Business leaders at the World Economic Forum have no shortage of options to ease their consciences over the environmental damage they cause.
They can buy carbon credits to offset the carbon dioxide emitted by their trip to the Swiss mountains, they can attend any of the proliferation of debates on climate, or they can grab a cool drink from a joint Greenpeace-Coca-Cola-branded environmentally friendly fridge.
In public, delegates rehearse the well known arguments over the need for action, especially if it is by others. But the serious debate is happening behind the scenes. Businesses are becoming increasingly convinced that curbs on carbon are coming and the price of continuing business as usual is going to rise.
Investment bankers have been out in force at Davos, advising chief executives that big change is in store for their companies with a odds on chance of a global emissions trading scheme within the next decade or so.
At a private dinner on Thursday, some 30 chief executives will listen to Lehman Brothers research advising them that the only companies that will succeed against the slow tide of rising carbon prices are those that accept that the problem is an unstoppable force and change with the times.
There will be big winners and losers and the value of corporate assets will depend upon the types of policies adopted, the bank will warn. Only those businesses that pay attention to the policy debate will minimise the risk that bad policies will hit their share prices hard.
Within the main conference, the private sessions involving chief executives are discussing the practical risk management case for planning for greater official constraints on carbon use.
James Cameron, vice-chairman of Climate Change Capital, an investment bank specialising in making money from pollution reduction, is among a number of bankers who have been banging the table, insisting policymakers give them the certainty of long-term policies so that long-term investments based on a high carbon price become cost-effective.
He is trumpeting the money his firm already makes by using the flexibility of the Kyoto protocol to clean up energy-inefficient companies in developing countries.
Some organisations, such as Yale University, have also taken a lead from politicians and set tough voluntary emissions targets. It decided in 2005 to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 43 per cent by 2020.
“Universities are the ideal place to demonstrate reduction is feasible and cost-effective,” says Richard Levin, president of Yale. Nearly 1½ years after making the commitment, he feels he can be confident that reducing carbon emissions for a large organisation can be afforded and he has called for other similar universities to follow suit.
Even without a global price on carbon Mr Levin estimates the action taken will cost only 1 per cent of the university’s operating costs, a large amount, but affordable, he thinks.
Mr Levin is no supporter of voluntary action alone to stop global warming. “I’m not deluding myself that voluntary action on the part of large corporations will do it,” he says but he thinks it is imperative for educational establishments to demonstrate that reductions in carbon emissions are possible.
“People are always calling on universities to stand up on big issues…the educational benefits will pay off in the long run.”
Yale has reduced its emissions by 6 per cent so far with simple technologies such as lights linked to movement sensors, a competition among its colleges and students to reduce electricity usage, converting its power plant to use bio fuels and designing new buildings with energy conservation in mind. It is planning to invest in a wind farm.