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Coke VP at COP16: Coke Climate Action Plans Advance Despite Politics

Businesses need to go beyond footprint, work on handprint

Kevin Tuerff sat down with Jeff Seabright (pictured at left), VP of Environment and Water Resources at Coca-Cola. Tuerff and Seabright are both business delegates to the United Nations climate conference (COP16) in Cancún.

Kevin Tuerff: What would be success here in Cancún for COP16?

Jeff Seabright: While expectations have been managed for a comprehensive outcome here in Cancún, we continue to hope that there will be solid progress on the constituent programs like REDD (deforestation), measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV), technology transfer, and finance. A positive outcome would be solid progress against those constituent elements that would enable a full framework to emerge sometime in the near future.

Has Coca-Cola’s position on reducing greenhouse gases changed since COP15 in Copenhagen or the midterm elections in the United States?

No, we haven’t changed our position. Coca-Cola’s position is based on a careful review of the science behind climate change. We believe that the science is clear and compelling and demands action, not just by governments, but by businesses as well. If anything, the science is now more compelling. At Coca-Cola we’ve taken steps since Copenhagen to deepen our involvement in finding solutions.

Let me share one example. Our CEO, Muhtar Kent, co-chairs the Consumer Goods Forum, a group of 450 manufacturers and retailers representing some $3 trillion in revenue. The Consumer Goods Forum just recently passed resolutions to work toward zero-deforestation by 2020 in procurement of palm oil, soy, beef, and paper products and to begin the phasing out of hydro-fluorocarbons by 2015. These are two very significant commitments for the consumer goods industry, and they demonstrate that business is continuing to take real action to grow a green economy.

Is there a preference for a global or national/regional regulatory framework?

The issue of climate change is a global phenomenon, and we need a global framework, but it will continue to be important to respond to local needs and local regulations.

Because of the difficulty of getting consensus among 193 countries, some leaders have suggested the U.S. government should only negotiate with major economies (biggest polluting countries) and pull out of UNFCCC. Do you agree?

Those are not mutually exclusive goals. We can work with both developed and developing countries to bring everybody along in the process. I do think we need to have multi-track diplomacy.

Does the Coca-Cola Company have a framework for how to effect change on this complex global issue?

As we think about climate change and the role of the business community in advancing solutions, we’ve tried to shape our engagement around the concepts of footprint, handprint, and blueprint. Virtually every major company in the world is now monitoring and addressing their greenhouse gases. Managing our “footprints”  is what companies need to be doing to reduce emissions from manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. But managing our footprints is not enough to effect real progress on climate change.

Many companies have the resources to effect change by really changing the trajectory and putting forward solutions that can be shared and scaled. Putting forward collaborative solutions on things like sustainable refrigeration and deforestation is how we extend our “handprint.”

At Coca-Cola, we are voluntarily and aggressively moving to remove F-gases in our vending machines, coolers, and cold drink equipment. We’re driving alternative natural refrigerants as a singular contribution to that problem. Our leadership here helps send a signal to suppliers and other companies — and it can help move the market.

The third area of focus is what we call helping design an effective public policy “blueprint,” and that’s what we’re doing here in Cancún. An effective broad climate framework will allow and incent all of these activities to come forward in a stronger, more robust, and clearer way. This is especially important for companies with long-term capital investments with 50-year horizons. For us, putting a price on carbon is critically important to finding long-term solutions to this problem.

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of companies talk about what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprints. Simply reducing our footprint is not going to get us where the science says we need to go, which is to stabilize, and then reverse this trajectory of emissions. We need more focus on our collective handprint, and we need more engagement in shaping a global policy blueprint.

Some climate models demonstrate water planning is inadequate to handle what could be more severe droughts in certain areas. Is there anything Coca-Cola is doing to nudge governments, other industries, and consumers to conserve water?

Without water, we don’t have a business. It’s a resource under growing stress, in no small measure due to climate change. In fact, it’s the most visible and tangible sign the climate is changing. We’re already seeing increased droughts, excess rains, and weather patterns with increased unpredictability and variability.

At Coca-Cola, we’ve been educating ourselves on how we can become truly world-class stewards of water. It’s just not enough to manage it within the four walls of our operation.

Often at many facilities, if you’d ask the staff where the water comes from, they’d point to the pipe. We all need to learn it comes from a watershed. We’re training people at the plant level in hydrogeology, watershed management, how to engage stakeholders, and more. This is important because water is the ultimate shared resource and it must be stewarded collectively.

Because we believe water stewardship is critical to our business and the communities we serve, we’ve set a lofty goal of giving back as much as we use.

What does that mean?

We keep a ledger of how much water we use to produce our beverages around the world. Last year, we used an estimated 300 billion liters in manufacturing, of which about 120 billion liters goes into our beverage products. Returning an amount of water equal to what we use in our manufacturing operations requires three things: First, it’s about continuing to use water efficiently. We set a goal to improve efficiency by 20 percent by 2012. It’s also about recycling water used for manufacturing processes (some people call this waste water) so it can be returned safely back to the environment and communities we are a part of around the world. And it’s about replenishing the water we use in our beverages by supporting community water projects and partnerships.

This focus on reducing, recycling, and replenishing is how we believe we can be a truly water-sustainable business on a global basis.

Along with the explosion in bottled water use, some consumers are angry about low recycling rates and bottles that end up as litter. There has been a lot of attention paid to bans of plastic shopping bags lately. Some have called for similar bans for bottled water.

We have a goal in North America of recovering 100 percent of bottles and cans in the market. We’re investing in recovery solutions like Coca Cola Recycling.

In Spartanburg, South Carolina, we have a new bottle-to-bottle recycling plant with the capacity to recycle some 2 billion bottles so their material can be use to create new bottles.

We have a lot of work to do to continue to improve our packaging, but we have a comprehensive plan in place.

Tell me about Coke’s new plant-based plastic bottles. What’s the future of this packaging?

We recently introduced PlantBottle, a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottle made from a blend of petroleum-based materials and up to 30 percent plant-based materials. It uses sugar cane and molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, to create a key component for PET plastic.

Since being introduced late last year, PlantBottles are currently available in nine countries, and we’re building out the supply chain. We expect to have some 2.5 billion PlantBottles on the market by the end of this year and we plan to double that amount next year. Our goal is for all of our plastic packages to use PlantBottle packaging. Using PlantBottle packaging helps us reduce our carbon dioxide emissions without compromising any of the performance we require of our packaging. The package continues to be fully recyclable, and there’s no difference in shelf life, weight, or appearance.

Kevin Tuerff, CEO of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and president of EnviroMedia Social Marketing, is reporting for Environmental Leader from the UNFCCC in Cancún, Mexico. More updates are available at GreenDetectives.net.

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7 thoughts on “Coke VP at COP16: Coke Climate Action Plans Advance Despite Politics

  1. Hallelujah! It is refreshing to hear corporations speaking so responsibly on climate change and taking a aggressive approach to improved sustainability practices, especially around packaging. If only the US government would follow their progressive lead. I’ll be watching to see if Coke reached that 20 percent by 2012 water use efficiency goal.

  2. The recycling, reusing, and replenishing goals mentioned do indeed have several valid motivations. But let’s be clear: climate change is not simply ‘hype’.

  3. If Jeff reads this, I would be curious how Coca Cola is addressing the following problem: if a company spends money on effectively becoming sustainable, then it is NOT spending that money on advertising, r&d, production, etc, and may develop a competitive disadvantage with respect to other companies who don’t care about the environment. So companies are not motivated to do anything… unless they can get their competitors to commit as well.

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