Already, many companies are recording their emissions and analyzing the results. Some have set voluntary targets for reductions and are claiming substantial progress in meeting them. Sustainability — a notion mostly heard in environmental circles only a decade ago — has become a mainstream idea to which some companies are committed and many are paying lip service.
Major corporations, including General Electric, Ford Motor and PepsiCo, have teamed up with environmental groups to set up the United States Climate Action Partnership, a wide-ranging coalition trying to find ways to cut emissions throughout the economy.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s top retailer, has outlined strict goals to reduce energy consumption at its stores and has instructed hundreds of thousands of suppliers to report their energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions. In a speech at a summit meeting in China last year, H. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart’s president and chief executive, said, “Sustainability can and should be a big part of the solution.”
In the energy sector, some corporations have also been vocal in demanding clarity on emissions. James E. Rogers, the chief executive of Duke Energy, a large power company and a major emitter of carbon dioxide, says that clear rules are needed to ensure that companies relying on coal-fired power plants can finance their transition to lower-carbon fuels, like natural gas or nuclear power. Coal accounts for half of the nation’s electric generation.
“A well-designed cap will provide a smooth transition to clean electricity,” Mr. Rogers said in an ad that ran over the summer.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said, “Industry needs certainty, and without a very strong role played by the administration, they are not likely to get it.” She added, “Real leadership from the White House is the only way to get a bill through the Senate, and a bill is how we will get certainty.”
Until now, the United States had been the only industrialized economy to shun hard targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The nation has been overtaken by China as the top emitter of carbon dioxide, but Americans are bigger carbon polluters per person than citizens of other countries.
The White House said on Wednesday that the president would present a provisional target at the Copenhagen summit meeting on climate next month to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will be “in the range” of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below by 2050, the White House said.
That target reflects the goals specified by legislation that was passed in the House in June. A similar bill is bogged down in the Senate, which would set cuts of 20 percent by 2020.
Limiting the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, let alone cutting them, will require a radical transformation of the nation’s energy consumption and fuels that will most likely take decades. It is bound to hurt some energy-intensive businesses, like petroleum refiners and coal-fired power plants, and some manufacturers, while bolstering the development of alternative power industries like solar and wind.
To reduce emissions, Congress has been looking at a mechanism called cap and trade, in which legislators would set a limit on the nation’s emissions and it would decline each year. They would also assign pollution permits that companies could then buy and sell depending on their needs.