the nations themselves have fallen short.

Here are the details of just a few examples of the pledges so far on energy and climate:

Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, pledges to be carbon neutral by the end of fiscal year 2013 (which begins in July.) The Redmond, Washington company plans both to sign long-term renewable energy contracts, and to invest its own capital in renewable energy, and to connect its data centers to “innovative energy sources” such as methane-powered fuel cells.  The company create accountability by internally setting a price on carbon. It will reflect the price that the company pays to offset carbon emissions associated with electricity use, or with airplane flights (with a goal of reducing reliance on air travel.) Microsoft, which had 1.2 million tons in carbon emissions last year according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, detailed its plan on its blog in May.

ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer with 185 million tons in CO2 emissions last year, pledged to reduce emissions 8 percent per ton of steel produced by 2020 (over a 2007 baseline) through process improvements to increase energy efficiency.

BMW Group, the German automobile company, committed to reducing its product CO2 emissions by 50 percent (compared to 1995) by 2010, and also to reduce the CO2 emissions of newly registered vehicles in Europe as measured by the new European driving cycle.

SABMiller, the international beer brewing company with 2.4 million tons in CO2 emissions last year, aims to reduce fossil fuel emissions from its on-site energy use by 50 percent for every 100 liters of lager produced by 2020 (compared to a 2008 baseline). In the last year, the company says its energy use has remained constant (138 megajoules per 100 liters of lager), but its carbon emissions have fallen 10 percent due to its moves to a cleaner energy mix.

All of these steps, most of them announced before Rio, have to be seen in context of where global emissions actually are heading. At Copenhagen in 2009, although nations could not agree on a course of action, they did agree that the scientific consensus is that global temperature change should kept below 2°C (3.6°F). Right now, worldwide carbon emissions are now increasing on trajectory that will lead to a long-term global temperature increase of more than 3.5°C (6.3°F.) And that projection is the International Energy Agency’s optimistic scenario, assuming nations will enact an array of new energy efficiency and climate policies that many of them have not taken any steps to enact. (For example, it assumes there will be the equivalent of a price for carbon guiding investment decisions in the United States after 2015.)

As Rio+20 drew to an end, many environmentalists, frustrated with the weak conference agreement, were placing their hope in such commitments from the private sector. “The greening of our economies will have to happen without the blessing of the world leaders,” said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund.  The same message was sounded by business leaders who gathered in May in Rotterdam at a Shell* forum on global water, food and energy stresses.

Such commitments are important, because they show that some leading corporations (and carbon emitters) acknowledge the importance of addressing climate change, and they believe it is possible to move to cleaner and more efficient energy while advancing their business aims. But is it enough?

Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.