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The Paradox of 'Climate Profiteers'
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2/5/2007

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The Paradox of 'Climate Profiteers'
Joel Makower

You gotta love the conservative media. They'll grasp any available straws, however thin, to pooh-pooh climate action. For most of the past two decades, of course, the complaint was that any effort to stem greenhouse gas emissions would ruin the economy, forcing big business to all but fold up their tents and the global economy to go down the tubes.

Now that a growing corps of corporations are mustering the moxie to actually view climate change as an opportunity as well as a challenge, the complaint is something entirely different:

Big business is engaging in climate profiteering!

Hardy thanks to Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel for unwittingly providing my Friday morning entertainment not long ago with her essay bemoaning self-serving corporate action on climate change. The news hook was the January 22 announcement of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of Big Business and Big Green calling on Congress and the Bush administration "to quickly enact strong national legislation to require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

Clearly, such collaboration in the name of climate change was more than the Journal's editorial board could bear. Strassel took issue with the ten companies (the number has since grown) present at the creation of this new group:

Four of the affiliates -- Duke, PG&E, FPL, and PNM Resources -- are utilities that have made big bets on wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear power. So, a Kyoto program would reward them for simply enacting their business plan, and simultaneously sock it to their competitors. . . . DuPont has been plunging into biofuels, the use of which would soar under a cap. . . . Caterpillar has invested heavily in new engines that generate "clean energy." British Petroleum is mostly doing public penance for its dirty oil habit, but also gets a plug for its own biofuels venture.

Finally, there's General Electric, whose CEO Jeffrey Immelt these days spends as much time in Washington as Connecticut. GE makes all the solar equipment and wind turbines (at $2 million a pop) that utilities would have to buy under a climate regime. GE's revenue from environmental products long ago passed the $10 billion mark, and it doesn't take much "ecomagination" to see why Mr. Immelt is leading the pack of climate profiteers.

Shame on all you corporations! Shame for making money while doing the right thing! Shame for doing well while doing good! What were you thinking?

The Journal, of course, is being absurd, not to mention hypocritical. I'd be shocked if any members of its editorial board ever deigned to criticize "war profiteers," "Katrina profiteers" or "health care profiteers," never mind the windfall profiteering of Big Oil or Big Pharma.

The reality is that a good many large corporations stand to gain mightily from likely and imminent U.S. national climate policies, however timid they may be. We've already seen that in Europe, where the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme has produced winners (and losers). And in the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, some of these companies aren't, suffice to say, environmentalists' heroes.

All of which is driven home in a recent investment advisory from Citigroup Research, part of the Citigroup financial empire. The 120- page report, titled "Climatic Consequences" (Download - PDF), by Edward M. Kerschner and Michael Geraghty, discusses "the investment implications of a changing climate." It is, in my opinion, one of the more sober and succinct discussions of the how companies will be affected, positively and negatively, as the impacts of climate change accelerate -- along with the market and political changes aimed at minimizing them. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in business and climate change.

Kerschner and Geraghty offer up dozens of companies that are well positioned to do business in a climate-constrained world. The companies will benefit from three different implications of climate change:

Physical: Select U.S. natural gas exploration and production companies, farm equipment suppliers, agricultural biotechnology companies, and select U.S. property insurers.

Regulatory: Select electric utilities, engineering and construction firms, capital goods companies, natural gas suppliers, select automobile companies, food processors, fertilizer suppliers, wind and solar power companies, and companies focused on building energy efficiency.

Behavioral: "Climate consultants" offering services that promote efficient energy usage, and companies that facilitate carbon trading.

(You can view an 11-minute interview with Kerschner, chief investment officer at Citigroup Investment Research, discussing his report here. You'll need to endure a 15-second commercial before it begins.)

As I said, the 74 companies named by Citi as positioned to benefit from climate change trends aren't all darlings of the environmental set. True, the list includes more than a dozen companies in the solar, wind, and biogas energy business (such as Conergy, Evergreen Solar, Ormat, Q Cells, and SunPower), but also utilities dependent on nuclear power (Constellation Energy, Electricité de France, Entergy, Exelon), which "are well positioned in the long run, compared to operators of 'dirty' coal-fired plants." And biotech companies like DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta, whose products "offer the potential for greater ethanol yields." Some of the companies operate largely behind the scenes, less familiar to the public, such as BorgWarner, whose key products offer the benefits of higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions from internal combustion engines; Johnson Controls, which operates in automotive and building efficiency; and Emerson, whose business units offer a wide range of energy-efficient technologies.

Whether such companies garner obscene profits from solving climate problems remains to be seen, of course, but Citigroup's intention of bringing these companies to investors' attention makes perfect sense. Environmentalists and regulators similarly stand to gain from this report, as they come to grips with this brave new world of "profiteering," in which companies offering climate solutions are rewarded in the marketplace. And maybe some conservative media folks will learn something, too.

In her WSJ essay, Kim Strassel warns that the current wave of climate profiteering is merely a sign of what's to come. She notes that

Democrats want global warming as an issue through 2008. With Al Gore getting his Oscar nod, they've got a "problem" that captures the public imagination, as well as an endless supply of cash from thrilled environmental groups. No need to spoil it with a solution. And a Democratic president in 2009 would be more open to any ultimate legislation. Best yet, they've got the "support" of the business community, or at least the savvier elements of it. Welcome, Big CarbonCap; we're likely to be hearing a lot from you.

I can only hope her worst fears come true.

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Joel Makower is Co-founder and Principal of Clean Edge, Inc., and writes the blog Two Steps Forward.

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