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Dancing in the Dark: The Danger of Letting Business Lead on Climate Protection

09/22/2010 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a candid session on energy and the environment at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, the world's lead climate negotiator Christiana Figueres explained why her organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), had made so little progress in establishing international climate protection regulations. She suggested that there were two main reasons for the climate negotiations stalemate: Tensions between developed and developing countries and-surprisingly, given that she was sharing the stage with green entrepreneur Richard Branson-businesses.

According to the Costa Rican executive director of UNFCC, business is not taking bold enough steps to reduce its carbon footprint because it's waiting for government to move onto creating a comprehensive regulatory framework. And the governments are nervously staring at their feet because "business is not pushing us," Figueres explained. "We have a nice little dance of you first, you first, you first..." So which partner does the head of the intergovernmental climate negotiations believe should make the next move? "Very conveniently, I think business should be taking the lead here," she confided to the audience of corporate and nonprofit leaders. And what would private sector leadership in climate protection look like? Figures suggested the example of the mobile phone revolution, which has spread and decentralized modern communication. The first cellphone was invented in 1973 and weighed 2.5 pounds. By the end of 2010, there will be 5 billion mobile phones on the market, all of which will weigh less than 4 ounces according to her figures.

But letting business twirl governments around the dance floor has its risks. The problem with the praise heaped on the market-driven explosion of mobile phones by Figueres, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and others at the Clinton Global Initiative is that it doesn't take account of what happens to the phones when they've stopped improving the poor's access to world markets and information. Developing countries like India, China and South Africa are now faced with a flood of toxic e-waste-the hazardous remains of cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. Mobile phones in India will generate 1,700 metric tons of e-waste this year, a figure that the UN Environment Program expects to increase 18 fold in the next decade. That is a potential human health timebomb in a country with a very informal recycling system: Poor, low caste Indian "rag pickers" rummage through garbage dumps for looking for valuable metals, like the trace amounts mixed with toxic materials in a cellphone circuit board. Even in the developed world, market-based programs manage e-waste and other threats the environment and human health are difficult to craft without the catalyst of government action.

The false promises of nuclear power may be a more useful example of what happens when businesses rush ahead while regulators sort out the details. Since the 1970s, nuclear energy has produced terrawatts of carbon-free energy, but it has also created an ever-growing stockpile of radioactive waste. In nearly every country with nuclear power plants, politicians have failed time and again to find safe, long-term storage for their deadly byproducts. The unregulated growth of e-waste has the potential to create a toxic waste problem in developing countries of nuclear proportions. If advances in distributed generation of clean energy were to make the centralized powerplants unnecessary, prompting a flurry of development in Africa and elsewhere, then perhaps Figueres' mobile phone example might prove more fitting.

But that hopeful outcome would be more likely if the full support of governments' research and funding capabilities were behind it. Branson's billions pale in comparison to the trillions of dollars of investment potential the world's governments have. Yet, "the psychodynamics right now in the negotiations are focused on the cost" of climate prevention, the UNFCCC executive director told the audience. "What are the opportunities moving into the future? That part of the conversation is not present." Also missing is talk about the value governments get from investing billions in clean energy and emissions reductions today, to save trillions in climate mitigation costs tomorrow. Abdicating responsibility for protecting the climate to the market risks being led in the wrong direction by businesses that are necessarily more focused on their quarterly revenues than the future of the planet.

(For some grainy video footage of the panel, check out this story from Treehugger's Brian Merchant.)

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch.