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Paris Climate Change Conference: Can Business Lead the Way?

So it’s finally arrived. Representatives from more than 190 governments are gathering for the landmark UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. Their aim? To achieve a binding and universal agreement on climate change, for the first time in over 20 years of negotiations. If you’re anything like me, you might wonder – with hesitant optimism – whether the Paris Climate Change Conference will be the time when our political leaders finally address the challenge of the ages? Will they, with 190 noble, synchronous swishes of pens, calmly stave off human and planetary calamity? Will we be spared the fate of fighting to cram onto the last seat on a spaceship destined for life in the sterile bubble marooned on the wastelands of Zargon III?

Then again, maybe that’s asking the wrong questions. Perhaps we should be asking instead: whether global society should be putting all its eggs in the basket of inter-governmental action; whether incremental steps in the right direction can still be seen as a positive result; and crucially, if governments can’t do it alone, what is role for business in all this?

Paris is the 21st instalment in a long-running story that began in 1992. A cynic would say that, if past performance is anything to go by, a Brave New World after December 11th is unlikely. But there are grounds for hope. Leading up to the talks, countries have drafted individual proposals to make progress toward the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold beyond which global warming is predicted to become ‘catastrophic and irreversible’. Crucially, these ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) have, for the first time, been submitted by both developed and developing countries alike. This is colossal progress. In previous conferences, a major sticking point was the fact that climate change was seen by many developing countries as a problem caused by (and therefore to be solved by) richer, more developed countries, who owe much of their wealth to over 200 years of carbon-fuelled industry.

Taken collectively, the INDCs would slow the growth of 90 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Sounds great, but unfortunately this still wouldn’t be enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Researchers at Climate Interactive suggest that the INDCs would put the planet on track for 3.5°C of warming (assuming countries take no further action after 2030, when their pledges expire). Whilst 3.5°C is better than the 4°C plus we’re currently facing, it is still way above the crucial 2°C mark. More optimistic forecasters, such as Climate Action Tracker – who factor in the assumption that countries will continue to cut emissions post 2030 – suggest that we are on track to limit warming to around 2.7°C. Again this is still 0.7°C above that stubborn ‘catastrophic and irreversible’ mark that scientists keep sounding the alarm bells about.

Whatever commitments are made in Paris, they probably won’t, by themselves, be enough to hold the world to a maximum of 2°C of warming. Indeed, in a recent Rolling Stone article, Barack Obama stated that he’s “less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker…The key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, ‘We’re going to do this.'” So as far as the President of the United States is concerned, it looks like momentum is key —a shared agreement that the situation is serious and that progress must be made. Idealistic? No. Pragmatic? Very.

What, then, can we all do to bring us closer to that elusive 2°C? Firstly, the INDCs will be most effective if they are reviewed and ratcheted up regularly in the years after Paris – they should not be treated as inflexible stone-carved targets. Crucially, more effort should be made to bring down emissions by engaging “non-state actors” and no non-state actor can have a bigger impact than business. Multinationals operate across borders – and some are bigger than countries – so through their operations they can have a massive impact on reducing carbon emissions.

We expect pressure on businesses to disclose emissions and targets to grow. The question is: will they step up to the challenge? Businesses can lead by example, by setting ambitious emissions policies and targets, with rigorous review and reporting mechanisms. We are finding more and more companies talking about science-based targets: taking the evidence, and working out what their business can do to keep warming below 2°C. As we stated in our recent paper on the SDGs, those businesses that move from ‘my world’ as a company to ‘our world’ as a planet will be the ones that thrive in the years ahead.

There is no doubt that the world’s governments have taken a big step with the INDCs – but they are not enough to limit warming. If we are to reach the 2°C target, and avoid the scramble for the non-existent spaceship, let’s not forget that business has a major opportunity to lead the way.

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