CORPORATE GREED AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Illustration by David Plunkert
Written by Deepanshi Narula
There is no doubt that the increasing influence of the uncontrolled capitalist economies has contributed irreversibly to the climate crisis. These economies, marked by their multi-billion-dollar corporations and unethical methods of production, have breached all ecological boundaries over the past few decades. This has put into question the practicability of sustainable production in these free markets. If sustainability is indeed possible, who claims its responsibility?
Recently, Metronome’s digital clock in Manhattan, New York was reprogrammed by artists, Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd to present the time window for urgent action to prevent the effects of climate change from becoming irreversible. “The Earth has a deadline,” the clock displayed as it took rounds on the internet. The Climate Clock, as it has been named, is one of the many works of art undertaken by artists all over the world to remind us of the urgency to fight for our future. Although a crucial reminder, it won’t be effective until the message reaches the eyes and ears of those greedy corporations who have destroyed our planet without ever taking the responsibility for its protection. Of course, the people who form these organisations will pass by the clock on the busy streets of Manhattan, but will they ever look up at it? Even if they do, will they change their ways?
As people around the world become increasingly aware of the impending crisis, the entities who have the most power to reverse it are turning a blind eye to it. According to the CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017, 100 energy companies are responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions since the late 1980s. They are responsible for nearly 1 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that the emissions by the thousands of corporations outside the energy sector and you will get a rough estimate of how high our global emissions actually are.
These corporations, with their high net worth and profits, are definitely capable of reversing the crisis, but they won’t take the necessary steps to it. Why? Because moving on to sustainable methods of production would involve costs in research and development and the transition process, which means reduction in the profits of these firms.
The motive of gaining more wealth with almost no concern for social responsibilities is what drives these corporations. In fewer words, we may call it corporate greed. Greed has been the reason behind all human woes, whether economic or social. Now it has surpassed the social boundaries and stands as a huge threat to our environment’s well-being. Corporate greed leads organisations to undertake cheaper but unsustainable methods of production that exploit our natural resources and catalyse environmental degradation.
However, hopping onto the socially conscious corporations’ bandwagon, many private sector companies have adopted certain environment-friendly practices. They have formulated environmental guidelines and claim to have integrated them into their day-to-day operations. To the consumers, they market themselves as entities that care deeply for the society. In reality, their “environment-friendly” practices are solely limited to the spheres that create value for themselves. These practices enable them to improve their efficiency, meet legal standards, improve brand image, and position themselves competitively in the market.
A series of articles in the Harvard Business Review studied the connection between ‘green management’ and profitability. It showed that environmental performance is closely linked to improved financial performance and other benefits for the company. Joshua Axelrod, writing for NRDC, explains these purported “green targets” by taking the example of Procter and Gamble (P&G). P&G’s disposable paper, hygiene, and baby care products are estimated to generate 17.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year—equivalent to the annual emissions of 3.8 million passenger vehicles—but P&G’s greenhouse gas reduction goal applies to only a tiny percentage of these emissions.
P&G’s climate commitment appears to be fairly progressive on paper: reduce annual emissions by 50% by 2030. But the actual picture is far more disappointing. The company’s target applies only to emissions generated by a corporation’s own facilities—factories, vehicles, power plants—and the emissions generated by third parties from whom the corporation buys energy, which form just 2% of the company’s estimated emissions. This target conveniently overlooks the majority of emissions from the production of its raw materials and the use and disposal of its products. Thus, P&G’s climate target essentially applies to 2% of the corporation’s estimated emissions and reducing this small sliver by 50% will only lead to an absolute reduction in the corporation’s climate footprint of 1%.
P&G is just one of the thousands of corporations, bigger and smaller, who undertake green initiatives either for better positioning in the minds of the educated consumer or to avoid legal action. Often, they try to get away by casting the blame onto the consumer and an unprecedented increase in the demand. It is not to be denied that the rise of consumerism is taking a toll on the environment. However, consumerism arising out of increased materialism are both products of capitalism itself. Research shows that the richer a country is, the more its inhabitants consume. USA and Luxembourg have a much higher per-capita carbon footprint than China and India due to high consumerism. The latter, despite being the production centres of the world, have a per-capita carbon footprint lower than the global average.
Individual consumers do somewhat add to the environmental crisis but there’s hope from them. When you see a teenager leading the fight for our future and millions of people following her lead, there’s hope. When you hear of a professor in Taipei reinventing the campus with eco-roofs and eco-balconies, there’s hope. This is what the capitalist corporations lack. Metronome’s clock could surely influence thousands of individuals to undertake practices that are healthier for the environment but it would not have the same effect on the larger, greedy entities.
We regularly encounter appeals to adopt practices such as reducing meat consumption, switching to reusable bags and bottles, etc on social media and elsewhere. Undoubtedly, these are great suggestions to solve issues that plague our planet and we all should undertake them. But while focusing on individual consumers, we tend to forget the larger role played by the corporate entities. Our environment will always fall prey to the capitalist behaviour of the market. Individuals can bring change only to a certain point; we must begin to recognise the impact that corporate greed has. It is time for us to hold those who manipulate the market accountable for their actions before our planet becomes inhabitable.