As Paris Climate Talks Approach, What Are Companies Doing to Help or Hurt Climate Action?

November 24, 2015 | 1:09 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

At the UN climate negotiations in Paris starting next week, most of the attention will be focused on countries. What are countries doing to reduce emissions?  Which countries are more responsible than others for paying for past and future damages from climate impacts? Can countries come to a binding agreement in the end of the two-week 21st conference of the parties (COP21)? The Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell has a good run-down of some of these issues here and my colleague Rachel Cleetus reflects on the importance of the negotiations after the terrorist attacks in Paris here.  But countries aren’t the only actors that can have an impact on the outcome of such negotiations.  The private sector also plays a role. Has that role been supportive of climate action in Paris or obstructing it?

The corporate voice on international climate policy debates

To start, companies haven’t taken a backseat when it comes to weighing in on international climate discussions. Back at COP3 in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, companies engaged in intense lobbying campaigns both domestically and at the conference itself in efforts to limit the options that U.S. negotiators had.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres has recognized the important role of the private sector in supporting climate meaningful policy action at the international scale. Photo: Wikipedia

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres has recognized the important role of the private sector in supporting climate meaningful policy action at the international scale. Photo: Wikipedia

And we know that the private sector has influence here. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres has said:

“Business leaders can demonstrate and communicate the need for long-term energy plans, increased efficiency and climate-friendly investment—policies beneficial to the triple bottom line. This in turn, gives governments the support they need to act on the international stage.”

In other words, companies’ words matter.  Countries get the political support they need to make strong commitments in UN negotiations, when they have the support of companies back home.

And companies haven’t been shy about speaking up in advance of the Paris meeting. Dozens of companies have committed to setting science-based targets for their own emissions reduction. This is an important step in ensuring that the global economy is prepared for a carbon-constrained world and that low-carbon energy sources are promoted over high-carbon intensity fuels.

Moreover, a group of European-based fossil-fuel energy producers, as members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have come out in support of an effective global climate change agreement at Paris and the need to limit our collective emissions to better align with a 2-degree Celsius global average temperature rise.

Corporate contradictions on climate change

This is a bold move, especially when you consider the contrast between the public statements of these European companies and the recent actions of U.S.-based fossil fuel companies on climate change. Fossil-fuel-backed trade associations and nonprofits, including the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have vocally opposed the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan and continued to put out misleading and false reports on the new initiative.

This is, of course, on top of all the recent revelations regarding ExxonMobil’s decades-long denial of climate science and downplaying of the need for policy action on climate change, despite conducting its own research to understand the risks of climate change.

This contradiction, however, perfectly captures a problem with corporate support of climate change: We often find that actions don’t match words.  Companies have publicly stated their support for climate policy action while lobbying against it behind the scenes or while funding groups to do it for them.  Past Union of Concerned Scientists analyses (here, here, and here) have shown that many companies have this misalignment of their climate positions.

A recent report from the UK-based InfluenceMap also found that such contradiction exists among European fossil fuel companies as well, with Shell and Total having the strongest differential between their rhetoric and actions according to the group’s analysis of more than 10,000 data points.

An optimistic outlook

Will the voice of business sector have an impact on the outcome in Paris? And importantly will increasingly vocal support from companies, particularly those in the energy sector have a positive impact on the negotiations?  I hope so.

Despite continued opposition from some actors, more companies are ready for climate action and being publicly vocal about it than has ever been the case in advance of previous negotiations. On top of that, we are seeing better global economic conditions than were present for the 2008 climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, when the global recession was fresh in the minds of negotiators and businesses.

Now countries and companies both are more prepared to make a strong commitment. I hope that they do.