Cutting Carbon Can Be a Company's Best Investment

Solar panels cover the roof of a Sam's Club store in Glendora, Calif. Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images

Climate change activists and advocates for greener buildings and commerce haven’t had much luck pushing carbon-capping measures on Capitol Hill, so they are turning to the private sector. And the script is no longer “save the world”; it’s “save your income statement.”

The World Wildlife Fund issued a report highlighting massive savings to be wrung out of carbon-reduction measures, from self-dimming lights to factories plastered with solar panels. In it, WWF President Carter Roberts said the target audience for the report is chief financial officers: “The profound frustration we feel is that government is not taking the kind of decisions necessary to address one of the greatest risks of our time, and so all eyes turn to the private sector.”

Corporate projects to reduce carbon provide a higher return on investment than total capital spending for roughly 80 percent of large U.S. companies, according to WWF and McKinsey, a co-author on the report. The two called out a few companies, in particular, that are doing well by doing good.

Walmart: The world’s largest retailer is trying to get all of its electricity from renewable sources by using a combination of technologies, from solar panels on store roofs to tiny wind turbines in parking lots. It bills itself as the largest on-site green power producer in the country.

Raytheon: The defense contractor saved $100 million in the decade ended 2012 by upgrading heating and AC systems and installing better energy management systems.

Kimco Realty: The shopping-center owner lowered its light bill by 20 percent to 25 percent by installing automated controls. The investment will purportedly pay off in less than three years.

Staples: The office supplies empire now gets 78 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, by buying green power and installing a massive fuel cell at its California distribution center, among other things.

General Electric: The industrial giant aims to cut its emissions to 75 percent of its 2004 levels. It also has a “treasure hunt” program, encouraging small teams of workers to identify little inefficiencies like lights that don’t turn off automatically.

Johnson & Johnson: A $40 million fund aims to help pay for emission-reducing projects at affiliate companies.

In all, McKinsey and WWF estimate U.S. businesses—excluding utilities—can save $190 billion a year by 2020, provided they cut carbon emissions by 3 percent a year. The savings, however, won’t come cheap. The groups say carbon-cutting costs would have to rise to 3.8 percent of capital spending, from about 2.2 percent today.

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