How companies led the way on clean energy in Virginia

How companies led the way on clean energy in Virginia

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On March 6, the Virginia legislature passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) — landmark legislation that puts the Commonwealth of Virginia on a clear path to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045.

Virginia joins seven other states — California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Washington — along with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, which have enacted similar legal requirements, with more states to follow in the coming months. A few days earlier, the Virginia legislature passed a separate bill that will bring Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

How did these results come about? A broad coalition of clean energy businesses, environmental groups, grassroots groups and lawmakers came together to craft the bills, negotiate with the state’s major utilities and shepherd them to final passage. (Note: As of this writing, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has yet to sign the bills, although he is widely expected to sign.)

And importantly: A number of businesses that are not tied to the energy sector also spoke up in support of these bills, helping state legislators understand that there is broad business support for decarbonizing the entire Virginia economy.

Eight companies — Akamai Technologies, IKEA North America Services, Kaiser Permanente, Mars, Nestlé USA, Schneider Electric, Unilever and Worthen Industries — signed a letter of support (PDF) for the VCEA and also lobbied legislators to pass it. Over a dozen companies — including Ameresco, Cree Lighting, Lutron Electronics, Mars, Microsoft, Nestlé, Salesforce, Schneider Electric and Unilever — signed a letter thanking (PDF) Northam and the legislature for passing the RGGI bill.

Amazing work is going on across the economy on climate solutions — from basic science, to innovation inside companies, to a growing start-up ecosystem, to finance, to voluntary action by hundreds of companies and millions of individuals. And yet, emissions are still rising when they need to be falling fast. According to the IPCC, we need to cut emissions essentially in half by 2030.

That will require public policy — everywhere — to underpin and turbocharge all the innovation, investment and voluntary actions — to reduce risk, increase returns and channel money quickly away from the legacy polluting technologies we rely on today and into the clean climate solutions we need for tomorrow.

Important climate policies are being debated at every level of government — in cities, counties, states and countries. Companies have influence everywhere they operate, and when they choose to stay silent on climate policies, they enable the fossil-fuel industry to dominate the debates.

Two examples of important policies being debated right now: Illinois is considering its own 100 percent clean energy bill, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). Companies helped get similar bills passed in California and Virginia; their support would help enormously in Illinois. Similarly, states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region have been negotiating the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), which would institute a cap-and-invest program for transportation emissions across the 12-state (plus D.C.) region. The fossil fuel companies would like to see this initiative weakened or killed — so we need businesses who care about climate to step up and speak up.

In the last couple of years, we’ve been seeing more companies speaking up on climate policy. We saw this in California with dozens of companies speaking up on SB100 (which committed California to 100 percent clean energy by 2045). And we just saw it in Virginia, with businesses helping counter the attempts by the fossil-fuel industry to derail progress.

Raising the bar

Too many companies, however, are still silent most of the time. We need many more companies to speak up in favor of climate policy, everywhere they operate — not just on CEJA and TCI, but also on climate policies in every other state and region. It’s time to raise the bar on corporate leadership on climate action, from the operational decarbonization of the last decade to the economy-wide rapid action we need in the coming decade.

If you work at a company, or you might someday, you should be asking them where they stand on proposed climate policies everywhere they operate. The default answer from most businesses today on climate policies is essentially: "Speaking up involves risk, so unless there’s a big direct benefit to us in speaking up, we’ll stay silent." (Often, they aren’t even aware of many climate policies being debated in the regions where they operate — why track them if you’re not going to get involved?)

This needs to change to something more like: "This is a decent policy that will accelerate decarbonization in the region, moving it closer to the path the IPCC has laid out — so unless there is a strong reason why we should not support it, we will speak up in favor of it."

This is why we’ve started ClimateVoice: to raise the voices of thousands of employees and students to encourage companies to step up to this moment and truly go all in on climate — in their operations and, especially, in their support for climate policy aligned with a 1.5-degree Celsius future and rooted in climate justice. We are building on the work by many NGOs, which have been increasingly calling for companies to speak up on climate policy.

We will celebrate and highlight the companies that do speak up — such as the ones that just spoke up in Virginia — and do so with two key demographics: their current employees and the students they need to hire in the next few years. Later this year, we will start calling out those who stay silent.

Hence our call to action: It’s time for companies to get off the sidelines and support climate policy, everywhere they operate. And it’s time for students and employees everywhere to raise their voices and let companies know that they want business to go all in on climate. Do that at climatevoice.org.

And then start asking companies where they stand on policies. And don’t accept "We prefer to be neutral" as an answer.