Corporations Can Push a Low Carbon Economy, But They Can Only Do So Much

James Lee/CC BY 2.0

When I wrote about major investors raising alarm bells about climate change, I noted that we should be careful about charges of hypocrisy, even if some of these institutions are deeply invested in a fossil fuel-driven status quo. After all, most of us individual greenies drive cars, use electricity, and generally exist within a system designed to perpetuate an extractive, destructive economy. So too, corporate actors can't suddenly reverse course without ceding ground to their competitors and undermining their own financial sustainability.

And that's why we need, and many corporations are calling for, systemic, government action to slash emissions and level the playing field for the technologies of tomorrow.

However, just as we individuals can help prepare the ground for a greener system by doing what we can—from eating less meat to changing our light bulbs to working from home—so too corporations can leverage their resources to make a low carbon future more likely.

That's what's so important about GE's move to order 2000 Ford plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) as part of its push for a fleet of 25,000 PHEVs by 2015. It's what's so encouraging about Google's investments in wind power and residential solar power, or Apple powering a data center with 100% renewable energy.

Not only do such efforts suggest my wished-for corporate green stimulus is well under way, making emerging technologies considerably more viable, but it also sends a message to powerful decision makers and individual consumers alike about where business leaders think the future lies.

True, corporations don't tend to do anything unless there is something in it for them—but that is exactly what is so encouraging about such developments. The idea that stopping climate change is somehow anti-business is looking about as silly as creationism right now—the corporate world needs a functioning ecosystem to operate in, just like the rest of us. And it is also savvy enough to recognize that mitigating and adapting to climate change will be a massive growth market for years to come. Those with a head start will hold a significant advantage.

We should be wary, however, about viewing such moves as a panacea. The fact that corporations are increasingly seeing their best interests aligning with planetary best interests is encouraging, but they are still massively constrained by the motivation for short term profits. And they are culturally inclined toward technological solutions not systemic change, as evidenced by Apple's decision to design a clean energy powerhouse of a building, but place it in the middle of nowhere.

Corporations can help usher in the low carbon economy, but they can't lead it. For that, we need our leaders.

Tags: Activism | Carbon Emissions | Corporate Responsibility | Economics

Best of TreeHugger 2014

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK