NASHVILLE, Tenn.Climate change may have an even more profound effect on the tire industry in the coming years than any expansion or new product imagineable, Christine Karbowiak, Bridgestone Americas executive vice president, chief administrative officer and chief risk officer, told attendees at the recent International Elastomer Conference in Nashville.
An overwhelming majority of global scientists already say that the world's environment is on the edge of peril, she said in her keynote address at the conference and expo organized by the American Chemical Society's Rubber Division, pointing out that the normal response of people is to act only when a crisis is clear and indisputable. It's human nature, Ms. Karbowiak said. You only respond when you're in a crisis. Not before.
The problem in waiting, though, is that when change does come, the reaction will be far-reaching, and the impact on the industry difficult to predict.
Some may think that climate change is not real, or that it's not man-induced, or that it's just a myth altogether, she said. Most scientists agree that the climate is changing and that human activities are a major cause.
She said the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 50 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, noting that even a number of prominent people on the political right have called for action.
In June, four former EPA administrators, all of them Republican, testified that the only uncertainty centers on how bad the changes will get and how soon.
Rather than trying to convince those who don't believe, she said the question should be posed in a different way: How much are we willing to risk that climate change is not real and not man-induced? If we wait too long, how will our lives and the lives of our grandchildren change? What kind of extreme measures are countries in the world likely to adopt to prevent the situation from worsening. And what is this going to mean for our industry?
The time to act is now, she said, because we can't afford to guess wrong on this issue. I urge each of you to look at this issue as you would any other business risk.
Nashville-based Bridgestone long has worked on environmental issues, establishing a clear-cut environmental initiative it calls One team, one planet. It has committed to a 35-percent reduction by sales of carbon dioxide emissions. By 2050, the goal is a 50-percent reduction.
The firm also has started an environmental initiative fund, and spent more than $20 million, with another $50 million committed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. To date, it claims it has eliminated 438,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The company also is investigating other natural rubber alternatives, such as extracting rubber for tires from guayule. It recently opened a research center and plantation in Arizona for cultivation of the Russian dandelion, which Ms. Karbowiak said produces high quality rubber and may be a resource for the future. We don't know whether these alternative materials will help us redefine the composition of the tire, but they definitely support our biodiversity goals and offer hope for the future, she said.
Bridgestone also has taken steps to become a waste-free tire company. Three of its tire plants now send zero waste to landfills. At the other end of the business, it runs a program in its retail chain that ensures for each tire it sells in the U.S., one spent tire is reused or repurposed.
Our goal is to one day see a waste-free tire industry, Ms. Karbowiak said. ...(W)e know there is more that we can do and that those in our industry can do while still satisfying customer demands, making a profit and paying fair wages to our people.
The first step is to put environmental decisions on par with decisions made when designing and producing tires and other products.
Those in the industry should work together where legally able to combat climate change, she said, admitting like many in the industry, she's no fan of governmental regulations. But I do believe we need smart regulations. She defines that as policies that bring the needed changes while allowing the industry to meet customer demands and maintain a thriving industry.
The tire industry needs to not only participate in the process, but lead it, she said.
Bridgestone is working with the Rubber Manufacturers Association on labeling for rolling resistance standards, as well as for wet traction and durability. Other countries are taking action, so the U.S. must act so it doesn't become the dumping ground for all the high rolling resistance tires that can't be sold in other nations.
The European Union already has established similar regulations, and dozens of other countries are following the EU blueprint. We should work together to address the impact spent tires have on the environment, Ms. Karbowiak said, adding it's not a company issue. It is an industry issue.
The bottom line: No one can say with sufficient certainty that the risk is so low or so remote that it is inconsequential and should be ignored, she said. To survive and thrive for the next 100 years, our company and our industry must act decisively and deliberately. We must seize every opportunity to drive positive change through business decisions, through product innovations, proactive environmental policies, and through smart regulations. Together...we can make a difference.
This article originally appeared in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.