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Eric Reguly

While politicians negotiate, executives take action Add to ...

The Bella Center, the size of a big-city airport, is climate change's ground zero. Some 30,000 participants swarm into the convention buildings every day. The mob includes some of the planet's brightest scientific, technical, development, economic and political minds, from paleoclimatologists, who can tell you what the weather was like 100,000 years ago, to Chinese negotiators who know as much about U.S. carbon cap-and-trade "architecture" as many U.S. senators.

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I have been immersed in the Bella Center's phonebook-thick climate-change program for a week, sprinting from one meeting to another, talking to delegates from countries I never heard of and watching the daily green-group spectacle with a mixture of awe (where do they get the energy to walk around dressed as trees?) and fatigue (enough already, we get the point).

Yet in spite of the Bella Center's chaos, energy and awesome collection of talent, I feel oddly detached from the whole thing. I feel that the Copenhagen summit, where supposedly nothing less than Earth's survival is at stake, is a sideshow, a smokescreen, a diversion to the real story. I think the real story - climate change's centre of gravity - is not here. But if not here, where?

The easy answer of course is Washington, where proposed clean-energy legislation is stalled in the Senate. Unless the legislation becomes law, a new global climate treaty is merely a well-intentioned, though doomed, idea.

But the easy answer isn't the best answer. The real story, I think, is in the executive suites and the boardrooms of some of the world's biggest companies, the scenes of some of history's greatest plots against the environment. That's where battle lines in the war against climate change are taking shape, with or without a new treaty in Copenhagen.

The motivation isn't necessarily profit. Ron Dembo, of Toronto's Zerofootprint, told me he thinks it's all about executive demographics, and he may be right. Most of the men and women (mostly men) who run the top companies in the United States, Europe and Japan are in their 50s and 60s. Their businesses are established, they made themselves sinfully rich and collected the requisite trophy wives and yachts. Now they're looking for a new challenge before they retire or join the great golf club in the sky.

For them, the challenge goes beyond "primum non nocere," the doctors' oath to do no harm. It means "Do some good while you still can" and their focus is on climate change, the planet's gravest threat. Call it legacy seeking, or ego massaging.

Take Muthar Kent, the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, a ubiquitous brand that is not exactly synonymous with environmental responsibility. The company's energy use for making, packaging and distributing carbonated drinks is extraordinarily high and Mr. Kent knows it. So what is Coke doing about it?

Coke is restructuring itself from the bottom up to become a low-carbon, water-neutral company, he said at a Copenhagen Climate Council speech on Saturday. By 2015, none of the 10 million Coke-branded refrigerated drink machines will contain hydrofluorocarbons. While HFCs may be ozone friendly, they are not climate friendly; as a greenhouse gas, they make carbon dioxide look benign.

Coke, he pledged, would also use water-use reduction, recycling and replenishment to become "water-neutral" by 2020. "People are judging us increasingly on the quality of our character as much as the quality of the products we serve," he said.

At the same conference, Jim Rogers, the boss of Duke Energy, the North Carolina utility laden with coal-fired power plants, has been pushing for a carbon cap-and-trade system and yanked its membership from the National Association of Manufacturers because the association wasn't. He has pledged to transform Duke into a clean-energy producer - target date unknown. "We can't wait for an agreement [in Copenhagen and in the Senate]" he said. "We have to move now."

The potential for executives to do good is vast because they have corporate dictatorial powers. They are also competitive beasts. One executive's climate altruism is bound to be matched, or upped, by another. The carbon-reduction efforts of British supermarket chain Tesco, such as its effort to eliminate plastic throwaway bags, is already triggering equal or greater responses at other big supermarkets, among them Loblaw's.

How far the corporate do-good mentality will go is anyone's guess. The companies already in motion on the climate-change file have a long way to go before they can make up for past sins. But at least they're in motion, which is more than can be said about the U.S. Senate and the Copenhagen summit. By the end of the first week of the two-week negotiating orgy, negotiators from 192 countries had merely widened the gulf between rich and poor countries.

Copenhagen will finish with some sort of barely adequate political and financial agreement, one designed to alienate the fewest number of countries and please no one. Then a million scientists and environmental groups will be quoted in "Who killed Copenhagen" stories. Copenhagen may or may not die on Dec. 18. If it does, it's not necessarily the end of the world. The climate change battle has already shifted elsewhere.

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