What it means to be a climate leader in a post-Paris world

A post-Paris climate action panel at the 2017 Climate Leadership Conference (left to right): UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Microsoft Director of Sustainability Policy Michelle Patron, Business for Social Responsibility Managing Director Edward Cameron, Climate Policy Initiative Executice Director Barbara Buchner, C2ES Executive Vice President Elliot Diringer.

Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement requires not only commitments by governments, but also innovation and action by the private sector.

“This room is full of non-state actors,” remarked Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, while addressing the audience at the Climate Leadership Conference in Chicago this month. Espinosa along with a panel of experts encouraged members of the private sector to not only continue these crucial efforts, but to take bolder steps as they turn the commitments made in Paris into concrete action.

Espinosa applauded the 12,000 voluntary climate commitments by companies, investors, cities, and sub-national governments, that are reported in the UNFCCC’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action platform. She highlighted the positive domino effect of partnerships such as We Mean Business, C40 Cities, Under2 MOU, and the Global Covenant of Mayors in increasing ambition and encouraging transformational action to meet the Paris goals.

Solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change

Michelle Patron, director of sustainability policy at Microsoft, who joined Espinosa on the panel, told the audience that climate action is good for business, good for the economy, and good for the environment. Nearly half of Microsoft’s data centers are now powered by wind and solar energy, and the company has committed to procuring half its electricity from renewable sources by 2018, and 66 percent by 2020.

The push for sustainability also extends to Microsoft’s customers. For example, the company collects and analyzes real-time performance from the bus fleet in Helsinki, Finland, using data generated by sensors on the vehicles. The results are reduced fuel consumption and costs, improved performance and safety, and a lower carbon footprint for the city.

To help with the Paris commitment to adaptation, Microsoft is providing cloud technologies to cities in the Middle East prone to heavy rainfall, to help improve flood management and reduce the costs of adapting to extreme weather.

Mobilizing private sector finance at scale

Barbara Buchner, executive director of the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), told the group that although the total annual global public and private sector investment in climate finance is higher than ever at $392 billion, more is needed. She said funding levels of about $16.5 trillion by 2030 need to be mobilized to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius.

CPI serves as the secretariat for The Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance, created to  bridge the finance gap. It links investors—such as financial institutions, insurance companies, and national governments—with low-carbon climate-resilient projects. The lab works to design both the projects and financing tools to help reduce any regulatory risks and knowledge barriers that prevent access to private finance. Since its inception in 2014, the lab has raised $600 million for pilot projects in energy efficiency, climate change risk assessment, and agricultural supply chains across developing countries.

Shaping public policy and taking extra steps

Edward Cameron, managing director of Business for Social Responsibility, told the audience the private sector is designing the architecture of deep decarbonization for the world.

He said the world notices when Wal-Mart pledges to reduce emissions by 50 percent, remove deforestation from supply chains, reduce landfill waste, and obtain 100 percent of its power from renewable energy – or when Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft voice support for the U.S. Clean Power Plan. Such actions, he said, send signals to markets and government, thereby shaping public policy.

However, if businesses want to distinguish themselves as climate leaders and drive transformational change in the post-Paris world, Cameron challenged them to take extra steps:

Act: The benchmark to act on climate has increased. Companies should transition from setting carbon intensity targets to establishing science-based targets across supply chains.

Enable: Be enablers of others’ success. Provide financial and technological solutions to climate change, not only for business operations and consumers, but also for the most vulnerable populations of the world.

Influence: Manage not only a company’s footprint, but also the handprint—the measure of its positive social and environmental actions. Advocating for public policies that accelerate climate action will influence a company’s captive audience, and help them be good consumers and citizens.

Espinosa said non-state actors, including the private sector, will continue to play a crucial role giving governments the confidence to ramp up ambition on climate action as they build toward the 2018 United Nations climate summit, COP 24. That’s when the international community will take stock of the collective efforts toward the goals of the Paris Agreement.