7 ways businesses can accelerate climate progress in the U.S.

7 ways businesses can accelerate climate progress in the U.S.

This week's historic U. S.–China climate agreement sends an important signal of momentum and progress. This is just a first step, but it is an indication by the two most important players in the climate challenge that we are starting down the path to a low carbon economy.

Companies that recognize that signal and take the lead in developing technologies that can accelerate progress will be the winners. Now is the time for the private sector to step up and do more to accelerate progress toward a low-carbon, prosperous future.

A large number of American companies already have shown encouraging leadership on climate. Many recognize the reality of human-caused climate change and the need for a price on carbon. Likewise, many significantly have reduced their own emissions to achieve both better financial results and contribute to environmental progress. These are positive steps that have been helping to build overall momentum, and the drumbeat of action is growing.

As we saw at September's UN General Assembly, for example, 40 companies committed to zero net deforestation in 2030, including Cargill, Walmart, General Mills, and McDonald's; 30 companies and organizations committed to help the world's 500 million farmers improve resilience, boost productivity and reduce GHG emissions; and more than 1,000 companies signed a declaration calling on governments to strengthen policies to put a price on carbon.

Yet there is an opportunity for much broader and more visible business leadership.

1. Share your successes

Last fall, the White House recognized over 120 companies that saved $1 billion and reduced CO2 emissions by 11 million tons through energy efficiency. To those companies, and others that have made similar progress: please speak up. Be more vocal about how cutting emissions is not just about the environment. It's about making your business more resilient and your bottom line more robust.

2. Champion internal carbon pricing

Over 150 major companies, from Microsoft to Exxon, now use an internal price on carbon to guide their decisions. To these companies, again I say: speak up. You deserve credit for your leadership. Your example can influence other businesses. And it can help the public understand that carbon pricing is not a threat to our country's economy. To other companies, I say: imitate. Pricing you own carbon can result in more efficient business operations and economic savings as well as reduced emissions.

3. Influence your business associations

From a business perspective, dealing with climate change is about protecting supply chains that depend on water. It is about maintaining global food security. It is about keeping our families and businesses out of harm’s way. Business should be on the side of climate action for its own good.

That makes it more troubling when business-friendly groups such as Chambers of Commerce release statements opposing action on climate change.

Members of these organizations should speak up when they, in fact, disagree with such positions. Politely, respectfully — but loudly — tell the public that you strongly disagree. Clear messages from corporate leaders that climate action is good for business will help to reframe the policy debate.

4. Invest in carbon capture and storage

The arguments against Carbon Capture and Storage are familiar: it's too expensive and the technology is too far off.

Yet consider the history of pollution control in the U.S. In 1970, the auto industry railed against the Clean Air Act. It would destroy millions of jobs, they said, and would cost consumers billions of dollars. Congress enacted the bill anyway. Right away, American science and industry went to work to develop the catalytic converter. Today, cars are 99.5 percent cleaner than they were in 1970 at a cost of about $1,500 per car.

This debate was revisited on acid rain. Again, the solution — the cap and trade program adopted in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments for acid rain — proved to be spectacularly successful at costs just a fraction of what the staunchest opponents predicted.

CCS is the newest round of pollution control that we need — it is an imperative. We need to make every investment necessary to bring it along. Businesses can lead the way.

5. Invest in biosequestration — natural carbon storage

Reducing deforestation is one of the cheapest, fastest ways to reduce carbon emissions. But opportunities for carbon sequestration go well beyond forests. Experiments are under way to use cow manure for energy, to use biotechnology to produce algae as biofuels, to manage lagoons and ocean habitats for enhanced carbon sequestration, to implement farming practices that put more carbon into soils and reduce nitrogen pollution. These are business opportunities that could help us save the planet — we need more forward-looking investment in this research.

6. Invest in renewables

While Congress has dithered, two-thirds of U.S. states have adopted policies mandating renewable electricity generation. Their leadership has stimulated domestic investment in new technologies, created good jobs and made wind and solar power cost competitive. Now that China has pledged to achieve 20 percent renewable power by 2030, it's time for Congress to enact a comparable national clean energy goal.

7. Partner with environmental NGOs — and push them to do more

Just as I challenge companies to step up their leadership on climate, I encourage them to challenge NGOs right back.

At The Nature Conservancy, we are a leader in reducing global deforestation and in demonstrating that investments in natural infrastructure are cost-effective ways to reduce climate-related risks such as coastal storms, flooding and sea level rise.

However, we can't stop there — and we can't do it alone. We will rely on forward-thinking business leaders to work together with organizations such as TNC to mobilize new constituencies in support of clean energy and climate policies.

Let's continue to be candid about where we can do better and encourage one another to accomplish climate solutions that are both good for business and good for the environment.

Of course the private sector doesn't hold all the answers. Solving climate change will require strong action from governments — like this week’s milestone U.S.-China agreement — as well as NGOs, engaged citizens and local communities. But companies can be important allies in building the low-carbon future that will benefit our businesses, economies and health and safety around the world.