Christiana Figueres: Corporate leadership on climate change set to hit critical mass

Former UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres has expressed confidence that the amount of businesses taking a leading stance on the Paris Agreement goals will hit critical mass "pretty soon".

Christiana Figueres recently launched the Mission 2020 campaign with an aim to

Christiana Figueres recently launched the Mission 2020 campaign with an aim to "bend the curve" on global emissions in three years

Figueres, a highly influential figure in structuring the historic climate deal agreed in Paris in December 2015, spoke exclusively with edie after speaking at an event hosted by The Ocean Generation about the immediate effects of climate change on Sunday (1 October).

She noted that, until recently, strong corporate leadership had been the preserve of a small section of the business community, particularly those that played a prominent role in encouraging countries to adopt an ambitious agreement in the lead up to Paris.

But this once exclusive club of corporate leaders has grown considerably in size in recent times, illustrated by last month’s news that membership of the Science Based Targets programme had reached the 300 mark.

Figueres claims that it is the so-called “middle chunk” of businesses now entering the low-carbon fray that will enable the world to “move the needle” in reducing emissions to keep global warming well below 2C.

“This has been going on for quite a few years,” she explained. “Leadership in corporations, like anywhere else, follows a bell curve of distribution. Before Paris we had about 10-15% of CEOs showing support.

“But what is new is that it no longer a few leading companies and CEOs - we’re starting to get beyond the 10-15%, and now we’re getting through to the middle chunk of around 70% of corporations that are beginning to come forward.

“It’s the middle chunk that actually makes up the critical mass. What we had before was very powerful and eloquent leadership, but it didn’t move the move the needle with respect to the emissions themselves. Whereas now we’re starting to get more numbers of corporations coming forward and I think we will be seeing critical mass pretty soon.”

‘Story to tell’

There was a welcome sign last week that corporates are helping to make some progress in the battle against global warming, as figures showed that global emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide remained static in 2016 for the third consecutive year.  

All of the world’s biggest emitting nations, except India, saw falling or static carbon emissions due to less coal burning and increasing renewable energy. The world’s largest emitter, China, has seen huge coal burning peak following a dramatic decline in new coal-fired units.

Figueres, who recently launched the Mission 2020 campaign with an aim to "bend the curve" on global emissions in three years, declared her optimism at the fact that emissions have remained flat in a time when the global economy is growing.

“If we had levelled out but rubbed up the global economy, it wouldn’t be a story to tell,” she said. “But it is a story to tell because the greenhouse gas emissions have levelled out and global GDP has been growing by 3% a year. It begins to be a signal that in fact it is possible to delink GHG from GDP.”

'Not fast enough'

But the world cannot afford to ease off now, warned Figuerues. Indeed, levelling-out global emissions means that huge amounts of CO2 are still being added to the atmosphere every year – more than 35 billion tonnes in 2016 – driving up global temperatures and increasing the risk of damaging, extreme weather. Meanwhile, a number of mainly developing nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, still have rising rates of CO2 emissions.

Figueres is keen not to point the finger at any individual nation, stressing that urgent action is required from both industrialised and developing nations. Ensuring that the business case for emissions reductions is fully understood by global leaders will prove decisive in driving the low-carbon agenda forward, she said.

“Industrialised countries have levelled out, but they need to do much more,” Figueres said. “They need to go to net-zero. An additional and urgent effort is needed there.

“Developing countries are also making an effort due to many different reasons, not because they want to save the planet but because it is good for the economy. Nobody is going to do anything just out of charity or out of an interest in saving the planet. They need to find where the financial incentive and the economic strength of this is. Of course, none of this progress is fast enough, but everybody is making an effort.”

SDG collaboration

While tangible progress on the climate agenda has been made, albeit rather slowly, the recent narrative around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has not been so positive, as research suggests that many businesses are failing to follow through on their pledged commitments.

Two years on from adoption, a UN Global Compact study has found that more than one-third of the 9,000 participating businesses still haven’t set any measurable targets.

Figueres admitted that adoption of the SDGs has proved a steep challenge for many businesses, with company chief executives “struggling to wrap their head around” around some of the key issues at play. She suggested that progress could be accelerated through greater collaboration between the public and private sector, in a similar fashion to ties formed during the build-up to the Paris Agreement.

“It is not easy to get corporations into the SDGs,” she said. “It is easier for corporations and CEOs to wrap their heads around energy issues that have to do with climate than around the SDGs. It’s much more difficult. I would argue that with the SDGs we are still in incipient stages. We are still in the first 5-10% of leadership and not into critical mass yet.

“What I see and what I think is the right way of doing this is for governments and corporates to collaborate with each other and that was very much the way the Paris Agreement was built. The more and deeper that the collaboration goes, the more you have a spiralling effect of increasing impact. It’s not one or the other, it’s both together, and with increasing depth.”

George Ogleby


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