Skip to main content

Two Steps Forward

Global Climate Action Summit: A business preview

Next week, the climate world will descend on San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit — GCAS for short. The three-day event is widely seen as the valedictory for California Gov. Jerry Brown, one of its chairs, whose fourth and final term as the chief executive of the world’s fifth-largest economy — and one of the world’s most influential climate leaders — ends in January.

It’s not just Brown's show, of course. Brown’s GCAS co-chairs include Michael Bloomberg, the U.N. Secretary General’s special envoy for climate action; Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Anand Mahindra, chair of the Indian conglomerate Mahindra Group; Jayathma Wickramanayake, the U.N. Secretary-General’s envoy on youth; and Xie Zhenhua, special representative for Climate Change Affairs of China.

The still-emerging speaker lineup includes CEOs (Unilever’s Paul Polman, Kaiser Permanente’s Bernard Tyson, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Starbucks' Kevin Johnson); political leaders (Al Gore, John Kerry, and various mayors, governors and prime ministers — from Mexico to Mozambique); and other notables (musician Dave Matthews, actor Alec Baldwin, scientist Jane Goodall, commentator and activist Van Jones).

Oh, and did I mention the more than 350 affiliate events taking place that week in the San Francisco Bay Area? The lineup is overwhelming but worth perusing. Many are open to the public, others "by invitation."

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with the NGO leaders whose organizations are helping shape the five "key challenges" that will be the focus of the main event: healthy energy systems (led by The Climate Group); inclusive economic growth (BSR); sustainable communities (C40 Cities); land and ocean stewardship (WWF); and transformative climate investments (Ceres). I asked each leader to view the event through the lens of business, including how to seize opportunities coming out of it.

Why another summit?

First, some context for yet another climate event. After all, there are the annual COP conferences, organized by the UNFCCC; this year’s, COP24, is in December in Katowice, Poland. There’s Climate Week in New York, now in its 10th year, taking place two weeks after GCAS. And dozens of climate conferences around the world every year focus on both big-picture and specific topics, such as oceans, forests, clean energy and sustainable transportation. (They include our own VERGE conference in mid-October, with a core focus on leveraging technology to address climate and related challenges.)

I asked the NGO leaders to weigh in about how GCAS is different.

I think the size of this event and the fact that it’s taking place in the United States is very significant.
"I think the size of this event and the fact that it’s taking place in the United States is very significant," said Aron Cramer, BSR’s president and CEO. "It has the potential to be one of the largest, if not the largest, climate events ever to take place in the United States."

One big differentiator, Cramer told me, is that next week’s summit focuses on what, in international relations parlance, are referred to as "nonstate actors" — entities that are not national governments, such as cities, states and provinces, civil society organizations, labor groups, religious institutions, investors — and businesses. Together, they’ll be "demonstrating that there’s a lot of bottom-up action that’s taking place, and that there’s great vitality in the climate movement coming from those directions," Cramer said.

To a large extent, the event will be an enormous rallying of the troops — "a moment in time to show extraordinary momentum at the scale and scope we aspire to getting to," as Mindy Lubber, president and CEO of Ceres, put it. "It is an opportunity to bring some of these players together and an opportunity for companies and investors to push their own institutions to do more. So, the value and the beauty of the summit — a little bit of the magic, so to speak — is bringing all the nonstate actors together to show what they can do and how much more they’re ready to do."

"We’ve never had a gathering like this, and certainly not at this level and intensity," said Mark Watts, executive director of C40, a network of the world’s largest cities committed to addressing climate change. Organizing the event, he said, "has really galvanized working relationships between businesses that are leading on climate change, mayors that are leading on climate change, governors, civil society and investors in a way that I think will have really meaningful consequences going forward. We’re making each of them more aware of barriers and problems and better able to help each other."

An agenda of collaboration

The bulk of the summit takes place Sept. 13 and 14, although the hundreds of affiliate events will be going on all week; according to my recent count, no fewer than 82 events take place Sept. 11 — from Accelerating Climate Action to Zero Footprint Dining. They range from a few hours to a couple days each. Perusing the long list of affiliate events is in itself a great education on the breadth of issues that fall under the climate umbrella.

The program for the main event has been slower to come together, at least in terms of specific speakers at specific times. Overall, it will focus on the aforementioned five key challenges and will feature a slew of announcements and commitments from across the range of nonstate actors, but particularly from companies and cities.

"I think we’ve got over 30 mayors of major cities, which is a huge number for this kind of event to travel to San Francisco, who will be on stage announcing or explaining the commitments they’ve made across four major areas: energy; transport; waste management; and building energy efficiency," Watts told me. "They’re going to be joined by chief executives of major companies, governors of states, investors, etc., making parallel commitments."

In some cases, the focus will be on partnerships between and among the various players — for example, to accelerate market uptake of clean technologies.

Where can we use the power of states and regions to unlock what's happening in cities? And where could you bring businesses together with cities?
"In different elements of GCAS, we'll have different goals but a lot of them with this idea of what happens when you bring these different constituencies together," explained Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group. For example, her organization has been working with Watts and C40 Cities to build momentum for the Under2 Coalition, a group of state and regional governments committed to keeping global temperature rises to under 2 degrees Celsius. (Climate Group is the secretariat for the coalition.) Among the questions, Clarkson said: "Where can we use the power of states and regions to unlock what's happening in cities? And where could you bring businesses together with cities?"

