Pollution Accounting

World's top firms cause $2.2tn of environmental damage
Juliette Jowit, guardian.co.uk, February 18, 2010

The cost of pollution and other damage to the environment caused by the world's biggest companies would wipe out more than one-third of their profits if they were held financially accountable, a major unpublished study for the United Nations has found.

The study, conducted by London-based consultancy Trucost and due to be published this summer, found the estimated combined damage was worth US$2.2 trillion (£1.4tn) in 2008 - a figure bigger than the national economies of all but seven countries in the world that year.  The figure equates to an average of one-third of the companies' profits, though some businesses would be much harder hit than others.

The biggest single impact on the $2.2tn estimate, accounting for more than half of the total, was emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Other major "costs" were local air pollution such as particulates, and the damage caused by the over-use and pollution of freshwater.

The true figure is likely to be even higher because the $2.2tn does not include damage caused by household and government consumption of goods and services, such as energy used to power appliances or waste; the "social impacts" such as the migration of people driven out of affected areas, or the long-term effects of any damage other than that from climate change. The final report will also include a higher total estimate which includes those long-term effects of problems such as toxic waste.

Another major concern is the risk that companies simply run out of resources they need to operate, said Andrea Moffat, of the US-based investor lobby group Ceres, whose members include more than 80 funds with assets worth more than US$8tn. An example was the estimated loss of 20,000 jobs and $1bn last year for agricultural companies because of water shortages in California, said Moffat.