Biodiversity[TM]: Is Walmart's Environmental Program a Substitute for Government Policy?

Article excerpt

AT A CLIMATE change conference in Vancouver in 1996, I ran into David Suzuki. He wasn't well versed on the issue back then and wanted to know if there were any companies doing something about climate change. I named a few and he suggested that it would be a good idea to give these forward-looking firms a big pat on the back to encourage them to keep on with their good practices. Maybe it would convince others to do the same. Use the carrot, he was saying.

The number of companies doing something about climate change has expanded since that encounter, but not by as much as Suzuki and others would like, and certainly not by as much as is needed. So when I came across the industry-led back-patting work of the Canadian Business and Biodiversity Program (CBBP), I was skeptical. I wondered what impact, if any, it would have on encouraging the sort of fundamental changes needed to protect the environment, including biodiversity.

The CBBP recently released a 92-page report that includes stories of good biodiversity practices of 17 Canadian businesses in nine sectors. It's the brainchild of Johanne Gelinas, formerly Canada's Environmental Commissioner and now a partner with Deloitte Inc. in Montreal. "Biodiversity is the poor cousin to climate change," she told me. "We thought that it would be a good idea to approach companies to be part of a compendium of good practices presented through case studies."

One of the companies that paid $5000 to have its story included in the CBBP report is Ontario Power Generation (OPG). Steve Hounsell, a senior advisor to the company, convinced OPG to become the first energy company in Canada to have a biodiversity policy and implementation plan. A keen supporter of the CBBP, he says the case studies are a bit of a carrot. While admitting that the track record of Canadian businesses saving biodiversity isn't very impressive, Hounsell says that businesses will fight a big regulatory hammer. "If we want to prevent global collapse," he argues, "we have to engage the engine of economic activity."

John Elkington, Paul Hawken and others have long advocated using market forces as a catalyst for environmental change. In his new book, The New Entrepreneurs: Building a Green Economy for the Future, Andrew Heintzman follows in their footsteps. Some of Heintzman's finest examples of new green businesses come from Ontario's energy sector where provincial policy has provided the carrot required to get a new breed of entrepreneurs involved in green-energy initiatives.

But as effective as it may be, Ontario's carrot--incentives for wind and solar energy--is linked to the heavy hand of the provincial government. It did, after all, regulate Hounsell's employer, OPG, to shut down its coal-fired power plants. While some may argue that the two are unrelated, there are definitely both carrots and sticks at work in Ontario's successful bid to improve its track record vis-a-vis alternative energy.

Another type of carrot involves paying for, or even trading, ecosystem services. The report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), is the outcome of a 2010 global study hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme and coordinated by Joshua Bishop from the venerable International Union for Conservation of Nature. In it, the authors make a business case for "integrating the economics of biodiversity and ecosystem services in decision making." Paying for ecological services (trees cleaning air, moraines purifying water, bee pollination, plant pharmaceuticals, etc.) is catching hold with business, especially in the climate change arena, where the global carbon market was estimated to be worth over $140-billion in 2009. …