Those are, in fact, the words of Edward Cameron, managing director of partnership development and research with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a group that works with private companies, government and non-governmental organizations to promote environmental sustainability. He was referring in part to the We Mean Business coalition of 154 companies and 111 investors, who together have made more than 500 commitments to climate action.
They are just two of the many environmental organizations gearing up for COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. The meeting is the 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, as well as the 11th meeting of the parties (CMP) to the controversial Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which took effect in 2005 but has not been ratified by the U.S. A major sticking point of the latter initiative was the refusal by the U.S., China and India to commit to strict targets for carbon-dioxide reduction, and for polluters to pay for CO2 emissions.
One wonders whether COP21 will be any more successful in advancing the work of the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent climate negotiations. What’s not in dispute, though, is the dizzying number of environmental organizations and side meetings circulating around COP21. In addition to CMP11, there are the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF 2015), the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI43), Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA43), and Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Plan for Advanced Action (ADP2-12). All of which suggests that if anything is truly “inevitable, irresistible and irreversible,” it’s acronyms.
BSR and others are hoping the Paris meetings will yield more than bureaucratic back-patting. Their goal is to make sure that business arrives “with a significant show of force, bearing meaningful commitments and expressions of support and confidence,” says Eric Olson, senior vice president of advisory services with BSR.
In fact, 81 companies have signed the Obama Administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge, to demonstrate support for a productive climate-change agreement in Paris. Many are also committing to “concrete” investments in low-carbon technologies, BSR says. Promises include a 50-percent cut in emissions, 80-percent reduction in water usage, the purchase of 100-percent renewable energy, and the complete elimination of waste going to landfills.
Among the biggest recent pledgers is General Mills Inc., which has committed to a 28-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across its global supply chain within 10 years. Longer term, the company has said it wants to reach sustainable emission levels that are in line with the scientific consensus on climate change by 2050.
Olson acknowledges the possibility that so many environmental advocacy groups could end up duplicating efforts, or even working at cross purposes. (A few more players: The Climate Group, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, The B Team, and the Carbon Disclosure Project.) We Mean Business represents an attempt to create a single action plan on which leading organizations can agree, while offering seven specific commitments that companies can make. Knowing the tendencies of like-minded groups to engage in intra-family squabbling, however, you have to ask whether all of those entities would be willing to cooperate. (Note the dissatisfaction of the Rainforest Action Network, reported in my previous post, with the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.)
Then there are reports revealing a less-than-total commitment by business to the issue. A new survey by West Monroe Partners finds just 51 percent of North American supply-chain executives viewing sustainability as a strategic priority. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they plan to incorporate sustainability into the operations, and 22 percent were aiming to do so within the next one to three years.
A survey of North American consumers by West Monroe last year found that more than half were willing to pay at least 5 percent more for products ordered online if they were delivered in a sustainable manner. Seventy-six percent would wait an extra day if delivery were by “climate-friendly” transport. In light of those findings, “it’s surprising that more companies aren’t making sustainability a strategic priority,” West Monroe said.
In the Glass-Half-Full Department, however, Olson touts companies such as General Mills to show that business is making progress toward embracing sustainable practices. “They are among the most ambitious climate goals in their sector,” he says. In fact, he adds, targets like those set by General Mills are necessary in order to give the world “a good shot” at limiting total global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. (Note the fact that scientists have pretty much given up on the possibility of stopping or reversing global warming altogether. Now it’s just a matter of containing the damage, and avoiding the worst consequences.)
Of the hundreds of commitments made under the We Mean Business Umbrella, only a couple of dozen extend the effort all the way to the beginning of the supply chain, such as the farm. Others have signed up for actions that promise to stop deforestation, incorporate climate-change data into mainstream reports and reduce short-term climate impacts, Olson says. Some collaborative initiatives relate specifically to transportation, such as the Clean Cargo Working Group and the Future of Fuels effort.
Delegates to COP21 hope the meetings will result in binding commitments for greenhouse gas reductions at the country level, or at least lay the groundwork for further substantive action. But even Olson admits that the task won’t be easy to accomplish. One needs only to recall the failed U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which dashed expectations for progress because governments apparently didn’t want to cede control over environmental policy to a global deal.
“Every fraction of a degree [of temperature change] is probably as hard as all the work that’s been done to date,” Olson says. Nevertheless, as the Paris summit approaches, “people who went through the heartbreak of Copenhagen are as optimistic as I’ve ever seen them.”