Big business says addressing climate change 'rates very low on agenda'

Poll of 500 major firms reveals that only one in 10 regard global warming as a priority

Global warming ranks far down the concerns of the world's biggest companies, despite world leaders' hopes that they will pioneer solutions to the impending climate crisis, a startling survey will reveal this week.

Nearly nine in 10 of them do not rate it as a priority, says the study, which canvassed more than 500 big businesses in Britain, the US, Germany, Japan, India and China. Nearly twice as many see climate change as imposing costs on their business as those who believe it presents an opportunity to make money. And the report's publishers believe that big business will concentrate even less on climate change as the world economy deteriorates.

The survey demolishes George Bush's insistence that global warming is best addressed through voluntary measures undertaken by business – and does so at the most embarrassing juncture for the embattled President. For this week he is convening a meeting of the world's largest economies to try to persuade them to agree with him.

The meeting – in Hawaii on Wednesday and Thursday – follows the US's refusal to accept binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming, in international negotiations in Bali last month, and is seen as an attempt to develop a less rigorous approach to the crisis.

But the new report shows that even business does not support this, with four out of the five companies surveyed wanting governments to take a central role in tackling climate change.

The survey, carried out by the consulting firm Accenture, found that only 5 per cent of the companies questioned – and not one in China – regarded global warming as their top priority. And only 11 per cent put it in second or third place.

Overall it ranked eighth in business leaders' concerns, below increasing sales, reducing costs, developing new products and services, competing for talented staff, securing growth in emerging markets, innovation and technology. Although most are taking limited action to reduce their own emissions, almost one in five had done nothing.

Mark Spelman, global head of strategy at Accenture, told The Independent on Sunday at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week: "Climate change is not going to get nearly the same degree of attention here as it would have achieved if the economic outlook were brighter. Whenever there are underlying economic concerns, people will focus on them."

The report makes it clear that – in contradiction of the Bush administration's position – business is waiting for governments to take the lead. Nearly half of all the companies worldwide said that climate change was already a major issue for them and three in five expected it to be so within five years. But more than half confessed to be struggling to understand its implications.

Matthew Farrow, head of environment for the Confederation of British Industry, agreed that companies are having a hard time digesting climate change, but added: "The core financials need to be right, but business also needs to understand how climate change will affect the marketplace and realise those business opportunities."

Some 67 per cent of the businesses surveyed agreed they have a role to play in tackling global warming, but only four out of 10 felt in a position to fulfil it. In China only 14 per cent of those questioned felt in a strong position.

The report concludes: "Businesses clearly are seeking long-term signals about where and how to invest. They are reluctant to make big investments in climate change-related initiatives until the scope of future regulation becomes clearer".

This point has been made to US and European governments by businesses in their own countries. The European Corporate Leaders on Climate Change group, made up of the heads of major companies – which persuaded both Tony Blair and EU President José Manuel Barroso to make climate change a priority – has called for "a strong and clear policy framework" to enable cuts in emissions.

And the US Climate Action Partnership – which includes the heads of blue-chip companies such as General Electric, DuPont, and Alcoa – has urged Mr Bush to "establish a mandatory emissions pathway" leading to a reduction of up to 30 per cent in US emissions within 15 years.

Yesterday, Mark Kenber, policy director at the Climate Group, said: "These disappointing findings highlight the fact that carbon pricing mechanisms are not yet strong enough for businesses to incorporate climate change risks and opportunities into traditional business strategy".

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