CEOs finally granted access to UN talks as secretary general targets new strategy to curb carbon emissions
By Ed King
Ban Ki-moon’s forthcoming summit will add a new twist to global climate talks, with business leaders outlining how they can help avoid dangerous levels of warming.
The UN secretary general’s summit on September 23 is billed as a chance for heads of state to develop a common understanding of how best to limit the emissions of climate-warming gases.
But organisers have also set aside a significant chunk of the day for the private sector and finance experts, with the world’s leading multinationals set to discuss carbon pricing.
Agriculture, cities, energy, financing, forests, pollutants, resilience and transportation are the eight other ‘action areas’ business and government delegates will focus on.
While the leaders of China, India and Germany have declined to attend, UN officials say they are expecting a healthy attendance of chief executives at the meeting, such as Unilever’s Paul Polman and Marks and Spencer’s Marc Bolland.
They are both expected to reaffirm their commitment to help achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 and phase out refrigerants that use potent climate-warming gases by 2015.
According to Eliot Whittington, director of the Prince of Wales’s UK corporate leaders group on climate change, which is helping coordinate a World Bank push to promote a global carbon price, this new focus is an attempt to learn from past mistakes.
“There is a strong focus on greater business engagement, and I think that is one of the many lessons learnt from the run-up to Copenhagen where there were business voices,” he says.
“There is more emphasis on the role of business and more coordination from business community in coming to the table with ideas and more of a proactive voice.”
The 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen was the last time countries came together in a concerted effort to develop an emissions cutting treaty.
Ban’s summit is separate from the official negotiations, but is designed to help envoys craft a deal that is scheduled to be signed next December in Paris.
In 2009 organisers were accused of trying to push world leaders into an agreement they didn’t really understand and weren’t politically prepared for.
This time round governments, NGOs and the UN have crafted together a series of set-piece events and reports, with a significant proportion aimed at the business community.
In April, the UN’s IPCC climate science panel highlighted the economic and energy security benefits that countries and business could exploit by investing early in low carbon energy systems.
In June, former New York mayor Michal Bloomberg, ex treasury secretary Henry Paulson and billionaire investor Tom Steyer released their Risky Business study, warning that US$ 507 billion of property could be under water by 2100.
On 16 September, an in-depth business analysis into the profits of green growth, chaired by former Mexico president Felipe Calderon and backed by nine countries, will be released.
Its chief of staff, Sarah Chapman, told UK news site Business Green it would focus on how “economic decision-makers achieve their principal goals while reducing their impact on climate change”.
And the day before Ban’s summit the We Mean Business coalition, representing “thousands of leading companies and investors from across all sectors” will be launched in New York.
Governments are also focusing heavily on encouraging business leaders to back green growth.
Next week the UK will unveil its goals for a UN treaty in Paris. It is holding the launch at the headquarters of a leading investment company in the heart of the City of London.
PwC’s Jonathan Grant, a director in its sustainability division, has long argued for business leaders to become more involved in international climate talks.
He says there’s now more understanding between the business and UN of the risks extreme weather events can pose to supply chains, capital investments and potential markets.
“Since Durban [UN 2011 climate summit] negotiators have been much more open to having input from the business community and from other NGOs, and I’ve been to sessions where they have asked: ‘how can we resolve this, what’s the best shape and form of the deal, and how can we achieve that?’”
And while the climate debate often seems characterised by fierce arguments over global cooling and what % of scientists think climate change is happening (it’s 97%), many business leaders appear convinced.
Even the major oil producers now factor in an internal carbon price into their operations, aware of the potential impacts a 2015 deal could have on their business plans.
PwC will deliver their latest report on the world’s current emissions trajectory next week – and it doesn’t look good – something Grant says will alarm many multinationals as much as NGOs.
“What we’re seeing is that across many businesses there’s much more recognition of the challenge climate change policy can present to investment decisions, and I think that uncertainty is now a genuine worry for many CEOs,” Grant says.
He’s not expecting any major breakthrough in New York, more a series of “series of set-piece announcements”, but says it could inject some much needed “adrenaline” into the process.
Aware of the deep inertia that characterises the official strand of global climate talks, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres’ new strategy appears to be targeting business decision-makers with regional and international influence.
Earlier this year Figueres warned fund managers to steer clear of fossil fuel companies, saying they could be breaching their fiduciary duty to investors.
Next week she is expected to set out the “business case for climate action” alongside representatives from Ceres, CDP and the Climate Group, all industry-focused lobby groups.
These are deliberate attempts to accelerate the momentum towards the New York meet, says Michael Jacobs, a former climate advisor to UK prime minister Gordon Brown and now director of strategy at the New Climate Economy.
“A lot of this summit is around the narrative ‘climate action is good for us’. It’s economically beneficial, it creates jobs and there are huge technological gains,” he says.
“And the best people to prove that are the businesses who are engaged in it and are making commitments that are compatible with their bottom lines and are also good for the climate.”
Jacobs is clear that he sees the main aim of the meeting as a chance to get world leaders re-engaged in the process, and focused on delivering their own national pledges to a 2015 deal, which the UN wants to see by March next year.
But he says the role of business leaders in smoothing the path for heads of state is vital, particularly in the wake of the recent economic crisis.
“This summit has a twin function – the function of changing the narrative and showing there is action and that businesses are committed to it and getting the leaders to say what their actions are. It’s the combination of those two things which gives you the summit package as a whole,” he says.
“Of course they are complementary, because leaders are far more likely to commit to action if it’s good for the economy as a whole, and if the business communities are telling them – give us an agreement.”