Climate action in a post-Trump world: game over or business as usual?

As part of edie's Sustainability Leadership Month of editorial content, Grosvenor's group sustainability director Kate Brown has penned this exclusive opinion piece, explaining the need for businesses to develop clear action plans and drive forward with sustainability leadership, regardless of the turbulent political backdrop.

Just over a year ago, Paris played host to a fierce debate on the future of our planet at the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference. The resultant Paris Agreement saw the nations of the world committing to a set of resolutions, principal among which was holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

With the follow-up COP22 meeting in Marrakech having recently concluded, it is worth reflecting on where we are a year on from that momentous occasion.

The situation is balanced on a knife edge. 

On the one hand, US President-elect Donald Trump has refused to rule out reneging on the historic Paris Agreement.  

On the other, the UK has reiterated its commitment to cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 since the Brexit vote. This commitment stands regardless of any changes to economic circumstances that might be caused by the predicted disruption of leaving the European Union.

Other nations, such as China, have called on the US to continue to cooperate on tackling climate change. The country argued that Trump would be “denying the wishes of the entire planet” if he backed out of negotiations.

Indeed, the global consensus feels unusually strong. A total of 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement – the first ever legally-binding climate deal – and to date 27 of these, accounting for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have subsequently ratified it.  

We also have received cautiously optimistic news from the Global Carbon Project that emissions have remained flat at 36 billion tonnes for the third consecutive year. This comes despite steady global growth.

It is too early to tell what decision Trump will take on climate change, as with so much else. What is important is that we find a way to push forward and to focus our attention on how we can all contribute – as businesses and as individuals.

As ever, the detail will be all-important. Sector-by-sector, we need to come up with clear action plans, turning top-line guidance into a real framework for collective action and concrete results.

That applies particularly to my own sector, real estate, which accounts for around 30% of global carbon emissions.

I recently hosted a roundtable at our flagship eco-efficient retrofit project at 119 Ebury Street in London, which aims to meet the 2050 target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions, but in a listed residential building. We explored the issue of action on climate change in the company of experts from the private and public sectors, including academics, journalists and sustainability specialists. 

We determined three key action points for the real estate industry.

The first is the need for strong leadership. More groups within government and private enterprise, on both a local and national level, will need to take risks, innovate and experiment in pursuit of industry-leading breakthroughs.

It cost Edison just shy of $1m in today’s money to develop the first lightbulb; leaders must not be afraid to invest in research and development of products and technologies that will one day be available to all.

The second action point is collaboration. The challenge of improving our building stock, including 28 million homes, is no small undertaking. We need to pool our resources and work together across the usual public and private, regional and national divides. Only by sharing the knowledge and skills of a wide range of specialities can we best understand the difficulties and opportunities we face.

Third, we must never lose our focus on the end user. If we are to meet the challenge of cutting UK carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, and of keeping the increase of global average temperatures below 2 C above pre-industrial levels, millions of home owners across this country will need to consent to refurbishing their homes. We need to make retrofitting a property as easy, affordable and socially accepted as renovating a bathroom.

Such thinking can no doubt be applied to other sectors, too.

Real and lasting change to environmental policies, and continued development of these policies, remains critical. Whilst the Paris Agreement represents a significant milestone, even if all countries – including the US – meet their current commitments, we will only limit temperature rises to 2.7C.

In 2016 – what is, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, “very likely” to go down as our warmest ever year – and in the years to come, we all have a responsibility to keep fighting, regardless of the direction of political travel. This is not just an abstract political issue; it is a matter of life and death for the planet as we know it.

As things continue to hot up, we would do well to heed a lesson repeated throughout history. The supervised co-operation of large numbers of people, each contributing towards a shared vision of humanity, has brought about the greatest moments of progress in society.

At this crucial juncture, we should not focus our attention on political vagaries – rather, we must concentrate on the hard work that lies ahead.

Kate Brown is group sustainability director for Grosvenor, an international development and management company with projects in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

edie’s Sustainability Leadership month and Sustainability Leaders Forum

The month of December sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from skills to leadership, ahead of the Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 25-26 January 2017 – which Grosvenor’s Kate Brown is speaking at (Find out more and register to attend here).

Taking the conversation beyond the operational, this month is dedicated to the leading edge of sustainability thinking. We’ll meet the organisations and the individuals that are driving the agenda forward, discuss the hot topics that are keeping the UK’s chief sustainability officer’s awake and night, and showcase some of the suppliers and technologies that are driving the green industrial revolution.

Read all of our sustainability leadership content here.

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