Messages from Paris: Business execs write home

From the climate summit in Paris comes a message to the world urging a shift away from fossil fuels.

Tens of thousands of power players in nation states, business, NGOs and beyond gathered at COP21 to hammer out a history-making climate pact over the past two weeks. The agreement forged over the weekend is being both praised and panned in sustainability circles. 

Here, seven leaders from a variety of businesses shared their observations and hopes from Paris with GreenBiz for what lies ahead. Responses have been edited for length.

Pierre Börjesson, senior sustainability specialist, H&M

What would a win at COP be for your company?

Pierre Börjesson

Pierre Börjesson

We encourage everyone participating in the processes up until, during and after COP21 to promote a strong progressive climate agenda. This includes setting targets supported by science, promoting collaborations across sectors and increased finance to climate-oriented activities.

These activities are all existing commitments by H&M. However, motivating a larger group within politics, industry and civil society is essential to the global community to secure continued growth, increased quality of life for more people, healthy ecosystem services and a safe environment for people and planet.

Once there, what are you surprised about? Disappointed about?

We are very happy to see the collaboration across borders...Now there is a momentum we as a global community must carry forward responsibly and with power to make a difference.

Although the agreement is not reaching what science is promoting as a safe temperature, we believe it is not correct to express disappointment, as it is what comes after COP21 that is the most important. Now is the time for all of us to implement more bold actions.

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP?

At H&M we have worked with climate-related activities for a very long time. The biggest difference will be that we now have a much bigger focus from many more players. The increased financing is enabling innovation, collaborations and development across borders.

We [feel] very positive to see that a 1.5 degrees Celsius effort is agreed to have in the text. Of course it would make it even stronger if commitments and targets were also aligned with 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We will continue to increase our focus on climate-related activities...and to support innovation in technology, enabling more environmentally orientated materials and processes. We will continue to push our commitment to 100 percent renewable energy into markets where it is not yet available to purchase credibly. We are committed to set science-based targets, pushing our value chain into more sustainable operations.

We are happy to see initiatives like Earth Statement and Fossil Free Sweden, both which we support. We are dedicated to ensure the world is a better place with H&M than what it would have been without H&M. It is important that we and everyone else  politicians, industry colleagues, civil society  are not seeing this momentum as business as usual but as a step into a new economy for companies and nations.

Brigitta Huckestein, senior manager of energy and climate policy, BASF

What would a win at COP be for your company? 

Brigitta Huckestein

Brigitta Huckestein

Prior to COP21, BASF called for an ambitious climate-protection agreement together with numerous international companies, for example, via the European Chemical Industry Council. We support the United Nations’ goals for achieving a global, long-term, and reliable agreement to reduce emissions  preferably with an internationally binding price for CO2. This regulatory climate protection framework provides an essential basis for innovations and long-term investments in low-emission future technologies. 

Once there, what are you surprised about? Disappointed about?

I was surprised how positive the stronger involvement of the business community has influenced the willingness for a strong agreement: While in Copenhagen parties were asked to subsidize technologies. In Paris they are asked to invest wisely. Climate-friendly technologies improved and became cheaper. This enabled so many countries to submit meaningful INDCs without the fear to compromise on their development goals.

I would have appreciated if energy-efficient buildings would play a more important role, taking the absolute emissions coming from this sector and the cost-efficient potentials into account.

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP?

BASF has firmly embedded sustainability in its corporate purpose: "We create chemistry for a sustainable future." We put a strong focus on innovation and market forces to find climate change solutions and support a global price for CO2 emissions.

We actively lobby for setting standards in the building sector to make full use of cost-efficient mitigation options and encourage markets for renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) by helping to make them more cost-competitive. 

Eric Rondolat, CEO, Philips Lighting

What would a win at COP be for your company? 

Eric Rondolat

Eric Rondolat

The collective pledges of every country at COP21 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are an encouraging first step but not enough...At Philips, we believe that the world must set more ambitious goals to improve energy efficiency. By this, I mean that all the wider human community — world leaders, city mayors, businessmen and citizens — should combine their efforts to close the gap.