Another example is the Zero Emission Vehicle Challenge, where cities, states and businesses are working to aggregate demand for clean transportation and are calling on the automotive companies "to start talking about the endgame for the internal combustion engine," Clarkson said. "It was really interesting to bring those groups together and say, ‘If you combine all this demand, you get a really strong signal.’ I think that's what's really interesting about GCAS, is that we've managed to create these thematics that cut across different constituencies."

To a large extent, the summit’s focus will be on celebrating successes and pushing for more. In the finance arena, "we’ll be showcasing some substantial new investments in a clean energy future," said Ceres’ Lubber. "We’ll be looking at the work of 290 investors who have come together — whose assets total $29 trillion, a third of the economy — saying we need to act on climate and we need every company in our portfolio. We’ve got ambitious and audacious things going on but it’s only a start. We need a lot more and I think the summit is a perfect opportunity to bring those voices together and to show clear, decision-useful, goal-oriented metrics of what’s going on, how we’re going to keep track of it and how we’re going to make sure it keeps going."

So, too, in the area of land use. "In this summit, we are going to show how much by collaborating we can not only define new targets but also shift what we have already defined as a commitment," Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of the Climate and Energy Practice of WWF International, told me. "This is a time to continue trying to achieve the New York Declaration on Forests by working in a collaborative way — the people working on land, on agriculture and soil, the people working on forests, on food. Food is a strong way to continue developing action and also to engage more actively citizens in bringing climate solutions."

The opportunity for companies

To a large extent, the topics covered at the summit — and the affiliate events — will be familiar to anyone who’s been working in the sustainable business field: clean energy, science-based targets, sustainable communities, healthy oceans, resilient food systems, investments in climate-friendly technologies, divestments in fossil fuels, zero-emissions vehicles, the circular economy — and how to achieve all these goals in what’s become known as a "just transition," ensuring that climate action creates decent jobs and conditions for workers and communities.

Indeed, spending a few days in San Francisco next week, or virtually via the online streaming of some events, will be a crash course in pretty much every climate challenge and solution under the sun.

BSR, for its part, is playing a lead role to make sure that the business community is well-represented across the entire summit "working closely with our six partners in the We Mean Business coalition to ensure that our collective membership and business contacts are fully represented at the summit," Cramer said.

That involves sending two key messages, he said. “The first is that climate action is good for business. It’s happening, and businesses are reorienting their models in order to shift to a low-carbon and ultimately a new zero economy by the middle of the century. And related to that is the business community sending a strong signal to policymakers that climate ambition on their part is important and that with the right policy frameworks, businesses can and will go even further in accelerating action on the road to a clean energy economy."

"It is a summit to showcase, because what we need to say to the world is that things are happening and that it's really important," explained WWF’s Pulgar-Vidal. "But also, it is a time to define new commitments and new targets, and those targets must be based on science."

For example, he said, "There are coalitions that are working in the decarbonization of transport and mobility, so the Transport Decarbonization Alliance is a good example of clear targets to strongly decarbonize all those sectors."

2020 vision

I asked the NGO leaders to envision what the legacy of the summit might be in two years, asking, "When you look back in September 2020, what's the story you hope to be able to tell about this year's summit, in terms of what happened there that led to success?"

In September 2020, we’ll say that the 500 companies that were committed to science-based targets in September of 2018 has doubled or more.
"In September 2020, we’ll say that the 500 companies that were committed to science-based targets in September of 2018 has doubled or more," said BSR’s Cramer. "We will look back and say that the summit was a time when we married the importance of climate ambition with economic vitality, looking at climate through the lens of the just transition, looking at climate through the lens of resilience that will benefit and secure stable economic activity, and that that part of the agenda will have gotten significantly greater attention."

"I think we’ll be able to say that that’s where the matchmaking happened," said C40’s Watts. “It was where commitments were set to making either the whole or a major area of their city in zero-emission zones by 2030, so no fossil-fuel-powered vehicles whatsoever. There are tough regulations coming in from the policy side that start driving demand for investment in low-carbon technology, and businesses are now fundamentally changing their business model because that’s where they see their future going, and then the investment dollars start to flow."

"In two years' time, we'll be at the stage in the Paris Agreement where we need to see the first round of revisions of the [national commitments]," said Climate Group's Clarkson. "What we want to see is that holding this summit gave national governments the confidence to really step up their commitments and try to move us towards that 2-degree pathway. I hope that summit showed, ‘Look, there's so much happening in businesses, in states and regions, in cities, that when you bring it together can give national governments the confidence.’ And I hope in 2020 we're seeing that play through into what they do at the COP."

"This was a time to keep momentum by moving at the economic level," said Pulgar-Vidal. "It was a time in which by working with different sectors, with different actors, at different levels, we kept momentum and moved the agenda towards the next milestone."

"The message really is scale and scope," said Lubber. "We hope to show that it can be done in a greater way than is being done now, that we were able to take the inconvenient and difficult steps. We want to show more and bigger opportunities for change, and see companies and investors committing to do it."

More on this topic