The following blog posts, written by members of the UConn contingent to COP 23, discuss the engagement of the private sector in climate action through fiscally sustainable green business and corporate responsibility:
The WASI Pavilion: A Place for Encouragement and Inspiration at COP23 Rich Miller
Panels at the U.S. Climate Action Center Show How Businesses Can Lead on Carbon Reductions Lindsey Tenenbaum
Is Corporate Social Activism a Good Thing? How the role of US businesses in climate policy has overstepped its mission Jillianne Lyon
The Future of Green Finance: How can Wall Street create a more sustainable economy? Austin Langer
The WASI Pavilion: A Place for Encouragement and Inspiration at COP23
Rich Miller, Director, UConn Office of Environmental Policy & Sustainability
This was the third year for the UConn@COP program, and each year has been a distinctly different experience. We’ve traveled from the historic celebration of the Paris Agreement, which radiated great hope from the “City of Light” at COP21, to the post-U.S. election concerns, which cast a shadow over COP22 in Morocco. Now, it was onto Bonn in 2017, under a cloud of disappointment and uncertainty about how the Trump Administration’s announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement would affect international progress on climate action. One way or another, COP23 would also be pivotal to the future of the UConn@COP program.
A huge difference about COP23, and one that frankly salvaged our group’s overall experience in Bonn, was the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of representatives from the “We are Still In” (WASI) coalition of U.S. businesses, state and municipal governments, NGOs and higher education. With no public “Green Zone” as part of the UN’s formal COP23 proceedings, we instead relied on side events, some of which were highly impactful (see our previous blog set Climate Justice and Solidarity). We also leaned heavily on the three days of WASI-organized programming held in the U.S. Climate Action Center (USCAC).
A remarkable aspect of the WASI coalition’s determined presence at COP23, was its righteous representation of the sheer economic and political power that remains fully engaged in climate action here in the U.S. and around the world. After all, the combined purchasing power of the WASI coalition, at $6.2 trillion dollars annually, is nearly half the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. If this “Made in America” public-private coalition were a nation unto itself, it would be the third largest economy in the world! Despite WASI’s unofficial UN status as a sub-national entity, it proved at COP23 that it can nonetheless be a powerful voice for global leadership on climate action.
Unlike our experiences at previous COPs, the executives speaking from the panels and lecterns at the USCAC weren’t representing just the obligatory green businesses and b-corporations, but included some of America’s largest companies, which own and operate manufacturing and distribution facilities all around the world. Make no mistake, these are companies that can drive the global transition to clean energy through best practices and more sustainable operations. They can also ensure the success of thousands of smaller green businesses, which provide essential goods and services to them, through their sustainable supply chain standards and procurement policies.
It was reassuring and inspiring to see these U.S. based mega-companies, along with a number of state governors, city mayors and college presidents, stepping up at COP23 to fill a leadership void created by the Trump Administration’s step backwards. I enjoyed hearing from chief sustainability officers (CSOs) at companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Mars, Ingersoll Rand and Patagonia, talking about progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations and supply chains. It was obvious to me that their corporate CEOs and investors firmly believe that strong environmental performance is good for their brand and their business, and not just a matter of compliance with laws, regulations or international treaties.
I realized too, watching and learning from many of the WASI panelists at COP23, that the corporate CSO’s job is not that different from my own as UConn’s sustainability director (substituting sustainability-related academic metrics for the profit motive, of course). Even in academia, a good business case, such as cost savings, bolsters the likelihood of success for any sustainability initiative advanced by my office. Likewise, building UConn’s reputation for sustainability and environmental stewardship, helps attract and retain the best and brightest students, faculty and staff to the University, just as a company’s strong brand for climate leadership attracts consumers.
Representing UConn as part of the WASI coalition (President Herbst signed the WASI pledge last June), and participating in the events at the U.S. Climate Action Center, truly made COP23 a unique and memorable experience. And, for the third year in a row, UConn was proud to co-host a higher education networking event at the COP, this one attended by hundreds of faculty, staff and students who were in Bonn to observe the proceedings and loudly proclaim that “We Are Still In.”
Panels at the U.S. Climate Action Center Show How Businesses Can Lead on Carbon Reductions
Lindsey Tenenbaum, International Business Management and Natural Resources
Todd Stern, former Special Envoy for Climate Change for the Obama Administration, summed up the challenge in his remarks toward the end of COP23: Can we transform the economy quickly enough to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change? This dilemma stresses the urgency for businesses to take on a larger percentage of the U.S., as well as the global, effort in combatting climate change.
The challenge now is to capitalize on the benefits of areas like the renewable energy market and closed loop systems. Additionally, we need to develop more accurate models for predicting the cost associated with not implementing risk mitigation techniques meant to help curb our changing climate. It has been mentioned numerous times throughout the week that if we can figure out how to measure the cost, we can then figure out a way to implement it into the decision-making process.
There are examples of businesses that have already started to factor this into their decision-making. In a panel earlier in the week hosted by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), business leaders from a range of sectors discussed ways their companies have been on the forefront of implementing environmentally sustainable practices within their supply chains. David Eichberg, Sustainability and Social Innovations Lead for HP, explained how there has recently been a branching off of corporate environmental responsibility (CER) from the more commonly known practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Specifically at HP, they have implemented environmental scorecards, which feed into annual supplier scorecards (a multi factor rating of how “good” a supplier is). Now, when a supplier is more environmentally friendly it can boost their score by 10% and conversely, if they are not participating in environmentally friendly practices, their score stands to be reduced by up to 50%.
