Last week's announcement that the EPA is bringing its Climate Leaders program to an end shocked many in the greenhouse gas reporting community. The Environmental Director of a Global Technology Company told me that he was "very disappointed that the EPA would withdraw this program" and Paul Baier with Groom Energy says that the announcement "clearly caught our customers off guard, after they have invested years in the program. This abupt and puzzling decision adds to climate skepticim that sustainability's leaders are increasingly fighting. The EPA just frustrated 150 of the more advanced Fortune 500 companies on sustainability. To what end?" Bruce S. Klafter, the head of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Office at Applied Materials told me "I am less than thrilled that there was no prior notice or an opportunity to convey input to the agency. I respect their right to manage their budgets and so on, but CL is a collaboration and the Partners deserved an opportunity to weigh in on the decision."So, What Now?
Despite the frustration and surprise, many of the people I spoke with are ready to move on, with or without the EPA. As the EPA announcement suggested, many of them are considering joining non-governmental voluntary reporting programs but they are hesitant about high membership costs and requirements for costly third-party verification of their greenhouse gas inventory reports. According to the Enterprise Carbon Accounting (ECA) Email newsletter from Paul Baier at Groom Energy "the ending of this program may help participation rates in other voluntary registries like Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Carbon Trust, The Climate Registry (TCR) and others. Each program has different strengths and deficiencies. For example, CDP has a global view but offers little technical support. TCR has good standards for reporting and verification, but is not supported by all states and is not global."
Despite some possible drawbacks when compared to Climate Leaders, The Climate Registry is set to gain many new members as a result of the EPA's decision. "The Climate Registered program is the perfect alternative for members of the Climate Leaders program," said Doug Scott, Chairman of The Climate Registry and Commissioner of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. "The program is unique in that it has the support of state governments. We are interested in pursuing a joint state-federal awards program and we look forward to discussions with EPA to create one."
Why Did The EPA Decide To End The Popular Climate Leaders Program?
After the announcement was made some people were quick to blame the decision on politics, others on budget, but the majority were just at a complete loss. One source that wished to remain anonymous had this to say: "I think the rationale is not at all clear. Coupled with the demise of Performance Track, however, it certainly appears that the agency does not favor voluntary, performance-oriented programs. Given the pending implementation of the Mandatory Reporting Rule (MRR) and the Tailoring Rule, it also seems that EPA's energies in the climate and GHG space will be heavily weighted towards enforcement. That is appropriate in many respects, but it also gives short shrift to the tremendous voluntary action that industry has undertaken. I believe that is one of the "unsung" stories of the sustainability movement of the last 10+ years; companies of all kinds have established the benefits of voluntary action and have consistently moved forward in the areas of waste, pollution and other best practices. If you read any CSR report today, nearly all of the initiatives described are purely voluntary and not mandated."
A member of the Carbon Professionals Networking Group on LinkedIn said that "voluntary programs are often perceived to be window dressing, not the rigorous regulatory framework that is often prefered by Democratic leaders. While I believe this program likely did carry some benefits to its members, it is unclear how much the public benefitted. EPA likely felt that their budget was better spent spent on preparing the GHG Tailoring Rule. Rightly or wrongly, the implementation of the Tailoring Rule will have measurable and potentially vast consequencies for the regulated community that EPA will be able to point to. I don't believe that was really the case with the Climate Leaders Program."
An EPA employee, not connected with the Climate Leaders program told me that, "In general, EPA has been using voluntary award programs to recognize innovators/early adopters in industry sectors where regulatory instruments were not present or companies operated facilities way beyond complying with existing regs Since this program has been in place for 8 years our policy and business landscape has changed significantly and a voluntary program does not provide the driver anymore as when it was launched."
And finally, a senior person in the National Academies said that he didn't know anything for sure as yet, but "a number of agencies are getting a head start on announced plans for budget austerity for FY 2011 and 2012, DOD perhaps being among the most prominent." He guessed that this is the source of the EPA's move especially since some believe other non-government organizations can provide similar services.
Whether it's budget issues, politics, or other reasons, the common theme is that members are disappointed with the decision and how it was handled. Companies will now scramble to find new avenues for reporting and recognition. We will soon find out if this development is yielding the way to a command and control approach towards greenhouse gas emission reduction, the beginning to a new era of voluntary corporate climate action, or another sad step backwards for the United States' leadership role in the global community.
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
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