How the UN's climate efforts could change the business world

As United Nations member countries wrapped up the 25th annual climate change negotiations conference in Madrid, the world saw yet another round of pledges from the private sector to do its part in fighting climate change.

The question remains if the commitments made in Spain and earlier in the year at various global climate conferences are just “clever accounting and creative PR,” as 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg said, or the actual wave of change needed in order to contain global warming and combat the ravages of a changing climate.

But what all these initiatives and pledges really tell us is that assumptions about the private sector not caring about climate change are somewhat inaccurate. However, the change is being spurred on by a minority in terms of overall company value, and what could actually make a much bigger impact on climate action is government regulation to support those business leaders.

Changing business for a changing climate

Fortune spoke with several CEOs and business leaders this year about their efforts to change their industry and put pressure on colleagues to operate in acknowledgement of the climate crisis.

A study conducted by consulting firm Accenture, coupled with a progress report from UN Global Compact, an effort to bring CEOs into the sustainability fold, both noted a majority of the 1,000 CEOs surveyed in nearly 100 countries were not happy with the way their industries or operations were responding to the emergency. This year seemed to give them a chance to help accelerate some sort of change.

This past week in Madrid, thousands protested, negotiated, and pledged at the UN meeting to further refine commitments under the Paris Agreement. Along with them, nearly 800 companies agreed to conform with the Science Based Targets Initiative, a collaboration between the UN Global Compact and think tanks like the World Resources Institute and World Wide Fund for Nature.

Corporations like Nike, Microsoft, Nestle, and McDonalds have agreed to be evaluated based on recommendations laid out by scientists in reports like those from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been frequently cited by Thunberg and other activists as a guideline.

In October, mayors from around the world gathered for the C40 conference in Copenhagen. In an interesting move, the organization named the mayor of car-centric and once massively polluted Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, as its chair.

As President Donald Trump withdraws the U.S. from the Paris Agreement and favors the oil and gas sector’s plea to rollback environmental protections, business leaders were also present to collaborate with local governments on issues like more ‘green’ public and private transport, job training programs, and other community-based efforts.

Climate Executive Officer could be a new title

Of course, the trend has been slow to take hold due to the fear of losing revenue and maintaining commitments to shareholders. But, despite the criticism of the fossil fuel industry, companies in other sectors like banking, software, and even infrastructure seem to actually want real change, while maintaining profits.

Regardless of the challenges, CEOs like Mads Nipper of Denmark-based Grundfos are undeterred. His company is the largest water pump manufacturer in the world for urban infrastructure and private use.

But Nipper told Fortune he sees the purpose of Grundfos as not just to make a profit from the sale of pumps, but to “be passionate about making contributions to the world’s energy efficiency and… finding creative solutions” to the world’s water-related issues.

Nipper has not experienced pushback on putting water high up on the climate adaptation agenda, given that droughts, floods, and coastal erosion are just some of issues resulting from unchecked greenhouse gas emissions.

Nipper said, however, that Grundfos has the “privilege” of being a family-run corporation that has been focusing on sustainability and corporate social responsibility for decades, as well as operating in a country whose national government has enacted climate-friendly policies. As the Accenture report pointed out, the trickle-down effect of this from top leadership is a key factor. It has afforded him the luxury to be “wildly ambitious” in setting a goal to help 300 million people around the world access clean water.

“It starts in our own house,” Nipper said about how the company plans to achieve that goal. Grundfos has worked on its own value chain and operations to limit its carbon footprint. He noted the internal-first approach to climate action may not work in every industry, but it goes a long way in at least “limiting the damage” done by the private sector.

The next step after “taking our own medicine,” he said, is to actually do something “climate positive” in terms of external services and products.

Money cannot be ‘neutral’

One of the industries in which it might make sense to evaluate climate-related impact in services first is banking.

The United Nations had made a show of focusing on climate change with a separate day-long summit dedicated to it during its annual General Assembly this past September. During the week, several initiatives were announced, including the Partnership for Accounting Financials (PCAF).

PCAF includes more than 50 lenders, like Amalgamated Bank and various U.S.-based credit unions, who are going to start evaluating borrowers by their carbon footprint and the environmental impact of what the loan would finance, using science-based targets.

As the former head of the UN climate agency Christiana Figueres said: “Every investment we make today has an emissions lock-in. The quality of investment today equals the quality of energy tomorrow and our quality of life forever.”

Keith R. Mestrich, president and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, told Fortune that the banking sector has a responsibility when it comes to climate change.

“You cannot shift the economy in the ways called for by the scientists and world leaders without having finance aligned,” he said. “That is right there in the Paris Climate Agreement, and right now the banking community is far behind in its response and continues to make loans that are making the crisis worse.”

CEO of Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, Peter Blom, agreed.

“Money is not neutral,” said Blom. “If all financial institutions recognize the power of money and the responsibility that comes with that, then solutions will follow.”

These are great notions in theory, but whether the climate-vetting process in lending will be effective still needs to be evaluated. Triodos Bank, Blom noted, is at an advantage.

Since it is located in a country with a more climate-friendly regulatory environment and because of the business culture in northern Europe, it has never lent to fossil fuel companies. The bank’s carbon emissions are automatically lower than many American financial institutions that did not grow with sustainability as a central ethos.

Still, Mestrich said PCAF is a good base for setting new standards in institutional lending.

“The borrowing entity doesn’t have to do anything differently,” Mestrick said. “The bank is using data it has from the client and publicly available emissions data to calculate the emissions at a portfolio level. So, for example, if I have $100 million in mortgages that equals X megawatts of energy use based on average home energy use, and the CO₂ of that energy in my markets is Y, then the emissions from my mortgage portfolio is XY.”

It seems the relative ease of the concept, though possibly complicated in how will actually be applied, is what may make more American banks sign on to it and perhaps what may be a catalyst for regulations governing the industry in the future—maybe even under a Green New Deal, the proposed legislation to transform the U.S. economy with a transition away from fossil fuels.

Both Blom and Mestrich said their institutions could potentially decline loan applications based on an emissions portfolio calculation, with a bit of leeway.

Mestrich explained Amalgamated could “decline to be involved” with new applicants based on not meeting science-based targets, but will actively work to help its current clients to “align our portfolio” to those targets once a clear analysis has been established.

For Triodos Bank, Blom explained, it will consider “transition investment,” meaning a potential borrower’s business model may not meet the science-based targets, “but the entrepreneur has decided for instance to convert to organic farming. There we can decide to invest, but that would always be coupled with a clear road map, and a deadline for meeting our investment criteria. If the entrepreneur does not succeed in making the transition, we would end the relationship.”

Again though, those who signed onto PCAF only represent about $2 trillion in assets, a drop in the bucket when considering large institutions like JPMorgan, Citibank, and HSBC continue to include fossil fuel-based projects in their portfolio. But Nipper said, “peer pressure” could go a long way, particularly when investors and shareholders have become increasingly aware of their money being used toward large-emissions projects.

Does it all come down to peer (and shareholder) pressure?

Grundfos came out in 2015 as one of the first European companies to align itself with two of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, in part to set a tone in the private sector and encourage others to do so, as well.

Though Nipper admits the company’s influence over American or Chinese corporations “is still ahead of us,” he is hopeful not just investors, but employees, will look to other companies and ask their leadership, “Why aren’t we doing the same?”

So, while the criticism by activists and non-governmental organizations of the inaction at this year’s meeting in Madrid is warranted in terms of concrete policies at the national government level, there is a chance of a bit of hope on the private sector side.

The crucial point here is how much time it will take for momentum to build among the most polluting companies—something scientists say there is not much of before we do irreversible damage to the planet.

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