Our view of the Global Climate Action Summit

San Francisco. Monday afternoon. The official Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) hasn’t even begun yet and California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed into law one of the most ambitious climate targets for a government to date. By 2045 one of the world’s top five economies would source 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. This bold announcement set the tone for conversations amongst the business leaders, public servants, campaigners, politicians and experts in attendance.

Convened by Jerry Brown, GCAS was a devolved summit, with over 350 official affiliate events alongside the main plenary. The locations were physically spread out over the city of San Francisco; ranging from Golden Gate Park, to Union Square, to the Embarcadero, sprawling at times like a distributed COP. However, unlike COPs there was more of an emphasis for action from business and local leaders.  There was significant international representation and a strong US presence. 

The summit itself, strategically set mid-way between Paris 2015 and 2020, aimed to “take ambition to the next level” by celebrating climate action achievements to date, whilst simultaneously acting as a catalyst for still more ambitious commitments from stakeholders to push down global emissions – and it certainly delivered on this. 

The business community was well represented – and were leading the charge on stepping up at events I attended such as the Science-based Target Initiatives’ briefing on setting a new benchmark for corporate climate action and HSBC’s afternoon focusing on financing the low-carbon transition.

New frontiers in corporate sustainability leadership

Early on the Thursday morning, we hosted our own affiliate breakfast briefing, exploring new frontiers in corporate sustainability leadership with a panel comprised of senior representatives from some of the top companies who are implementing advanced sustainability strategies, alongside the latest expert thinking from the Carbon Trust.

Our speakers from leading businesses, BT, DSM, HSBC, Mahindra Group and Microsoft, discussed their current strategies and how they plan to push the frontiers of what is considered possible in order to meet our ambitions on climate change.

Notably during the week a number of organisations newly committed to use 100% renewables, to become carbon neutral over various timeframes from 2025 to 2050, or to set science-based targets.  The informal target of 500 companies making science-based target commitments was almost reached, with 480 businesses headquartered in 38 countries committing to set greenhouse gas reduction targets in line with climate science.

Despite these achievements, we were constantly and rightly reminded that this was not enough and that we must do more. Picture Michael Kobori, Vice-President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., announcing a target of a 90% reduction in their scope 1 & 2 emissions by 2050, only to chastise the audience for applauding; emphasising that it was not enough and the focus should be on their target of a 40% reduction in supply chain emissions by 2050.

Meeting current and future commitments will only be possible and meaningful if we can harness innovation to develop the solutions of the future.  Every news bulletin last week covered the alarming storms as they approached and made landfall, a stark reminder of a changing climate system and the seriousness of the consequences of failing to tackle it.  This being California, entrepreneurs were on hand to inspire us, covering themes such as autonomous vehicles - now viewed by some as arriving as quickly as electric vehicles, and with far more ability to disrupt.

The summit will be remembered by me at least for having galvanised both public and private realms to do more and to act in concert, which will help to fulfil the need for “inclusive multilateralism,” to borrow the closing words of Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC.  Many of the companies and institutions have already started to grow their ambition, adopting bigger, bolder and more challenging targets. 

I left San Francisco energised, remembering Al Gore’s rousing delivery of the quote by the economist Rudi Dornbusch: ”Things take longer to happen than you think they will, then they happen faster than you thought they could.”