Will the Paris business summit mobilise support for climate action?

Business chiefs will showcase low carbon plans this week, but concerns persist they are giving cover to polluting sectors

Business leaders meet at Unesco HQ in Paris this week to talk climate (Flickr/Anna Armstrong)

Business leaders meet at Unesco HQ in Paris this week to talk climate (Flickr/Anna Armstrong)

By Megan Darby

France wants the private sector to play a “major role” in efforts to reach a global climate pact in Paris this December.

With just over six months to go until diplomats thrash out a deal, the French capital this week hosts the Business and Climate Summit.

President Francois Hollande will be there in person on Wednesday to talk up the “Paris climate alliance” – a broad coalition to tackle climate change.

“We want businesses to make a commitment, invest, innovate and prepare – with us, with the states, with the non-governmental organizations, with societies – tomorrow’s economy,” he says.

The line-up includes big hitters known for their leadership on sustainability issues… and some fossil fuel giants better known for playing down the climate threat.

So is this summit the key to unlocking an international agreement, or a platform for greenwash and empty promises?

(Pic: Vattenfall/Flickr)

(Pic: Vattenfall/Flickr)

First on the agenda is to show what business is already doing for the climate.

It will build on a raft of pledges – on everything from sustainable transport to carbon pricing – made at UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s gathering in New York last September.

Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, director of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, says: “I am quite taken aback at the amount of momentum we have seen since September. There are so many initiatives.”

Companies like Unilever are spearheading a drive to end deforestation, for example, while Apple has promised to go 100% renewable.

“Consumer goods and the high tech sectors are very exciting in the sense that they are the ones closest to world consumers,” says Nigel Topping, chief of the We Mean Business coalition.

“They are the ones who are making the boldest commitments.”

‘Challenged’ sectors

Then there are the sectors Topping politely describes as “challenged” – fossil fuels, aviation, steel and cement.

These are the carbon-intensive industries whose interests are most directly threatened by efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists estimate more than 80% coal, a third of oil and half of gas reserves are “unburnable” if temperature rise is to be held to 2C. That is the warming goal for UN climate negotiations.

“In many ways the game is up with coal,” says Topping. “What is a constructive role for a coal company in the [low carbon] transition? It might be difficult.”

Greg Barker, UK prime minister David Cameron’s former climate envoy and newly appointed trustee at the Climate Group, agrees: “Unabated coal is the enemy.”

What role can coal possibly play in a low carbon economy? (Flickr/ Eye weed)

What role can coal possibly play in a low carbon economy? (Flickr/ Eye weed)

Yet speakers at the event include Tony Hayward, formerly of BP and now at mining giant Glencore Xstrata. His company dismisses concerns its coal assets will be stranded by climate action.

Norway’s Statoil is represented at the highest level and petro-power Saudi Arabia is sending the oil minister.

Oil and gas majors are increasingly sticking the boot into coal, arguing that a switch to gas power generation can be part of the solution.

But their energy forecasts universally assume that growing demand for energy will trump policies to safeguard the climate – blowing the 2C carbon budget.

And European chemical industry lobby group Cefic used its partnership with the summit to try and water down the key messages, documents leaked to Business Green revealed.

It called – unsuccessfully – for the word “science” to be deleted from a line saying leading businesses were “setting long term emission reduction targets in line with the science of 2C”.

By giving these climate-damaging businesses a platform, does the summit lend them undue credibility? In other words, is this an exercise in greenwashing?


“That is a genuine concern of course, but it is much better to have them at the table and have a constructive dialogue rather than shouting at them from behind the barricades,” says Barker.

“All of us are still dependent on fossil fuels for our daily lives and you can’t just switch that off overnight.

“The fact we have got this whole range of companies at the table, not just a few low carbon specialists, is to be welcomed.”

A side event on Wednesday morning will look at the science of 2C and how that might translate into tangible goals for different sectors.

“We have got to have a transition that involves all sectors,” says Topping.

“One of my hopes will be that we increasingly see some of those heavy hitting sectors coming forward and saying they understand the challenges.”

Dixson-Decleve – unsurprisingly, given Shell is a member of the Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) – agrees.

“We need to broaden the discussion, we need to bring the oil and gas sectors and really work with them on diversification and clean technologies,” she says.

Policy demands

Such is the enthusiasm for private sector solutions to climate change, Dixson-Decleve says “we are now maybe focusing a bit too much on business”.

December’s climate deal will, ultimately, be between governments. To date, 38 countries accounting for 30% of global emissions have submitted their national contributions to the UN.

The US role has been “quite phenomenal” but other big emitters like Japan and Australia need to do their bit, she adds.

As well as spurring business into action, the summit aims to show policymakers the strength of support for effective regulation.

In New York, there was a strong show of support for carbon pricing, seen as a fair and transparent way of spreading the cost of climate pollution across sectors.

The World Bank last week recommended a range of policies to create thriving low carbon economies, from vehicle emissions standards to clean energy mandates.

Unilever boss Paul Polman is a vocal advocate for climate action (Flickr/Stars Foundation)

Unilever boss Paul Polman is a vocal advocate for climate action (Flickr/Stars Foundation)

Organisations like the CLG, We Mean Business and The Climate Group aim to present a more progressive voice on climate than emerges from certain lobby groups.

Whereas many trade associations treat climate policies purely as a cost to business, to be resisted, these groups take a longer view.

So the key message to governments will be that corporate heavyweights want to see clear, consistent climate targets and practical policy.

“Governments and ministers need about as much confidence as they can get to do a deal in Paris at the end of the year,” says PwC’s Jon Williams.

“One of the things they worry about is the reaction of business…

“My clients say to me all the time: ‘We just want certainty, we want a deal that is workable, we want clear long term targets and we want practical legislation to achieve them.’

“Then they will follow through with the technology and investment.”

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