Facebook’s former sustainability chief: Business needs to get vocal to reach net-zero

EXCLUSIVE: Facebook's former sustainability director and Google's former clean energy czar Bill Weihl has called on businesses to "go beyond their own four walls" and lobby for policies that create net-zero national economies in a "just" manner.

Facebook’s former sustainability chief: Business needs to get vocal to reach net-zero

Weihl outlines how businesses can act as net-zero activists 

Speaking at The Business Booster in Paris last month alongside Mary Robinson, former Irish President and incumbent chair of the UN Elders, Weihl was asked to give a brief summary of where he believed corporate leadership on climate justice currently sits, and what more must now be done to deliver a just transition to net-zero.

While praising the work being done by so many businesses to go beyond incremental improvements – particularly the growing trend towards targeting “net-positivity” or net-zero ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2050 deadline – Weihl argued that such actions would not, ultimately, bring about a 1.5C world.

He made a rousing call to business leaders, urging them to become “proactive allies” to climate justice by lobbying for legislative change which will help nations and states set long-term net-zero goals and the interim, sector-specific frameworks needed to achieve them.

Speaking exclusively to edie after his talk, Weihl elaborated on why he believes businesses have, to date, been “bystanders” – addressing their Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (indirect) emissions while making little headway in affecting indirect impacts and changing key policies – rather than “upstanders”; vocal lobbyists for a socially equitable transition to a carbon-free world.

“Corporations tend to want not to lobby for regulation, particularly frameworks which will affect other sectors, because they worry that those sectors will then lobby for regulation which will have a detrimental impact on them, and they worry about political blowback,” he said.

“There’s a general feeling of ‘let’s not have regulation, let’s allow business and the market to solve problems instead’. I think that’s an important part of a solution, but for something as big as climate, I don’t think it’ll get us there fast enough without smart regulation.”

Safety in numbers?

The exception to the current “bystander” rule on climate, Weihl noted, are a handful of business-led coalitions under which corporates are collectively calling for more policy support in areas such as renewable energy and low-carbon transport.

The We Mean Business Coalition, for example, is standing against President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement and supporting members to set verified 1.5C emissions targets. Elsewhere, the Aldersgate Group is calling on the UK Government to mandate corporate reporting in line with the Task Force on Climate-Related Disclosures’ (TCFD) recommendations.

For Weihl, this approach is one of “safety in numbers” and one which he believes could ultimately be overshadowed by political lobbying from sectors such as big oil and big plastics – particularly in the US.

“Theories of change from these kinds of organisations are based on what’s called the ambition loop – the idea that, when companies show ambition and take action, policymakers receive that signal and enact new regulation,” Weihl explained. “This is a great theory, but it’s not working very well in practice around climate at the moment, because those who want to stall progress are working very hard to disrupt those signals.“

Distracting and tokenising

These comments from Weihl, who headed up Facebook’s sustainability work between 2012 and 2018, are timely. US-based oil giant Exxon is currently being taken to court as part of a civil lawsuit, in which citizens are arguing that the firm has known about the climate impacts of its work for decades while continuing to pay for think tanks and policymakers to “spread misinformation”.

In response to the negative media coverage arising from the case, Exxon has invested heavily in a communications campaign to defend itself – a move which has been widely criticised by green campaign groups. Similarly, Shell faced backlash this year when it’s chief executive said the responsibility to solve climate challenges ultimately lies with the general public, while BP came under fire for urging Twitter users to calculate and reduce their personal carbon footprint.

In an age where consumers are demanding ever more from corporates around issues such as climate change and plastics – and voicing these concerns loudly through digital platforms – edie asked Weihl why companies would risk running the potential reputational risk of backlash to these campaigns.

He responded: “The companies that like the status quo would like us to focus on small, token changes, like a switch away from plastic straws; this takes the attention away from the need to change things at scale.

“If brand activism is not backed by real actions which cover both a company’s own operations and support for the policies we need, then people will begin to see through it.

“A lot of brand activism has been focusing on helping individuals become more sustainable, and, while this is important, a lot of people see the impact of this as a drop in the ocean. We’re not going to be on the decarbonisation path we need to be on by a few people buying some carbon offsets when they fly, for example.”

Weihl did note, however, that some brands with highly consumer-facing environmental activism campaigns are also lobbying policymakers. Patagonia, for example, is running a digital platform to encourage activism at the individual and community level, coupled with pop-up cafes on the same mission, while also speaking directly to US senators.

Next-generation solutions

But what can make this two-pronged approach the norm for businesses of all sizes and sectors?

For Weihl, the answer is clear; members of the Millennial generation and Gen Z, who have been instrumental in the School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion movements, already don’t want to work for companies which won’t address their own impact – and will soon shun those which aren’t climate “upstanders”.

He noted that, in the US and UK alike, utilities and oil and gas firms are struggling to recruit young talent because such firms are viewed by under-30s as “part of the problem, not the solution”, and argued that other sectors will likely feel this “pinch point” within six to 12 months.

“Companies care about their investors, customers, workforce and reputation – which, ultimately, affects you in one of those places,” Weihl concluded.

“I think that the first place where corporates will feel an impact in this is in the workforce, both in terms of current employees and potential future employees. And if they see it’s getting harder to recruit, they’ll move.”

edie’s Net-Zero November

This interview forms part of edie’s Net-Zero November, a month of content and events to inform and inspire sustainability professionals to push towards net-zero. You can read all our Net-Zero November content here.

Additionally, if you have a net-zero carbon target, or a commitment to set one, that has recently been announced you can add it to our Mission Possible Pledge Wall here.

Sarah George

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