ANALYSIS: The Kyoto Protocol - Companies doing dirty work in Kyotorejection - Thanks to President Bush's stance on the Kyoto Protocol,American companies are suffering a knock to their corporate reputationsabroad...

Whoever coined the phrase "the grass is greener on the other side,"

you can bet your bottom dollar it wasn't someone looking across the

ocean to America.



Apart from the US, nearly all the developed world's countries have

approved a plan to implement the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty pledging to

reduce the production of greenhouse gases. The Clinton administration

helped negotiate the treaty, but the Bush administration refused to sign

it, and the Senate indicated that it would not ratify it. The US is the

world's biggest greenhouse emitter, and without its signature, the

document is, most say, next to worthless.



So consumers overseas now have a handy excuse to fall back on that

favorite stereotype: the corpulent American in a cowboy hat waddling to

his gas-guzzling SUV, laughing indulgently while his car's exhaust fumes

obliterate the ozone layer.



The corporate Kyoto debate



Steve Harris, General Motors' VP of communications, thinks there is a

misperception about American companies - domestically and from

abroad.



"From an energy-usage standpoint, the US is seen as less efficient," he

complains, "but if they were more familiar with the various corporations

in the US, they would see a higher level of attainment here in terms of

controlling emissions."



Dean Tougas, a spokesman for Boeing (neutral on Kyoto, as the company

provides products and services to a number of the governments that are

party to the negotiations), concurs that a lot of corporate damage has

been done by the US staying out of the Kyoto agreement. "There is a

perception that businesses in general - and US businesses in particular

- are not doing anything about reducing greenhouse gases, and are

opposed to the Protocol. Many consumers think that there's a uniform

policy on the part of US companies to ignore this issue."



Though Boeing does not sell to consumers, it nonetheless recognizes the

importance of having a good reputation. To this end, it has even used

the controversy to its own advantage. "As the public has become more

aware of this and it's become a political issue too, the actions of

industry are being scrutinized. It gives us a chance to talk about the

things that normally the public wouldn't be aware of, but our customers

are."



It would appear that whether or not a company supports the Protocol is

less important than the overall perception consumers have of it - which

seems to be shaped by the kind of products that are manufactured. BP

Amoco, for example, supports the treaty, but has received as much

criticism as the oil companies that don't - perhaps even more, as it the

company is an easy target for a hungry media.



Regardless, BP Amoco is actively pushing its support of the Protocol,

and its director of external affairs, Sarah Howell, explains, "We're

getting the message out through testimonies. We testified on our carbon

sequestration program in front of the Senate Committee of Energy and

Natural Resources just last week, and on our internal emissions trading

system in front of the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and

Transportation last September."



These activities have gained favorable coverage, adds Howell. "We've

been interviewed by Air Daily, US News & World Report, NPR, Nature

magazine, Rolling Stone, and Gannett News Service on our position on

climate change, and what we are doing to address concerns surrounding

it."



ExxonMobil's opposition to the Kyoto agreement has made it the target of

worldwide protests. Its message has shifted little from May's global

marketing campaign, timed to support Bush's decision: "Political goals

were set without a sober assessment of economic and technical realities

or public toleration of major lifestyle changes. This was reckless given

the central role played by energy in all economies," one ad read. Since,

the company's strategy has been to consistently point out the "serious

flaws" in the Protocol.



The media tends to repeat the oversimplified view that companies

supporting the Protocol are environmentally friendly, and those that

don't are not.



The logic is wobbly at best; that would be saying that the treaty itself

is flawless. And among other criticisms, many say that the bar has been

set too low, and is almost encouraging corporations to rest on their

laurels.



Cleaning up without Kyoto



GM has made public its opposition to the treaty: "We support the concept

of increasing fuel efficiency," says David Barthmuss, General Motors'

manager of energy, environment, and sustainability communications, "but

we think there is a better way (than the Kyoto Protocol) to achieve

these ends. The treaty, when it was first drawn up, didn't involve, or

apply to, some of the leading polluters; and the thought was that too

much of the burden was placed on American businesses. Yes, we can make

terrific strides, but if they are not applied elsewhere, it won't do

much good."



GM's strategy is threefold: improving its products, improving its

plants, and entering into partnerships with environmental groups. Point

by point, for example, it is working on "removing the vehicle from the

debate," says Barthmuss, by removing 90% of pollutants from the internal

combustion engine and investing heavily in developing a hydrogen-based

fuel cell.



GM is also cleaning up its manufacturing plants - in August, the company

will receive the Stockholm Water Prize for its efforts at cleaning its

water policy in Mexico. The company has also partnered with the Nature

Conservancy to preserve one of the world's most endangered ecosystems in

Brazil, a cause to which GM recently donated $10 million.



These efforts are broadcast - and have been since the mid-'90s - via a

sustainability report on all of GM's activities, now available

electronically.



(In recent months, GM unveiled a "sustainability" Web site,

www.gmability.com.)



Among other media tactics, GM brought reporters from all over the world

to Mesa, AZ for the trial of its prototype hydrogen-fuelled known as the

HydroGen 1. "Normally we would have just done that on our own," says

Barthmuss.



But despite GM's measurable investment in attempting to minimize the

environmental impact its processes have, it is still a target of

criticism by many groups, which underlines the black-and-white view that

concordance is good, and opposition is bad. A former Greenpeace

executive in the UK launched a Web site last week, Families Against Bush

(www.fabclimate.org), which named and shamed those companies that

supported the rejection of the agreement, including GM, and suggested

alternative brands for the shopping basket: those that supported the

treaty. Some brands on the boycott list are Texaco (ExxonMobil), Twix

(M&M Mars), Wash & Go (Procter & Gamble), and Philadelphia (Kraft).



However, another auto company exec says, "There are so many groups

flying around that it's hard to see their messages and it's hard to take

them all seriously. The Kyoto Protocol is flawed, and the companies that

don't support it are still acting to ensure that they are as

environmentally responsible as they can be - over and above any

requirements set by any treaties."



Barthmuss agrees: "Whether or not you support the Protocol, you have to

be publicly accountable. We just prefer to act through deeds, not

words."



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.