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Why Copenhagen Will Be Good for Business

A deal at the climate conference would tip the balance toward renewables, and offer huge opportunities for companies ranging from Alstom to IBM

When the delegates at the climate summit in Copenhagen need to call home, they can do so in style. Cisco Systems (CSCO) is outfitting four rooms in the city's Bella convention center with a giant-screen teleconferencing system, enabling officials to confer face to face with counterparts in 100 places around the world. The donation is not entirely altruistic. It's a demonstration of how Cisco's products can substitute for business travel, slashing carbon emissions. Technologies such as these "have the power to transform how the world manages its energy and environmental challenges," says Laura K. Ipsen, Cisco's senior vice-president for global policy.

Most of the attention at the climate meeting, which starts on Dec. 7, will be focused on government negotiations. With President Barack Obama pledging that the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas output 17% by 2020 and China agreeing to improve its energy efficiency, the summit is now expected to make progress toward global limits on emissions. Cisco's presence, however, illustrates a powerful subtext for the summit: Putting the world on a greener path can be good for business.


More than 160 companies are showcasing solar panels, green buildings, and other wares at a "Bright Green" technology bazaar in Copenhagen. That includes a delegation of U.S. businesses led by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who hopes to raise exports and U.S. competitiveness. "Clean energy may be the greatest economic opportunity of this century," Locke says.

How fast the markets grow, however, depends on government policies—and government money. On Nov. 24 the Obama Administration jump-started transformation of the U.S. electricity grid, awarding $620 million for smart meters and other technologies. French giant Alstom is proving it can capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, armed with government funding for projects in Poland and West Virginia. IBM's (IBM) business of helping companies measure their carbon footprints is growing now that the U.S. will require emissions to be reported. And solar panel companies are salivating over India's plan, announced on Nov. 23, to install 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2022. "India is potentially a tremendous market that we're working on already," says Steven P. Chadima, vice-president of Suntech Power Holdings (STP).

The cleantech business will get a boost from two steps expected from the Copenhagen process. First, the meetings will encourage further use of cap-and-trade systems, raising the cost of polluting. That will tip the balance toward renewable power and energy efficiency, and, thanks to trading, enable emissions reductions to be sold for revenue. The second step will be a commitment that industrialized countries will start transferring billions of dollars a year to developing nations to help them become more efficient. That could touch off a global competition to sell, say, solar panels and carbon-capture technologies to India, or wind power to Brazil.

While business hopes to profit from Copenhagen, it also has a message for the politicians, especially in the U.S. "It's very important that they understand we have practical solutions to solve the problem of CO2 in the atmosphere," says Philippe Joubert, president of Alstom Power. Adds Gregory H. Kats, senior director of cleantech investor Good Energies: "It will be pretty hard to argue that emission caps will tank the economy and hurt business when there are a lot of companies saying this is a huge business opportunity."

Return to the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit Special Report Table of Contents

Carey is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington.

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