As BusinessGreen launches its new Net Zero Leadership Hub in partnership with BT, the need for companies to take a lead in driving climate action has become more important than ever
The US writer Alex Steffen has a nice line that I turn to often, "the climate emergency is not an issue, it is an era".
Once you accept that what we are dealing with here is a multi-decadal mission, a story that will define the century and the centuries that follow, a lot falls into place. It quickly becomes clear how the climate crisis shapes everything - geopolitics, investment strategies, urban development, technological innovation, societal trends, pandemics, everything. It also becomes apparent how high the historic stakes are, how the future prospects for human civilisation rest to a large extent on whether the current generation can become in the first in the entire sweep of human history to power its society without emitting carbon dioxide.
And it becomes obvious how we are living through an age when leadership matters. Of course, this is always true. You do not have to ascribe to the 'great man theory of history' to accept that the decisions made by political and business leaders can have significant consequences, and this is particularly true at times when societies are under stress, be that from global health crises, escalating environmental threats, or both.
The Paris Agreement and the subsequent adoption of net zero emission targets by states accounting for half of global GDP and hundreds of businesses was enabled by numerous interlocking trends - falling clean tech costs, escalating public and investor pressure, ever more obvious climate impacts - but the willingness of a relatively small number of political and business leaders to blaze a trail and demonstrate that a net zero transition was both necessary and possible also played a critical role.
And now, as the full extent of the economic and social disruption wrought by the coronavirus pandemic becomes painfully clear the need for strong and bold leadership is incontestable.
Because this is a moment of huge opportunity and immense danger for the net zero transition. At the start of a decade when global emissions have to fall sharply if the world is to have any chance of avoiding more than 1.5C or warming and when the vast majority of political leaders stood ready to accelerate decarbonisation efforts, the global economy has been plunged into its worst crisis since 1945.
The potential to 'build back better' is obvious, to focus stimulus packages and recovery plans on green infrastructure, to use the forced reset of the global economy and entrenched working patterns to finally deploy sustainable business models.
But at the same time, the economic crash, the battering faced by public accounts, and the understandable urge to return to some sort of normality as quickly as possible could easily result in a throttling back of long term green investment plans and a revival of short termist desires to tear up environmental protections.
The initial signs, in Europe at least, suggest those touting a green and sustainable path to recovery are winning the argument. In the midst of the crisis oil majors have rushed to unveil net zero strategies, transport departments are touting plans for a cycling and walking revolution, treasuries are plotting explicitly green stimulus measures and attaching climate conditions to bailout packages. But even the most inveterate of optimists would accept the situation remains delicate. The fear is that a net zero project that has built up massive momentum since 2015 and the signing of the Paris Agreement could yet be stalled, if not derailed.
Consequently, it is vital that those companies and economies that are leading the net zero transition publicly showcase their work and underscore their commitment. We need leaders. We need businesses and politicians who can demonstrate that decarbonisation is not just essential, but hugely attractive. Who can show that we are entering an era of winners and losers, of Kodaks and Apples, of Blockbusters and Netflixs, but for every industry on the planet. Who can show, as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund did this week, that low carbon investments deliver attractive returns. Who can explain, as Mark Carney did last week, that "if you're in the United Kingdom - or in one of the 120 other countries that have net zero targets - it is a reasonable request for companies to have a transition plan".
That is why we're delighted to be proceeding with this autumn's Net Zero Festival and why we're today launching the all-new Net Zero Leadership Hub in partnership with BT. Thanks to support from BT - itself one of the first companies globally to recognise the need for deep decarbonisation and set stretching science-based emissions targets - this resource will be free-to-air. Over the coming months we will deliver a series of features and interviews showcasing how companies and business leaders are not just still talking about net zero targets, but are enacting credible and ambitious strategies to deliver on those goals and showing how we can collectively build back better. The aim is simple: to share best practices and new ideas, while demonstrating that the net zero transition remains both the defining long term trend of the coming decades and the trigger for the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history.
As BT's head of environmental sustainability Gabrielle Ginér argues today, "as the world looks to recover from the current health and economic crises caused by Covid-19, we have an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a modern, clean and healthy energy system".
One of the best ways to ensure that opportunity is not squandered is to show how true leaders have recognised the demands of the era and are rising to the net zero challenge.
The Net Zero Leadership Hub is brought to you in partnership with BT, as part of its support for the Net Zero Leadership Stream at the world's first Net Zero Festival this autumn. All the content on the Hub is fully editorially independent unless otherwise stated.
You can find out more about the Net Zero Festival and reserve your place here.
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