UN Study Shows Environmental Cost of Big Business

A United Nations study due for publication this summer calculated the environmental impact of 3,000 of the world's biggest companies, and came up with some troubling results.

Looking at greenhouse gas emissions, water use, toxic pollutants and more, the UN study found over one third of the companies' profits would be eaten up if they were forced to pay for the environmental damage their industries inflict. The price tag amounts to a combined damage of $2.2 trillion, with more than half of that amount attributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

The true global cost is estimated to be even higher, since the initial study only took businesses into account without looking at government or individual energy consumption. The current study also overlooks the social impact on people worldwide who are affected by climate change, in the most extreme cases those labeled "environmental refugees," forced to pack up and move when their homelands are no longer habitable.

Now that the cat's out of the bag, industry leaders are taking a harder look at their environmental impacts, afraid of how their profits would be cut if they were forced to change practices or clean up their messes. But no significant producer responsibility legislation currently exists, and big business will only have to pay if policy makers quantify and demand responsibility on the production end.

Another big sign our current system needs an overhaul is the simple disappearance of basic resources the big polluters need to keep producing and polluting. For example, water shortages in California last year cost agriculture companies hundreds of millions of dollars and a loss of 20,000 jobs. This is just the first example of many resource shortages that will occur if big businesses don't trade in linear modes of production for closed loop systems.