Perhaps my biggest take away from COP23 so far has been that policy takes time. When looking at how long agreements between countries can take (there were many previous attempts that lead to the formatting of the Paris Climate Agreement) it is easy to see that efforts in other areas have to be made if we want to win this “race.” U.S. businesses can make a huge statement because they represent such a large portion of the economy. A great example of this is the more than 1700 businesses that have signed the “We Are Still In” pledge, where they are committing to uphold the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Persistence such as this will help us continue to pull our weight in global effort to reduce climate change.
Is Corporate Social Activism a Good Thing? How the role of US businesses in climate policy has overstepped its mission
Jillianne Lyon, Human Rights and Political Science, Minor in French
Climate change and business are inevitably intertwined. The fossil fuel industry has propagated and profited off environmental degradation for years, aiding companies in all sectors to increase profit margins and dodge social accountability.
This year at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, business is playing a new role on the other side of the equation. Among local and academic leaders, American companies forged their own place in the UN climate conference, funding a US Climate Action Center adjacent to the Fiji-hosted pavilions. The US tent, nicknamed ‘WASI’ after its #WeAreStillIn slogan, represents organizations, politicians, and companies that have committed to the Paris Agreement goals in light of President Trump’s announced withdrawal this past June. Big brands like HP, Target, Coca Cola, Walmart, Microsoft, and Mars are spotlighted as they debut green initiatives on sustainability, renewable energy, and ethical investing. Federal silence on climate action has given way to an astonishing level of corporate social activism.
However, between the “We Are Still In” printed tote bags and specialty m&m’s, the back patting seems a bit premature. Conversations in the WASI tent are narrowly curated to feature businesses as lead protagonists in the fight against climate change, sidelining other key voices in the discussion. The predominantly white businessmen-dominated discussions curtail critiques on gender, colonialism, and classism that affect the core of climate change.
Focusing on business leaders limits the conversation of climate solutions to corporate actions. Many of the talks hosted by the WASI tent focused on economic incentives and the profitability of sustainability instead of policy reforms and targeted research. This allows companies to control the terms of climate reforms to minimize damages on their business. NGOs and public institutions that often call out corporate conduct are marginalized in these climate discussions where they should be highlighted. The WASI events lack representation from indigenous groups, Small Island Developing States (SIDS), racial minorities, and other communities disproportionately vulnerable to climate change effects.
Secondarily, business-centric dialogue amplifies the voice of the private sector in government, where corporate lobbying already plays a dominant role. Governor Kate Brown (OR) took time from her interview to commend Nike (headquartered in Oregon) for “working everyday to reduce their carbon footprint.” Brown, as well as representatives from Hawaii, Minnesota, and California focused their panel presentations on policies that engage manufacturing industries, support renewable energy companies, and (most importantly) create jobs. Catering local policies to business interests, as well as narrowing dialogue to economics, leaves space for company interests to take center stage.
All this being said, the companies member to the We Are Still In coalition at COP23 have undoubtedly displayed incredible leadership on climate change where the government has stepped back. Their level of corporate activism is in many ways unprecedented, and greatly applauded by the international community. This is the first time I’ve heard a multinational corporation highlight local agriculture, sustainable supply chains, or habitat preservation. However, in this acknowledgement, critique is also warranted. Problems arise when the private sector is empowered and even encouraged to play a center role in social activism. The core of any business is to manifest and increase profit. We cannot ignore capitalist structures when amplifying corporate voices, especially when consumerism fueled global warming in the first place. It is additionally problematic to overlook widespread green-washing, where businesses often fund sustainable campaigns like #WeAreStillIn while simultaneously engaging in climate damaging practices.
Businesses have an important role to play in the fight against climate change, but that role is not center stage. Local representatives, NGOs, and communities disparately affected by climate damages should be principal voices in the discussion, especially at events like COP23. It’s time to redirect power from profit-driven companies to people who fight and have always fought on the frontlines of climate justice.
The Future of Green Finance: How can Wall Street create a more sustainable economy?
Austin Langer, Finance and Economics
Business leaders from the top global banks joined each other on stage to discuss their responsibility in the financing of green investments and the role their institutions need to play in financing an energy transformation. Anne Kelly moderated this panel that was made up of Michael Wilkins, Managing Director, Global Envrionmental & Climate Risk Research, S&P Global Ratings; Abyd Karmali, Managing Director, Climate Finance, Bank of America Merill Lynch; Val Smith, Director and Global Head, Corporate Sustainability, Citi; and, Erin Robert, Exectuive Director, Sustainable Finance, JPMorgan Chase.
All of the business leaders were quick to acknowledge the role of human factors in climate change, but the conversation pivoted to discussing how to move forward to mitigate the risks of climate change and change our energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The financial industry has begun to make more and more investments into sustainable companies, such as wind farms and solar panel companies. When looking at these investments instead of traditional companies the difference of returns are immaterial, just a few bases points. Although the banks are not maximizing their returns, there is a social return for being environmentally conscious and investing in sustainable companies. The banks are still able to make sizeable returns on their investments, while moving the world towards more sustainable energy choices.
Many of the banks represented at the panel have created green and environmental finance divisions, which are tasked with evaluating the sustainability of investments and whether the cost of lesser financial returns is worth the benefit of social returns. However, all the banks believed the Federal government needs to lead the investment future. Karmali stated, “The public sector needs to use its capital to de-risk low carbon opportunities in emerging markets so we can bring in private capital and scale up”. As we progress further as a society we see an increased emphasis on investing in socially sustainable companies to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.