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Copenhagen Climate Summit: Business must adapt to a low-carbon economy

The UN's international climate conference kicked off in Copenhagen yesterday. The aim of the conference is to deliver an agreement limiting global warming to less than two degrees centigrade - the temperature that would give us a realistic chance of avoiding 'catastrophic' climate change.

I'm attending the climate talks in Copenhagen to add my voice to the many objecting to the use of carbon-offsetting in developing countries as a solution to climate change. While it is important to support developing countries to follow a cleaner development path, this shouldn't be at the exclusion of tackling emissions in our own backyards.

I also plan to join the hundreds of UK corporations calling for our Government to lead on this issue and send a clear message to businesses about what is expected from the sector.

The climate talks will focus on how the rapid U-turn from oil-dependence to a low-carbon society can be achieved, how much it will cost and where the billions of dollars needed will come from.

In the UK, the Government is already committed to a binding 34% cut in 1990 emissions levels by 2020, which is over and above the maximum 30% cut proposed by the EU. But businesses won't have clarity about the level of reductions required until the UK reveals how much of this target will be met through offsetting. The current proposals stand at around a third, but most developing countries are unlikely to accept such a low level of cuts within the countries that are historically responsible for the climate problem.

Commitments will also be made on who will fund the reductions.  In the UK the bulk of the finance is likely to be sourced from the private sector, through emissions trading and policies like the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) that look to encourage companies to reduce their emissions to avoid charges and low rankings in the Government's league table. 

These measures are likely to focus attention on all employees to reduce their environmental impact - be that through avoiding business travel by using video-conferencing, being more careful to switch off computers when not in use, or printing less and recycling more.

Unpredicted knock-on effects of these policies are already filtering through into business strategy. One such example is the CRC, which the Energy Saving Trust is concerned might drive employers to encourage greater home-working in an attempt to reduce emissions related to office energy use. While this might bring benefits from reduced emissions related to commuting, home-working could simply displace energy-use emissions from offices to homes - where they are much more difficult to manage.

While the detail of the agreement hangs in the balance, one thing is clear - in the UK at least climate policy is soon going to be at the top of the agenda for businesses. The sooner companies adapt their practices to this end, the more likely they will be to thrive in the low carbon economy.

Jane Burston is director of Carbon Retirement. Rather than invest in projects that are supposed to reduce emissions overseas, the organisation encourages reductions in Europe by buying industrial pollution permits and permanently removing them from the system. So rather than buying permits and continuing to pollute, industrial companies have to reduce their emissions.