Our Man in Warsaw: Day 5 - How business can drive climate agenda

Yesterday I wrote about business’s role in delivering on the climate agenda through innovation. But green business needs to do more than deliver. It needs to set the climate agenda.

At the World Climate Summit, a parallel event to COP19 that brought together leaders from the private sector, global institutions and government, that message was loud and clear.

This progressive business community wants government to do a lot of things. They want policy certainty so that they have the confidence to make long-term investment decisions. They want financial mechanisms that help de-risk investments. They want to cut fossil fuel subsidies to strengthen the business case for clean energy. They want price signals that redirect money from brown to green technologies.

These private sector leaders want these things because they’re in the business of clean, green technology and are on the vanguard of sustainable practice. These measures would help their bottom line. (They also want these things because they are human beings that recognise the enormous threats of climate change.)

The business leaders that weren’t in the room were those whose bottom line would be hurt by these measures, or who don’t understand the benefits afforded by improving resource efficiency. And it’s these business leaders who, unfortunately, have been more effective at lobbying political decision-makers. They’ve been setting the climate agenda.

Result? We’ve all seen the graphs.

The pace of action on climate change is clearly unacceptable, and while so many people pillory the negotiators for this lethargy, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, put the onus squarely on the business community. 

She said that negotiators can’t go outside their brief, and their brief isn’t transformative. Business has access to political leadership, and their demands aren’t strong enough.

Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute, agreed, saying that government has been interacting with business, and business has been saying the wrong thing.

It’s a hard message to stomach for the likes of Siemens, Unilever, BMW, the Carbon Trust, and others, who see themselves as vocal cheerleaders for sustainability. But the message was clear.

I think the issue partly stems from the fact that businesses that are sustainability leaders focus on communicating what they’re doing rather than what they want. And when they do lobby politicians, their asks are all over the place.

Some want feed-in tariffs. Others want energy efficiency regulations. Some want innovation support. Others want risk-sharing tools.

Voices that are opposed to climate action are united, have a simple message, and have been communicating it clearly, with effective results. They want business-as-usual. Period.

Michael Jacobs, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, said right now there’s too much noise and not enough signal coming from sustainable businesses. Progressive business leaders need to make their ask simple. They need to be very clear about the kind of international agreement they want, and it needs it to be communicated in a simple way. 

If politicians see that there is real buy-in from key stakeholder groups for more ambitious climate action, they’ll get the confidence to be ambitious in the negotiations.

So how can this be done?

I think that in the next eleven months, the progressive business community needs to agree to one simple, quantified message, using forums like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Then they need to deliver it in New York at next year’s Climate Summit, a pre-COP meeting organized by UN

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that’s aimed at catalysing action by governments, business and civil society.

Then in the year leading up to COP21 in Paris, where the big global climate deal will be made, businesses need to advertise that message. A lot. They need to make it impossible for politicians not to agree to a very strong climate deal. That simple, quantified message needs to be on every television screen and in every newspaper in every country in the world for 12 months.

Because it’s not about Siemens’ wind turbine or Unilever’s sustainable palm oil or BMW’s electric car. It’s about a robust global deal that will unlock all of these opportunities, and will keep us on a liveable planet.

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