Another UN Climate Change Conference, COP25, has concluded. Sadly, it seems the gulf has only widened between climate science and public sentiment on one side, and national government action and international cooperation on the other.
Deadly weather conditions and historic public protests have ensured that climate is a headline issue this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s message to the UN Conference echoed this: the U.S. is still in, we are still in, whatever the U.S.’s formal position on the Paris Agreement.
It’s also worth reflecting on the role of another key actor in the drama: the American business community.
The recent report from America’s Pledge is illuminating. It suggests that the jigsaw of efforts by U.S. businesses, cities and states have the potential to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 37% by 2030. This would be a significant achievement, but one that does not reach the level of reduction recommended by climate science and one that falls short of being net-zero by 2050. These latter outcomes are virtually out of reach without federal government intervention. The America’s Pledge report does the important work of matching climate science with real world action, drawing on CDP data and analysis for that purpose. Its findings are clear: current efforts won’t be enough.
CDP’s work on environmental disclosure further confirms the gulf. This year saw a 22% increase to climate change disclosure by U.S. businesses. At the start of this decade, 2,900 companies disclosed their environmental information to CDP. Now that number exceeds 8,000. This is a valuable indicator of progress, because disclosure puts environmental accountability and action at the heart of business decision making. It permits a company’s stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders – to assess whether a company is striving for a future that works for people and planet, as well as profits.
It’s not just transparency that is on the rise. While most national governments, including the U.S., declined to raise their climate ambitions at COP25, U.S. companies continue to step up. 132 American companies have now set or committed to GHG reductions aligned with climate science through the Science Based Targets Initiative. The U.S. has the most committed or approved companies of any nation. Some companies are looking even further ahead with commitments to have net zero emissions by 2050 – take Nike as one example. “Consumers want us to show we are a sustainable business,” said Virginia Rustique-Petteni, Senior Director of Engagement for Global Sustainability at Nike Inc., shortly before COP25 began. “We need to be part of the conversation, and use our global reach and brand equity to galvanize our partners, other industries, and other sectors.”
This progress by American companies is commendable, but without immediate and ambitious climate actions by government and many more companies, US$1 trillion is at risk according to 215 of the world's largest companies, including 81 from the U.S. This is in addition to the jobs, communities, lives and livelihoods at stake.
As we move into a new decade, the U.S. has an opportunity to reset and renew its leadership on the world stage. We need more American companies, cities and states to step up. We need all segments of the country to work for the common purpose of curbing the worst of climate change. We need Washington to signal to the rest of the world that American leadership still matters, and that we truly are still in.