The Power of Sunlight: Calls for Corporate Transparency and Public Disclosure of Greenhouse Gas Emissions are Growing Louder by the Day

June 21, 2007

As public demand for a climate-conscious government grows, so does the proposed legislation in Congress. At least half a dozen bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have now been introduced. But even if these bills were passed and entered into law today, many would not take effect for at least three years – perhaps longer given the prospect of legal delays. At the same time, the window for action is quickly closing. A recent paper co-authored by James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, stresses that the Earth is in "imminent peril" given current trends. Considered America’s foremost climate scientist, Hansen believes that the world has perhaps 10 years to reverse emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases before critical climate thresholds are breached.In short, the pace of climate change and emissions growth far outstrips the pace of change in Congress. As Mary Graham and Elena Fagotto of The Brookings Institution point out in their recent policy brief, these diverging timelines leave us with a "critical policy gap." They propose that legislation mandating the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions on a "product-by-product and factory-by-factory" basis would help close that gap by divulging the information needed to leverage public opinion and financial markets in the absence of comprehensive carbon regulation. Policymakers, investors, and consumers are largely ignorant of this information at present, limiting their ability to pinpoint efforts or alter behavior. As Graham and Fagotto put it, "The collective effect of new information and changed choices would create incentives for corporate managers to take feasible steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later." Just what we need given the slow (and sure to be lobbyist-dominated) nature of national carbon legislation.Public information disclosure has a strong track record in the U.S. and abroad, but it is glaringly absent when it comes to the gases that cause global warming. A recent story by NPR Radio’s Nell Boyce highlights just how sparse such important information currently is. Centralized, standardized, and quality data on the emissions of various corporations and locales is difficult to find even for a dedicated sleuth, never mind the average citizen. And without detailed data on the sources and distribution of greenhouse gases – and the accompanying public oversight – any eventual global warming legislation will be vulnerable to capture by the companies and sectors it seeks to regulate. Encouragingly, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have introduced a bill that would require U.S. businesses to begin estimating and reporting greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA. The proposed "carbon counter" legislation follows in the footsteps of a registry agreed to last month by 31 states representing more than 70% of the U.S. population. The state-run Climate Registry, to be based in Washington DC, will begin accepting verified emissions data in January.I expect that CGD’s own CARbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database, which we plan to release in the fall, will figure prominently in the growing movement toward greater transparency and greenhouse gas disclosure. When goes live, it will provide the first detailed, standardized, and consistent estimates of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants worldwide – more than 50,000 facilities responsible for 30% of the world’s total carbon emissions and 16 billion megawatt hours of electricity every year.Solar energy may one day produce much of that power carbon-free. In the meantime, a growing cadre of concerned citizens, activists, and policymakers are hoping that a little sunlight of a different type can jump-start that change.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.