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Failure at Copenhagen Doesn't Mean Businesses Are off the Hook

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's been a couple months since the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Whether you're a fan of a global cap on carbon emissions or not, it's important to think about what COP15's failure means (that a global agreement is going to be unlikely in the near term) and what it doesn't mean for business (that companies will be off the hook for tackling carbon emissions).

The climate negotiations brought together committed activists and world leaders, but led almost nowhere; instead, the gathering only highlighted and revealed some major structural hurdles getting in the way of a multinational agreement.

So it might seem that near-term regulatory or policy pressure on companies is unlikely. But actually there are some significant sub-national initiatives affecting business as usual that every company should know about. The pressure to measure, be transparent about, and reduce carbon is still on.

First, even without a global carbon trading system, other major multinational cap-and-trade systems are in place or in the works, including the EU's trading program, which has already been running for a few years. In North America, three separate carbon trading programs are in the process of setting regional caps covering states that include half the U.S. population (and provinces with three-quarters of Canada's). And city-level initiatives like the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement are driving new local rules and fomenting competition among municipalities to cut emissions.

Second, within the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is not sitting idly by either. The series of climate-related rules that the powerful EPA has announced in the last year began with the National Climate Reporting Plan, which forces the largest 10,000 facilities in the country to measure and report their carbon emissions. This new system has much in common with the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a very public, and mandatory, database of toxic pollution by facility mandated by the federal government in the 1980s. TRI raised awareness within companies about their own footprints and drove aggressive efforts to reduce toxic pollution (along with cost and risk) that continue to this day. The same awakening about the carbon pollution companies cause -- and the financial costs of this form of waste -- even without an agreement from Copenhagen..

Going well beyond the regulated transparency of the reporting plan, the EPA recently declared greenhouse gases a public health threat. After a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that basically said CO2 could be regulated, the EPA's "endangerment finding" was no surprise. What's still unknown is what it will mean for business.

So far, virtually all the action -- from the regional trading schemes to new EPA rules -- has been aimed mainly at utilities and the biggest factories. What does all this activity mean for the average company?

The caps and efforts to reduce utility emissions could result in higher energy prices. Any business that, well, uses electricity will be affected. And the EPA's intentions for the longer term, while up in the air, are getting clearer. There is almost no chance that forced transparency for the big guys is the end of what the EPA will do. One glimmer of what will come: rules newly proposed in 2009 (in conjunction with the Department of Transportation) to reduce emissions from light-duty vehicles.

The bottom line is that business must still plan for rising restrictions on greenhouse gases by legislative means or by regulation. Despite the confounded state of international climate policy negotiations, companies will continue to face new mandates to measure, report, and reduce their carbon emissions.

This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review