The COP21 climate summit in Paris later this year will be humanity’s last chance to keep the disruptive effects of global warming in check. Christiana Figueres, the UN spokesperson on climate, recently told the Associated Press that “science is telling us time is running out” and added suggestively that “we are at five minutes to 12 and Paris is the 12 o’clock strike of the clock”. The sense of urgency has become inescapable. The time for environmental action can no longer be postponed.
In this last-minute rush to prevent disastrous climate scenarios and build global resilience, business greening in particular seems to have become an attractive priority, and not just for small, eco-friendly start-ups. Multinational corporations have started setting internal sustainability goals too, launching promotional ads for climate action that often, at least on the surface, appear to echo the ideals brought forward by some of the most ambitious environmental campaigns.
Think of the “Don’t let fashion go to waste” slogan on H&M recycled shopping bags or of Ben and Jerry’s commercial “If it’s melted, it’s ruined”, which pictured a melting scoop of ice cream that resembles planet Earth. Even McDonalds has committed to eradicating unsustainable deforestation practices across its supply chain, while Air France, utilities giant EDF and other big companies that rely heavily on fossil fuels have joined the board of stakeholders in this year’s climate talks and they will be acting as official sponsors of the event.
Although most corporate greening takes place in collaboration with environmental organisations, this drastic change in brand communications and global business strategies has little to share with heartfelt environmental activism. As it turns out, cleaning up production operations isn’t just about saving the planet, but it is the sensible thing to do to protect and grow profit in the long term, particularly at a time of financial and environmental instability.
Leading by example
During my brief consultancy involvement in a mainstream climate campaign sponsored by the World Bank and other key global institutional actors, I was able to finally understand where the focus of the predominant sustainability narrative lies. In the months leading up to an event that could potentially change the life of many, global policy leaders aren’t crafting a universal message to engage people across the world; instead, they are busy persuading multinational corporations to lead by example in the global revolution towards a cleaner economic system. In fact, without the approval and action of these few private protagonists, no climate agreement - no matter how widely supported - would lead to the meaningful results we now urgently need.
But how do you persuade the driving wheels of the current economic system to adopt and sponsor a movement that could potentially render them obsolete in the near future? How do you convince the ever-more-powerful that a binding climate agreement is desirable for them too?
The solution lies in providing a solid narrative that responds to their primary weakness: the need for permanent growth. Firstly, you take the expansion narrative shaping the business strategy of every multinational corporation; then you refresh it, clean it up as much as possible and highlight undesirable commercial scenarios that could take place if the company chooses not to adapt and evolve; finally, you offer them a rebranded, more environmentally conscious version of the traditional growth package.
During the few months I spent on the campaign, the branded commitments of corporate actors embracing sustainability varied considerably; the reasons behind them, not so much. Chief concerns and triggers for climate action tended to always include the awareness that climate change could threaten a company’s reliance on specific commodities across its supply chain, from coffee to oil; the desire to voluntarily invest in clean technologies that would protect profits against future institutional decisions to tax carbon emissions; the expansion of a “green” market niche that could offer corporate sustainability champions considerable returns.
The inability to distinguish and prioritise environmental and commercial goals on a sensible scale of urgency has characterised much of the ongoing mainstream climate negotiations.
In short, for multinational companies, the switch to cleaner solutions coincides with the need to mitigate all environmental and commercial risks that may arise from unchecked global warming. It’s a strategy that makes business sense, as it promises big companies some advantage over their competitors coupled with long-term financial growth.
Unfortunately, this inability to distinguish and prioritise environmental and commercial goals on a sensible scale of urgency has characterised much of the ongoing mainstream climate negotiations. It represents an unambitious approach to finding lasting global solutions for a climate crisis that is already affecting the planet’s most vulnerable inhabitants. It’s the resigned acceptance that the health of our environment is essential up until it clashes against the logic of a free, seemingly unconstrainable market.
Business as usual
And so, instead of reimagining humanity’s environmental impact when confronted with a looming global emergency, we are giving multinational corporations the option to clean up their operations as much as possible while remaining anchored to the traditional belief that the only way forward is growth-as-usual. Instead of innovating business structure by rediscussing the same old growth paradigm that has caused global power imbalances, we are encouraging big corporations to commit to what they can and make the switch to cost-efficient, clean technologies while still aiming for infinite growth. And the resulting paradox is startling.
In practice, this could mean, for example, that when a hypothetical multinational corporation decides to invest in its own wind farm, it will aim to develop it in a geographically unique place characterised by uncommonly strong winds to make it as effective as possible. In turn, this would entail making the plant as big as possible to produce as much clean energy as possible - to then power up the highest possible percentage of a big company’s constantly expanding operations. The result? That company’s activities might be genuinely cleaner and more climate-friendly, but the impact of this large-scale renewable energy project on local communities, biodiversity, access to food and cultural heritage will end up causing disproportionately harmful side effects, eventually giving rise to new global emergencies.
The production of green fuel requires the allocation of vast portions of fertile land to the cultivation of commodities for energy production, rather than food for nourishment.
Take the recent biofuel rush, for example. The production of green fuel requires the allocation of vast portions of fertile land to the cultivation of commodities for energy production - such as palm oil, sugar cane and corn - rather than food for nourishment. To understand just how large the energy crop would need to be in order to be effective, it’s enough to consider that the Congressional Research Service has calculated that even if the entire US corn crop were dedicated to the production of renewable fuel, less than 15% of national gasoline demand would be displaced.
At the same time, large-scale corn cultivation and processing would require carbon-intensive equipment and water; it would destroy habitats, accelerate deforestation, threaten biodiversity and cause imbalances across entire ecosystems; it would reduce the availability of fertile land for food crops and drive up food prices, ultimately exasperating hunger, conflict and migrations. But the resulting fuel would be environmentally friendly.
Up until this point, we have avoided considering that large-scale renewable projects developed by big corporations to clean up their operations have similarly large-scale impacts. But the climate challenge we are now facing is an opportunity to do so. We have the chance to evaluate and redefine our global environmental impact and finally replace the short-term view that puts profit before people and the planet with a more ambitious, long-term perspective. Since crises are systemic, we now have the chance to analyse the entire machinery, tweak unbalanced mechanisms and fix faulty cogs. But we can’t apply temporary patches and hope that the climate emergency affecting the planetary ecosystem will be solved eventually by an uncoordinated series of fragmented interventions.
In a world of finite resources and threatened habitats, large-scale growth at all costs must be rediscussed. This doesn’t necessarily equate to renouncing to growth altogether. It could simply mean, for example, working on reducing energy demand and investing in small-scale renewable projects to reinvent a cleaner, truly sustainable economy.
“Questioning growth is now deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries,” Tim Jackson wrote for The Economist, “yet question it we must.” Our obsessive pursuit of growth-as-usual is destroying the fragile ecosystems on which we depend for survival, he continues, safeguarding only the temporary “prosperity of the few”.
In the run-up to the climate talks in Paris, a lot more than the promise of a cleaner version of exponential corporate growth should occupy the discussion table. Mainstream institutional campaigns should be ambitious in moving the focus of the climate narrative from profitability to ecological prosperity for all while pushing for a binding global climate deal. Before it is too late.
Photograph: Activ Solar via Flickr (edited/CC licence)