Business Can and Should Do Much More on Climate

It’s the Win-Win Outcome We Urgently Need

Climate change is now front of mind like never before. Every day we read more horrific news about fires, floods, heatwaves, storms, and other natural disasters with calamitous impacts. Further, this week the UN published an updated climate report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The scientists’ conclusions — we’ve already locked in worse outcomes in the near future. And, unless we start reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere immediately, we are ensuring even worse outcomes ahead.

What should we do? Of course, the imperative is for ambitious and tough government policy to address climate in leading countries around the world. But the politics to do this seem very difficult right now. We don’t have time to wait for this to improve. In my view, the private sector — which has stepped up significantly — can and should do much more. Furthermore, doing so will improve business outcomes.

I spoke recently to a group of senior mergers & acquisitions investment bankers about private sector strategies to address the climate crisis. I summarize my remarks below. Please let me know what you think — especially if you think I’m wrong about any of this.

  1. Why we need the private sector to step up and more boldly pursue solutions to the climate crisis
  2. Why doing so makes business sense
  3. How everyone in the private sector — including senior investment bankers like you — can drive this important opportunity forward

Badly. We are nowhere close to where we need to be. There are many things we need to do, but the most important priority by far is to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions.

Every year the UNEP does a useful update on this. They set (and reset) the 2030 emission reduction milestones that we need to reach in order to stay on track toward our critical, longer-term global goals for 2050.

In 2020 global emissions of equivalent carbon dioxide were about 52 gigatons.

UNEP forecasts that our current trajectory will take us to about 59 gigatons in 2030.

That’s a net increase of 7 gigatons. As a reminder, we’re supposed to be reducing emissions, not increasing them. Not good.

But what if we improve from our current performance and get on track with the conditional targets of the Paris Climate Accord? Then emissions in 2030 will still be about 53 gigatons — still an increase. Still a bad outcome.

To be on track with the “2-Degree Scenario,” — i.e., limiting global warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2100 — emissions need to be about 41 gigatons in 2030. For the much more widely supported and safer goal of 1.5-degrees, 25 gigatons should be our target.

That means we’re currently 18–34 gigatons off target.

Clearly, we are waaaaay behind schedule. To state the obvious, we need to hugely accelerate GHG reductions.

Government climate policy all around the world is not yet very good. The politics of climate change are extremely difficult. Things seem to be improving a bit — see the pending Biden Climate Plan, the proposed (but not enacted) EU policy announced recently, and China’s new cap and trade program. These are all positive developments, in my view.

But it’s also clear that none of these programs — even if they are enacted and executed very well — will get us where we need to be. (Of course, all citizens should keep working very hard to push hard for the full complement of government policies we need).

Mainstream environmental NGOs are doing lots of positive stuff — building awareness, organizing political coalitions, launching great pilot programs, and more. Likewise, generous philanthropists and donors are supporting them. Bravo. Please keep it up. But understand while these programs are positive and necessary, they are not likely to be the game changers we need.

What about activists? Environmentalists on the far left make more radical proposals. To cite one example, some environmentalists are arguing that we can’t achieve real climate progress without economic “degrowth.” This is an interesting and provocative idea for us to consider. Who knows? Perhaps at some very dire point in the future this may be the way we will need to go. I hope things don’t get to that point.

But, for at least the time being, the campaigns behind such radical ideas feel mostly rhetorical. I don’t see any evidence that there is broad political support for programs like this. People want economic growth — especially in the developing world where “economic growth” means catching up with the already more developed economies.

The private sector. See the business news every day. More companies are launching ambitious environmental initiatives. More dollars are flowing into climate investment funds. More game-changing innovations are being pursued. There is so much positive activity underway, it’s difficult to keep up track of it all.

“Wait just a minute. Isn’t that just greenwashing?” ask the critics. Some corporate environmental programs may be. But, in today’s transparent world, no inauthentic initiative will fool anyone for long.

