The myth that businesses automatically oppose climate action has never looked more tired, and the corporate desire for decarbonisation must be recognised
If, as Woody Allen once joked, 80 per cent of success is showing up, next week's New York Climate Summit will get off to a great start. The meeting may have been dealt a blow by the hugely disappointing news that China's Xi Jinping and India's Narendra Modi will not make the trip, but more than 100 world leaders will be there, and – just as importantly – an even greater number of top-level business leaders will be in attendance.
As we report today, the corporate guest list for the UN meeting makes it one of the biggest gatherings of genuine A-grade, one per center, corporate titans in recent years – even the Bilderberg Group would struggle to get this lot in the same room. Senior bosses from 3M, ABB, Air France, BT, Barclays Bank, Sinopec, HSBC, IKEA, General Mills, Volvo, Philips, KPMG, International Airlines Group, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, EDF, GDF Suez, Marks & Spencer, and McDonald's will be there, to name but a few. They will be joined by institutional investors who together manage more than $24tr (£14.6tr) of assets, not to mention numerous business-focused think tanks, campaign groups, and other institutions.
Unfortunately, Woody Allen was wrong – when it comes to climate change action, turning up is nowhere near 80 per cent of the battle. But the attendance of so many of the world's most powerful, influential, and successful businesspeople at a meeting on climate change is still worthy of note. This quite simply would not have happened even five years ago. The scale of corporate support for bold and ambitious climate action has never been bigger and it is growing all the time.
Now, there are voices – vocal and effective voices – who will argue that the close involvement of the corporate jet class in climate change negotiations is a big part of the problem. These voices will be out in force at the major climate marches planned for this weekend and they will dominate the airwaves with their condemnation of "big business". Moreover, while it may be hard for many business execs to swallow, they will have a point.
Some of the businesses now joining the ranks of campaigners calling for much more ambitious climate action have done, and continue to do, some terrible things to the environment. Their various pledges calling for emissions reductions amount to little more than greenwash and any credit they gain for their membership of green business groups is more than cancelled out by their continued involvement with groups that campaign for carbon-intensive business-as-usual. The contortions the fossil fuel industry is tying itself into as it attempts to dismiss carbon bubble concerns and talk up its relatively negligible investments in clean tech are a case in point. The hypocrisy is astounding and those involved deserve to be called out for it.
And yet, the justification for the heated criticism multinationals will inevitably attract this coming week extends only so far. The business community may have played a key role in pushing the world towards a climate crisis but, as I've argued many times before, the business community is no more homogenous than any other community of people. Yes, there are business leaders who wish to dismiss climate risks and oppose any and all environmental regulation. But there are plenty who want serious and effective action on climate change and accept regulations are part of that. Yes, there are businesses that are engaged in greenwash and use their involvement in climate negotiations to try to slow down progress. But there are plenty who genuinely want to drive the development and adoption of clean technologies as quickly as possible. Yes, there are businesses that lobby for carbon markets and prices on nature because they see an opportunity to game the system. But there are plenty who argue, with a lot of justification, that market-based mechanisms are the quickest and most effective means of building a more sustainable economy.
What is notable about the companies preparing to gather in New York is the extent to which they are breaking with the past and are willing to publicly demonstrate there is a massive corporate constituency that wants to see decarbonisation happen, and happen fast. It is important the public, the media, and politicians recognise the position many of the world's largest companies have taken in supporting climate action. In-depth research showing that economies benefit from decarbonisation, such as this week's New Climate Economy report, is also hugely important. But the impact business leaders can have through their endorsement of these arguments shifts the case for climate action from the theoretical to the practical. Crucially, it also gives politicians the cover they need to deliver the more ambitious long-term climate policies business leaders actually want.
Of course, you can choose to be sceptical about all this and assume some of these companies are guilty of triangulation, simply hedging their bets by publicly calling for climate action while privately lobbying against specific climate policies – and there is no doubt that some are doing this. But sometimes you also need to take people's claims at face value. If many of the world's largest investors say they want a price on carbon, then they want a price on carbon. If many of the world's most powerful businesses say they want a hugely ambitious global climate change deal, then they want a want a hugely ambitious global climate change deal. Their intervention makes it much easier for political leaders to deliver these policies. If you doubt that, imagine how much harder it would be to deliver climate action if these businesses were silent on these issues, or worse still, continuing to spout climate-sceptic nonsense.
Inevitably, there is a hugely long way to go before the world's blue chips can declare themselves truly sustainable. The contradictions evident within almost all these businesses remain painfully self-evident. For example, regardless of their various arguments in favour of a transition towards lower-carbon fuels, it is hard to see how Shell can square its support for climate action with drilling in the Arctic.
But while some of the criticism businesses face from the green community is justified, it is important to remember, as campaigners ready their placards, that it has been businesses and governments working together that have delivered the clean technologies that offer the only route towards decarbonisation. I am yet to read Naomi Klein's widely praised new book on climate change, but as I prepare to pick up a copy I am still unconvinced that overthrowing the capitalist system offers a more effective means of building a green economy than reforming those parts of the capitalist system that drive unsustainable business models.
In declaring that they are up for these reforms, the growing numbers of corporate giants who are backing climate action have delivered a historically significant transformation in what we understand as the business community. They have shown businesses can act in the global and social interest, because it is in their interest too. That they can embrace effective regulation, because they know it drives innovation. That they can recognise long-term risks, because they know some things matter more than the next quarter. Some may be guilty of hypocrisy and corporate spin, but it is my firm belief that most are entirely genuine in their desire to build a better and greener economy.
These business pioneers have also left the corporate dinosaurs and rent-a-quote neoliberal corporate lobbyists looking ever more tired and isolated, consigning the myth that "big business" is somehow inherently against action on climate change to the rubbish dump where it always belonged. What is more, they have achieved all that just by turning up.
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