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Climate Leadership Series: The Political Influence on >$1 billion Weather Events

Rebecca Fay | 18 June 2019 |

An intensification of Californian wildfires, midwestern floods and east coast hurricanes show without doubt that climate change is happening now. But while businesses are overflowing with ideas to reduce emissions and create climate competitiveness, lack of climate policy certainty is holding them back. We spoke to Janet Peace, Senior Vice President, Policy and Business Strategy at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), about delivering effective climate responses at the nexus of policy and business.

In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practices, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Janet Peace and C2ES at the bottom of this article.

Rosie Helson (RH): What are your key objectives at C2ES?

Janet Peace (JP): Our ultimate mission is to drive practical and effective policy, which supports clean energy and other solutions that address our climate change challenge. We do three main things: research, work with leading companies, and work with policymakers on the best options for sound climate policy.

Companies have lots of ideas for how they’re going to decarbonize, including the kinds of products and technologies that would be most beneficial and where the market opportunities are. But we really need to get policymakers to take action and see the opportunities and risks that need to be addressed to support companies to get there.

RH: How is that going?

JP: It’s getting better. It’s the first time since 2010 that we’ve seen both sides of the aisle really get engaged on the topic - which is very encouraging. I think the momentum we’re seeing now is only going to escalate through 2019 and 2020. We need a coordinated economy-wide climate policy, but there’s also need for a variety of localised cost-effective climate policies, which mitigate against any market failures that might stand in the way.

We see a carbon price as the cornerstone of an effective economy-wide program. A carbon price would help pull new technologies into the market and, depending on how it’s designed, help change agricultural practices and how we harvest forests and replant them. A carbon price can send a signal that removing carbon and creating low carbon technologies have value - but again, it is not the only policy we need.

RH: Do you think that the recent IPCC 1.5 degree report has made a difference to global climate action in governments and businesses?

JP: It’s raised awareness and it’s brought home the risk of inaction in a very explicit way. In the U.S., we also have the National Climate Assessment that examined the impacts across the country by region and by sector; I think that too drilled home the cost of doing nothing and an awareness that the extreme weather events we’re seeing are not random, and they’re getting worse and hitting regions across the country. The science of attribution – being able to tie particular weather events to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – is also getting better.

RH: What do you think of carbon neutrality as a goal for businesses – does it have relevance in context of the global goal of net zero emissions by 2050, as stated in the 1.5 degree report?

JP: Oh, it totally does. We had a few years when there was some pushback against offsets: “oh it’s just an indulgence, it’s a way to pay to get out of doing anything.” But I think companies are now seeing: “it can be part of my strategy, it can allow me to get started sooner, it can help engage across the organisation, and it can raise awareness in sectors outside of my own company and in my supply chain.”

We’re seeing a lot of companies really getting engaged in carbon neutrality, and one sector in particular is getting engaged in the offsets discussion – aviation. To reach an emissions reduction target, this sector is going to need offsets. We’re also seeing the agriculture and forestry sectors starting to get engaged in the climate topic again, which we haven’t seen since ~2010. One reason for this could be that agriculture is on the front line of many of these extreme weather events – flooding, drought, extreme precipitation. This year, in the Midwest alone, flooding cost Midwest states - where agriculture is a key industry - over $1 billion.

RH: We’re all focused on delivering the Paris Agreement, but what do you think we’ll be focused on in 2030?

JP: 2030 is only 10 years away; we’re not going to have solved climate change by then. It’s a journey, not the end point. By then we’ll have more electric vehicles on the road and more people will have realized that more building retrofits are needed. I believe we’ll have more demonstration of key technologies like carbon capture and storage. We’ll have figured out better and cheaper options for battery storage that help us better balance the electricity grid and handle more renewables. To deeply decarbonize our economies, most of the modelling scenarios, including ours from our Climate Innovation 2050 project, tell us that our electricity system needs to be at least 95% clean. Today we’re at about 30%. Many of these same scenarios suggest that 7 out of 10 new cars sold need to be electric and today in the U.S.; we’re at about 1 in 100. So, we have a long way to go, but by 2030 I think we’ll have turned a corner and will be making great strides towards our 2050 net zero goal.

RH: What are you focusing on at the moment?

JP: We’re asking: what are the big opportunities to reduce emissions and address these impacts? It’s a pretty exciting time because there are a lot of new ideas being put into the ring, and others we’ve talked about for years - like carbon tax and cap and trade – that are now rising in profile.

In our Climate Innovation 2050 project, we’ve run a bunch of scenarios looking at the pathways to deep decarbonization including longer-term policy recommendations for every sector. It’s about a vision for the future that involves a lot of company input and engagement with our Business Environmental Leadership Council. Our council includes 33 large companies from across the major sectors of the economy including mining, IT, electricity, manufacturing, chemicals, transportation, finance and oil and gas.

RH: What are businesses doing well in relation to climate action, and in which areas do they need to work a bit harder?

JP: At C2ES, we work with big companies with long-lived capital assets, and the policies of any one Administration are not likely to change how and where they invest. I can see how it might pose doubt, and it might cause delay, but it really hasn’t changed the fundamentals of their investments. Nevertheless, because of the need for policy certainty, I believe companies should be more vocal about the need for policy. I’d like them to say “we need action on climate change, we need policy certainty.” More and more companies are starting to. Just a few weeks ago, almost 100 companies went to our U.S. Congress to tell them we need a policy response and a price on carbon.

RH: Why is climate policy certainty so important?

JP: Companies need policy certainty and durability to confidently move forward on investment and innovation. They need to understand what the framework is going-forward. Without that, there’s reluctance to put money on the table, especially long-term.

Flip flopping on climate change policy, like we’ve seen in the U.S., Australia and in some Canadian Provinces, is really harmful to corporate action. It’s holding back innovation, and can ultimately reduce the competitiveness of a company, region or even country.

We’re helping the World Bank on the topic of carbon pricing and competitiveness. There are countries like China, moving full-steam ahead on their climate policy; they are implementing a price on carbon and incentivising clean technology. Part of their motivation is based on climate and part on air pollution, but in the end, they’re sending a signal that they’re moving in a direction of lower carbon. Electric vehicles are big sellers in China; and of course, EVs could go the same way as solar panels – China could end up with a sustained competitive edge because they have policy certainty.

RH: Finally, what advice do you have for young professionals beginning their career in corporate sustainability?

JP: There’s no end to the opportunities: there’s not one solution, there’s not one sector nor one technology. It’s a growth area that requires people to use their imagination to innovate, and they shouldn’t be discouraged because we don’t have a solution tomorrow – it is a long-term journey.

I’m a technology optimist and I see how innovative companies can be when they’re given a reason. I’d like to move the needle on climate policy and to do that I believe that we need to work with the business community on practical and effective solutions. I spend a lot of time figuring out how to talk about the climate impacts we’re already seeing in a way that implies we can address them, which we can. This gives me a lot of enthusiasm for my job.

C2ES is a not-for-profit think-tank located in the Washington D.C. region. As the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, it is widely recognized as an influential and pragmatic voice on climate issues.

Janet Peace is the Senior Vice President of Policy and Business Strategy at C2ES. She manages much of the Center's policy work, its work on climate resilience and its engagement with the business community, including its Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC), the largest U.S.-based association of companies devoted to climate-related policy and corporate strategies.

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