Global companies have an important role to play in driving down carbon emissions and energy consumption. This is why we have put sustainability at the core of our strategy, and we (were) walking the walk: In Paris during COP21, Philips pledged that we will cut our carbon footprint to zero by 2020.

From 2007 until 2015, we expect to have reduced the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent, but we want to do more, accelerating our emissions reductions and achieving carbon neutrality in the next five years. An action already taken is Philips’ membership of the RE100 program.  Philips already increased its use of renewable energy from 8 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2014. This commitment dovetails nicely with our decision to sign, together with CEOs from 78 companies and 20 economic sectors, an open letter urging climate action.

It takes that potent combination of entrepreneurial drive and political will to make this energy-efficient future a reality. We are already taking action, and I hope governments will follow.

Once there, what were you surprised about? Disappointed about?

We were nicely surprised to see the high level of commitment from all the actors involved. We had the pleasure to meet Rachel Kyte, Al Gore, Mayor Hidalgo and many U.N. city mayors and other leaders...

The good news is that the solutions are already there; LED lighting is a perfect example. It uses 40 percent less energy than conventional lighting, yet we still cling to outdated and inefficient technology. As lighting accounts for a staggering 19 percent of all electricity consumed globally, the carbon reduction potential is clearly huge. In fact, our newest estimates show that a universal switch globally to LED would slash this figure to below 10 percent.

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP? 

Harry Verhaar, Head of Global Public & Government Affairs for Philips Lighting

Harry Verhaar

Harry Verhaar

When I am back at the office the first post-COP thing I will do is to reach out to our internal team to thank them.

Nobody can do this alone, so we team up internally as well as work in partnership with many external stakeholders. At COP19 I had the honor and the privilege of being invited to join a panel with U.N. Secretary GeneralBan Ki Moon, and there I was asked what I had learned from working in partnership with the United Nations.

I said that I had learned three things from that...first of all that this provides the inspiration to see why we work on tackling climate change and sustainable development. This does not only tackle the urgent and huge risks of global warming, but it also provides a unique opportunity to develop new models for more equitable socioeconomic development, and a better inclusive future for all.

Secondly it creates aspiration, where we define what our ambition levels are, and what we want and need to accomplish by when. And lastly – most importantly now as we need to move from talking to acting  it  drives the perspiration level, when we roll up our sleeves to put our hands on the plough to do the job and to make this better future a reality. These things  inspiration, aspiration, perspiration  in working on this collectively, are on my mind.

Josh Prigge, director of regenerative development , Fetzer Vineyards

What would a win at COP be for your company?

Josh Prigge

Josh Prigge

We were thrilled to be invited to share what Fetzer Vineyards, the largest winery in the world to achieve B Corp Certification earlier this year, is doing to address climate change at Caring for Climate Business Forum at COP21. In a broad sense, the aim of the Business Forum was to build momentum and support from the business sector for a global agreement on solutions for climate change.

We hope that measures we shared at COP21 — such as our zero-waste business practices and renewable energy programs — will inspire others to pursue similar measures, in the wine sector and agriculture, and beyond.

Once there, what are you surprised about? Disappointed about?

I can’t say there was anything that disappointed me..I was pleasantly surprised to see how many young people attended the conference, alongside delegates and global leaders in business. It’s important for youth to be a part of this historic event because they’re so instrumental in building the momentum for climate change on the global stage, and also crucially because their implementation of solutions will be essential to success.

I was also just really pleased with the scale of the event and the diversity of businesses represented.

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP?

Certainly, I came away with even greater resolve to do all we can to support measures like COP21 aiming to make a lasting impact on climate change. We have agreed to join the U.N.'s Climate Neutral Now initiative...we commit to working towards carbon-neutral status through the further reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize all remaining emissions. We’ve been tracking and reducing greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, and have been able to reduce our emissions over 50 percent.