“Okay, but hasn’t big business been responsible for many of our past climate misdeeds?” Probably true in some cases. Various legal challenges are underway to investigate this and we can expect more. Holding companies accountable is a good thing. And, if they are now repentant and turning the page, or other businesses are trying to be a part of the solution, that’s a necessary thing, too.

Because the big question we face now is about the future. How do we reduce GHG emissions immediately at the necessary scale and speed? This is where the private sector can make a big difference.

I’m not asking for corporate philanthropy or corporate social responsibility. Rather, I’m pointing out that this makes compelling business sense. Indeed, addressing the climate crisis is likely the biggest business opportunity of our lifetime.

We need speed, scale, and innovation to accelerate GHG reductions. We need capital and technology. The private sector — at its best — can deliver exactly what we need.

Consider the very discouraging saga of COVID-19. Science was mostly ignored for too long; politicians largely bungled the plans; and the poorest, most vulnerable among us suffered drastically bad outcomes. Political divisiveness made everything harder. Sounds very much like the climate crisis.

One of the few bright spots in the pandemic has been the extraordinarily fast development of effective vaccines. That was a game changer! Many parties share credit for the big win, but I think we can all agree that without big pharma, we couldn’t have made this happen so fast. We need many wins just like this for climate progress.

Absent strong regulatory policy mandating GHG reductions, our next best option is to make clean and climate-positive options the low-cost and most effective choices. Consider these breakthroughs: Teslas and all EVs, Impossible Burgers, low-cost wind and solar energy, storage/battery breakthroughs, regenerative agriculture, and carbon removal innovations. Many actors — governments, academia, civil society — played important supporting roles in bringing them to market. But these were mostly private sector wins.

First — to state the obvious — a climate catastrophe is bad for business. Floods, killer heat waves, out-of-control fires, droughts, dangerous storms, refugee crises — all bad.

More specifically, pursuing climate outcomes in a smart way provides significant business upside while also reducing downside risks.

Here are ways upside can be boosted:

Here’s how the downside can be reduced:

Walmart is a customer-obsessed, no-nonsense retailer determined to keep all costs down so that their customers get high-quality products at the lowest prices. Their leaders are hardly tree-hugging enviros. But over the past three decades the company has shown again and again how ambitious environmental initiatives improve the value of the company. Today they have Project Gigaton to remove a gigaton of GHG from their supply chain. They also have meaningful initiatives underway to address related biodiversity and water management challenges. They only pursue environmental strategies that make business sense. I’ve seen firsthand at their famous company rallies how much these initiatives inspire their team. I can only imagine company founder Sam Walton would be proud.

If this is all so obviously in business’s self-interest, why do we need to do anything at all? Won’t it just happen?

I acknowledge that this is a bit puzzling. Business leaders are supposed to be bold, smart, and fearless about optimizing big opportunities and managing all risks prudently. But for reasons I don’t fully understand — probably because this is not at all business as usual — business leaders are timid here and need to be pushed. That’s why it’s so important that all stakeholders — employees, customers, shareholders, activists, NGOs, you name it — keep pushing hard here. (Me too. This is what I now do for a living). Let’s keep it up.

  • Encourage your employer to step up.
  • Express environmental preferences as a customer, employee, and investor.
  • And, of course, vote and push elected officials to make this a priority.

You advise CEOs for a living. Every day you encourage CEOs to be very bold in pursuing big mergers and acquisitions. You aim to beat your competition by bringing the best and most timely ideas to your clients. Pushing your CEOs to be environmental leaders is the very best advice you can ever provide.

World leaders have set urgent GHG-reductions goals in order to prevent climate catastrophe. But we continue to fall further and further behind. At this point, we can’t afford to make progress around the edges; we need to move the needle rapidly in the right direction. The private sector — and CEOs in particular — should do everything they can to make that happen.

Former CEO of The Nature Conservancy CEO. “Nature’s Fortune” author. Family man, yogi, ice climber, vegan.