Green Leaders Show The Way

The global warming debate has the potential to become a lot less acrimonious -- and a whole lot trickier. For years environmentalists struggled against business executives, who complained loudly that the tremendous costs of cutting carbon emissions could hurt jobs and damage profits.

But at long last, some companies have discovered that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can make monetary sense, too. BusinessWeek, working with the Climate Group, Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, and independent experts, identified the companies that are the best-practice leaders in cutting their gas emissions. The list is led by DuPont (DD ), followed by BP (BP ), Bayer (BAY ), BT (BT ), and Alcoa (AA ). DuPont, for example, has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 65% from the 1990 levels while using 7% less energy and producing 30% more product. The company's cost savings: more than $2 billion.

The success of these private sector leaders throws down a gauntlet, challenging both the environmental movement and the Bush Administration, which has consistently opposed mandated limits on carbon emissions. On the one hand, the fact that many major companies find they are able to lower their carbon emissions and their costs at the same time implies that government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions may not be as expensive as the Bush Administration fears. Moreover, establishing some sort of government regulations could speed up wider adoption of these corporate best practices, which in other cases have often taken years to spread across the economy.

On the other hand, the willingness and ability of leading companies to reduce their carbon emissions on their own suggests that voluntary action may be more effective than environmentalists have predicted. At least for the moment, the heavy hand of government may not be quite as necessary as it once seemed.

Instead, the correct next step for the public sector may be mainly informational. It shouldn't be a political problem for the Bush Administration to highlight environmental best practices and success stories -- the companies that have been able to cut emissions and save money doing it. At the same time, the example of those leaders would help foster the growing consensus among businesses that we can find an economically and political viable set of standards -- whether voluntary or mandatory -- to turn back the damage and the continued threat of global warming.

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