It is up to society and its leaders to ensure that companies do not become destructive, says leading U.N. official.

Modern businesses are fast becoming “soulless corporations,” a leading U.N. environmental official said on Monday.

Companies usually take a short-term view of the importance of the environment, said Pavan Sukhdev, head of the U.N.'s investigation into how to stop the destruction of the natural world. This short-term thinking is seen in their lobbying against new policies that could slow environmental devastation, he said.

Mr. Sukhdev, formerly an adviser to the Indian government and now on sabbatical from Deutsche Bank, spoke as he prepares to publish one of the most eagerly awaited parts of his report — The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Business.

The report will be launched at the first Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium in London, where speakers will include environment secretary Caroline Spelman. She will highlight examples of businesses causing damage which imposes a huge cost on themselves and society — including an estimate that global destruction of forests costs the world's economies $2tn to $5tn a year. She will also speak of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “BP's shares have halved since the spill began in mid-April — there will be no dividends this year,” she is due to say. “While the real impact on the local economy, wildlife and marine health may not be fully known for years ... What's bad for biodiversity is bad for business.”

Checks and balances

Mr. Sukhdev told the Guardian that private businesses were too important as employers and payers of taxes to embark on a revolution, calling instead for society to take a greater responsibility for regulating the behaviour of companies. When the final report is published, at a biodiversity conference in October in Japan, Mr. Sukhdev will recommend major changes in the way companies are regulated. “We have created a soulless corporation that does not have any innate reason to be ethical about anything,” he said. “The purpose of a corporation is to be selfish. That is law. So it's up to society and its leaders and thinkers to design the checks and balances that are needed to ensure that the corporation does not simply become destructive.” TEEB was set up after the success of the groundbreaking 2006 report by Sir Nicholas Stern for the U.K. government. The Stern report argued that the cost of tackling climate change would be 1— 2 per cent of the global economy, while the cost of doing nothing would be 5 to 20 times that. Mr. Sukhdev's team says the failure of governments and businesses to put a “price” on ecosystem services provided by nature — from flood protection and pollination of crops, to carbon take-up by forests — has led to widespread destruction of whole ecosystems and the variety of life on Earth. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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