I came away energized by what’s possible in the realm of agriculture and business when we redefine success to include operating in ways that restore, revitalize and regenerate ecosystems and communities. We recently committed to a sweeping initiative to become net positive in our operations by 2030, underscoring our commitment to putting more back into the world than we are taking out, resulting in a positive corporate footprint.

Hopefully, through measures such as these and the learnings we’re able to share at key events like COP21 we can be a model for businesses and organizations around the world.

Joe Speicher, executive director, Autodesk Foundation

What would a win at COP be for your company?

Joe Speicher

Joe Speicher

The Paris Agreement is a win for Autodesk. We’ve been investing in the tools and customers working towards a low-carbon future for years, and COP not only validated that, but signaled that we can and should be investing more. Now that we have a global agreement to reduce emissions, the designers, architects and engineers who are our customers can now get to work executing on this vision. 

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP? 

We don’t plan to do anything differently now, but the Paris Agreement does pave the way for more energy innovation from the private sector. As a technology company, we are already thinking about and supporting the most catalytic investments in research and development that will exceed the emissions targets put forth at COP21. We are looking at energy storage (mostly a materials issue), distribution (mostly an IoT issue) and conservation (mostly a data issue), and the role technology can play in advancing the agenda. 

Additionally, we’ll be continuing our work with our coalition partners and are in the process of committing to all seven We Mean Business commitments (6 of 7 so far), because we believe every business needs to set rigorous goals and hold themselves accountable. Working with the larger community is necessary as creating a clean economy extends far beyond just our four walls.  

Once there, what are you surprised about? Disappointed about?

I was surprised at the alignment between the business community and the public sector. Everyone I spoke to understands that a low-carbon future is necessary, and will be profitable for those who innovate. And my only disappointment was that the health of the oceans were not explicit in the Paris Agreement. 

Sylvain Guyoton, VP of research at EcoVadis

What would a win at COP be for your company?

Sylvain Guyoton

Sylvain Guyoton

A win for EcoVadis would be that all those striving to fight climate change  the nation-states, the companies, the non-governmental organizations  realize supply chains are effective and powerful levers to disseminate good energy practices across the entire economy. According to a recent survey by SustainAbility and GlobeScan, reducing carbon emissions in the supply chain will be the second most effective strategy after COP21.

Why? Because across all industries, supply chain emissions represent...an average of 86 percent of total carbon emissions. Supply chains are where emissions hotspots are, where the success or failure of the combat against climate change will be determined, and where we have an opportunity to...make real progress in sustainability.

Another win for EcoVadis would be for COP21 to be recognized as a sustainable event itself. EcoVadis was a proud sponsor of COP21, and assessed the environmental practices of all 80 suppliers with the objective of making the entire event a showcase of sustainability.

Once there, what are you surprised about? Disappointed about?

The level of engagement of nation-states and companies positively surprised me. Everyone seems to be heading in the same direction and is united in the fight against climate change. A consensus has been built on the need to put a prize on reducing carbon. Many countries are pushing for a global temperature increase lower than 1.5°C instead of the initial target of 2°C. This is a major victory.

But will the agreement signed in Paris be adequate? Will the commitments be followed through? Will progress be fast enough? Will the constraints or the verification schemes imposed on states be respected?

These are questions for which we do not yet have answers. And that’s a pity because the stakes are high. So we’ll have to continue fighting without really knowing whether we’ll attain success. But we have no other choice. It is not a question of being optimistic or pessimistic; it’s a question of being combative.

What would you do differently Monday morning, post-COP? 

Now is without a doubt a time for action. Awareness of climate change has been raised to a level where people and organizations are compelled to take proactive measures. We, solutions providers, have to be ready to assist companies who want to implement concrete steps toward sustainability.

The engagements taken by states and big multinational corporations are going to cascade down to small and medium-size enterprises. The vast majority of companies we support are small and midsize businesses, and the post-COP period is when we accelerate the implementation of tools and solutions to help them fight climate change or attenuate its consequences.