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Policy Voice

How sustainability professionals can use their collective voice to speed climate progress

Sustainability professionals can take meaningful action to push companies to align their policy goals and climate objectives.

Bill Weihl and LEAD statement supporters on stage at GreenBiz 24 keynote

Bill Weihl, founder and co-executive director of Climate Voice, delivered a keynote address at GreenBiz 24 last week about the collective power of sustainability professionals. Weihl and Jennifer Allyn, ClimateVoice's director of campaigns and programs, were joined on stage by signers of the organization's LEAD Statement. Source: Burgundy Visuals for GreenBiz

2023 marked the first year that carbon emissions declined in the U.S. since the COVID era — but they are not falling fast enough, and they are still rising globally. So how do we speed decarbonization and achieve the "transition" from fossil fuels agreed to at last year’s COP28 meeting? One key group that can help speed climate progress is sustainability professionals — and all employees who are working to advance sustainability efforts at their workplaces. In addition to their important work on decarbonizing operations, sustainability professionals can and should use their influence to move companies to advocate for strong climate policy — one of the most important levers in creating meaningful systemic change. Climate professionals have a crucial role to play in accelerating progress.

The good news is that the ranks of the sustainability profession are swelling rapidly, and it’s a broad cadre that reaches far wider than just the most visible roles such as chief sustainability officer. Many of these professionals are setting ambitious goals and doing terrific work in reducing emissions in operations — and they are the first to understand that meeting corporate goals will require bold and binding public policy that enables the change we need. We all know that public policy is one of the biggest and highest leverage opportunities to reduce emissions at speed and scale. That’s where sustainability professionals’ role as catalysts comes in.

To this point, GreenBiz chairman and co-founder Joel Makower recently told us in an interview, "All of us — those inside companies and those outside — spend too much time celebrating incremental change in an era where audacious step-change is needed." He asserts that "we need to ensure that companies align their sustainability commitments and achievements with their policy stances." So just exactly how do sustainability professionals help make that happen?

The first step is speaking out about the vital importance of public policy to addressing the climate crisis, as one of us (Bill) did in his recent remarks at the GreenBiz 24 conference (made with the help of AI technology to generate speech from a "clone" of his voice, given his inability to speak because of ALS). More than 480 current and former sustainability professionals soon responded by signing a joint statement urging companies to "back policy action at the speed and scale required to meet our global goals and avert the worst outcomes." The LEAD Statement, still open to signatures, sets out four specific steps companies should take to align their policy goals with their climate objectives:

  • Leave obstructing trade associations;
  • Elevate climate policy as a company priority;
  • Advocate publicly for effective binding climate policies; and
  • Demonstrate real commitment to the collective action needed to achieve the just and equitable transition from fossil fuels agreed on at COP28.

We’ve written here about the huge climate policy obstruction posed by the Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations, and the disconnect when pro-climate companies continue to send them membership dues. Companies must, as Step 1, weaken this obstruction by leaving these trade associations and counter their negative influence by leading through public statements in support of climate policy progress at every turn. Sustainability leaders can be part of bringing companies into alignment on trade associations, and should not shy away from the issue.

In addition to distancing themselves from obstructing trade associations, companies must, as Step 2, play a much more proactive role on climate policy at this critical turning point. (Note: Steps 1 and 2 need not — and should not — be sequential. They should be pursued in parallel.) For a road map to upcoming policy opportunities, sustainability leaders can check out great tools such as the Ceres Policy Outlook 2024. It highlights an "impressive array of recent policy victories, which we must fight to preserve in 2024 and beyond." Ceres points out that "this is not the time to lose sight of the climate and sustainability risks that threaten corporate performance and the entire economy. Instead, the public and private sectors must redouble our shared effort."

When climate-forward companies step up more effectively in the policy arena — as Apple, Google, Salesforce and Microsoft recently did in the fight for a strong climate disclosure law in California — it can make all the difference for policy progress. The climate policy agenda for next year is packed with actions that are essential to build on the impressive clean energy momentum of the Inflation Reduction Act and protect that historic bill from multiple repeal attempts. We need companies — not just sustainability professionals, but CEOs, other executives, employees, lobbyists — to show up and join the fight.

In addition to their work on decarbonizing operations, sustainability professionals can and should use their influence to move companies to advocate for strong climate policy — one of the most important levers in creating meaningful systemic change.

If they speak up, sustainability professionals can play a key role in getting companies to step up on climate policy. They have dedicated their careers to combating climate change, and a growing number are saying out loud that they believe that all companies must leverage their power and influence to accelerate climate policy progress. Alone, this could be a difficult message, but the community of climate professionals can raise a powerful voice together. If you’ve been quiet or on the sidelines, or not actively advocating for climate policy progress — now is the time to step up and raise your voice for meaningful policy action and support. 

Here are three ways to learn more and take action:

  1. Sign onto the LEAD Statement and join the growing community of sustainability professionals "adding their voices to the chorus calling for companies to engage forcefully and responsibly with public policy to accelerate climate action."
  2. Review the Ceres Policy Outlook for 2024 and commit to elevating as many of these priorities as possible this year.
  3. Assess your company’s trade association relationships and begin speaking up to counter the rampant trade association obstruction of climate policy progress, especially by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A key issue to keep an eye on this quarter is the chamber’s stance on the forthcoming SEC disclosure rules. Make sure your company is on the right side of history when it comes to strong climate rules — and ensure your company speaks up when the chamber and other trade associations are blocking climate policy progress.

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