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America: Back in the climate game

Jonathan Shopley | 05 March 2015 |

The Climate Leadership Conference, a unique annual gathering of business, policy makers, regulators and NGOs, offers an opportunity to put a finger on the pulse of climate action in the US. Jonathan Shopley finds a steady and strengthening heart-beat.

America: Back in the climate game

Conference with a difference

What makes the Climate Leaders Conference unique is that since it began in 2012, it has drawn policy, business and NGO constituencies together in a single event to assess the state of climate action in the US. The Conference partners – ACCO, C2ES, The Climate Registry and the US EPA -- also use the event to recognise individuals, private and public sector organisations demonstrating a significant and tangible commitment to climate change mitigation with the Climate Leaders’ Awards.

The Awards recognise innovative actions to combat climate change that make business sense. This year’s awards included our client UPS – recognised for its achievements in reaching GHG reduction goals -- along with 16 organisations and one individual representing an array of industries from finance and manufacturing to retail and technology.

US on the international stage

2015 is a pivotal year for international climate negotiations, anticipating a new global agreement in Paris in December. Against that backdrop, the conference kicked off with a session on international leadership and cooperation. As the US never signed the Kyoto Protocol, it has not been a major force in UN-led international negotiations. Things changed last year, with the US - China joint announcement pledging proactive and material national action as a spur to a more effective successor agreement.

This and three national developments are rebuilding the US’s moral authority to play a significant role in the forthcoming international negotiations:

  • Energy from natural gas rather than oil has allowed the US to meet its non-binding Kyoto targets.
  • Cap & Trade programmes in California and a group of eastern states under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are laying down state-level initiatives which have the potential to link the US to carbon pricing efforts that are developing in parallel in China, Canada, the EU, and Korea amongst others.
  • The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan is driving state-level plans to decarbonise energy across the US.

In the final plenary, Brian Deese, Senior Advisor to Obama and Gerard Araud, French Ambassador to the US made it clear that the US’s role in the next stage of negotiations on an international climate deal is welcomed, expected and pivotal to a sound outcome.

US sentiment on climate change is changing

Mindy Lubber, head of CERES, a business and sustainability NGO, made the case that the US is changing the debate about climate change from a burden to economic opportunity, and Carol Browner, previous US EPA Administrator, noted that the climate change challenge plays well to American ingenuity and innovation – both at home and abroad.

As Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific evidence from climate science, he and others made the point that drought, floods and extreme weather events have moved the US on from debating the science to a broader acceptance that climate change is happening. The debate is now focused on what to do about it.

Former US Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin argued that while the realisation of climate change is now predominant, the urgency to act is not. That has prompted Rubin, with past NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg and another former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, to launch the Risky Business Project to quantify and publicise the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate and make the case that the cost of inaction is significantly greater than the cost of action.

Actions speaking louder than words

Dr Ed Maibach’s research into public sentiment on climate has recorded that two thirds of the US public expect business to provide solutions to climate change, and the main thrust of the conference programme was an examination of what business is doing in response to that challenge.

The three main themes covered in detail were:

  • Better granular data on emissions through application of information technology, cloud computing and big data management to drive effective reduction and efficiency programmes.
  • The application technology innovation, partnerships and new and often disruptive business models to deliver more than just incremental emission reductions across entire supply-chains.
  • The use and value of market-based instruments such as carbon offsets, renewable energy instruments to drive economy-wide reductions at lowest cost.

While the vast majority of the action is with business, NGOs like C2ES, CDP and WWF showcased platforms to set stretching targets and assemble and compare best practices that are valued and used by leading corporates.

And some of the most notable initiatives were in sectors not usually associated with environmental leadership. Secretary of the US Navy Ray Mabus pointed out that the US Department of Defence is the largest user of fossil fuels in the world, but that the Navy already uses 1GW of renewable energy and is on track to 50% non-fossil fuels by the end of 2015.

It is when it isn’t

Unlike past conferences, where it was common to hear statements like ‘the US is deeply divided on climate’ or ‘the US hasn’t woken up to climate’, this one had distinctly different mood music. The ground is shifting, and in aggregate the direction of travel has changed. The past characterisation of the US as a climate laggard isn’t true anymore. Probably Robert Rubin’s musings that perhaps the US will need a massive climate disaster to spur action is not true either. Business opportunities to solve climate impacts and to serve customers’ instinctive preferences for cleaner, better products and services has reframed the issue, and the US is very much back in the game.