Statesman on a mission to save the planet

Former president of Costa Rica and CEO of the World Economic Forum, José María Figueres has turned his full attention to climate change as president of the Carbon War Room and tells Rob Bell why business is key to winning the battle.

Sustainable development and environmental concerns are common threads in José María Figueres’ career in both industry and the public sector, and he is a firm believer that business both can and should behave responsibly, and that it has duty to take a leadership role in the battle against climate change.

While acknowledging the importance of international negotiations and agreements aimed at mitigating carbon emissions, Figueres sees no reason why business should wait for talks between governments to bear fruit before taking action, particularly as he believes doing so offers a wealth of opportunities to increase profits and create jobs despite the global economic crisis.

He says: “Especially in times of an economic downturn such as the one we live in, it is fundamentally important business looks to see how it can increase its scope of operations while becoming more efficient.

“Today there are tremendous opportunities for business to delve into the field of carbon emission reductions in a profitable way. Businesses should be looking at everything they do over the course of their operations and thinking how they can make them much more efficient – how they can reconfigure processes and reinvent business models to cut both carbon and costs.

“They should also be looking for different and new approaches to financing that allow them to access the capital investment necessary in order to move to a trajectory of lower carbon emissions and greater profits.”

Figueres’ background in business fits snugly with the approach of the Carbon War Room he now heads – a non-profit organisation that distinguishes itself from others in the field through its no-nonsense, practical approach, tackling climate change from the position that success is dependent on businesses profiting from the actions they take to cut carbon.

He says: “There are two traditional beliefs that need to be debunked. One is the idea the environment is a cost rather than an opportunity, and the second is that we need to wait for governments to move before the private sector can act.

“We need to tackle these barriers, and at the Carbon War Room we are very intent on doing so. First we have an information barrier – there are companies out there that are not aware reducing emissions can save them money. And there are also barriers to capital being deployed in new business models and approaches that reduce carbon. The War Room’s operations are aimed at knocking down these barriers,” he says.
“For example, shipping is a sector of the global economy where we could reduce carbon emissions in a major way while increasing profits.

“So we have set up a website called, which ranks around 50,000 ships in terms of energy efficiency. By solving the information barrier, charterers have the ability to choose ships that are much more efficient, and therefore have lower fuel costs – which benefits the customer – and have lower carbon emissions – which benefits the planet.”

Barriers to the deployment of capital in reducing emissions are also a Carbon War Room target. In the arena of energy efficiency in buildings, a consortium has been put together that brings engineering companies, insurers and technology providers together to ensure investment in greater energy efficiency brings about improved environmental performance through no-risk investments by building owners.

“It’s all about breaking down barriers, working with the private sector to identify where the opportunities are and taking advantage of them,” says Figueres. And he is adamant the time for action is now. “Climate change is not something coming over the horizon that will affect future generations, it is here with us already, today.

“Be it the larger than expected shrinking of the Arctic icecap measured over last summer, the tremendous amount of de-icing that has occurred on virtually 100% of the surface of Greenland, or the drought the US has faced, which has pushed up the price of agricultural products around the world with an impact on the diets of poor people globally.

“If we look at what is happening the world over and connect the dots, the one conclusion we can arrive at is climate change is here, which makes the case for business assuming a leadership role in cutting carbon emissions even stronger.”

And while the challenges facing the world appear daunting, he remains optimistic, repeatedly defining climate change as an opportunity rather than a threat to business – an opportunity “to improve the quality of our livelihoods, improve our business approaches, create jobs and spur capital investment”.

While realistic about the scale of the challenge business faces, Figueres believes industry is more than capable of taking the carbon bull by its horns, with the way the hole in the ozone layer was addressed in the 1980s proof industry can act, and act swiftly.

He says: “The history of mankind is full of positive examples where when we have wanted to take action we have done so. Back in the 1980s, the largest environmental challenge we faced was ozone depletion caused by the use of CFCs. The world came together in 1985, adopted new technologies and methodologies for business, and in just ten years was able to resolve the problem of ozone depletion to the point it is no longer a threat. I use that as an example because where there is a will there is a way.

“And the private sector’s leadership role in changing its ways with respect to CFCs proves it can take a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions while increasing profits.”

It is the belief business can benefit from fighting the battle against climate change that is central to Figueres’ optimism, and the approach of the Carbon War Room to stimulating carbon cuts.

He says: “The beautiful thing is this is a field wide open for large corporations, but also medium and small enterprises. There are tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurial approaches no matter what the size of the business.

“The imperative for business to cut carbon emissions is an opportunity to turn the way we do things upside down and come up with new ways of doing things that lower emissions and reduce costs. It is an absolute must that business steps forward, takes a leadership role and, through creating business opportunities out of reducing carbon emissions, solves the climate change challenge.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie