Power Shift: The Business Role in Addressing Climate Change

February 29, 2016
Energy & Environment, Social Entrepreneurship





The Paris Agreement in December was the widest consensus of world leaders on climate change in history. But business is the engine that will power actual solutions, according to a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

"Government can't solve these problems alone and civil society will not solve these problems alone," Professor Daniel Vermeer said. "It's critical that businesses see themselves as in the role of creating solutions."

Historically, 90 percent of private sector sustainability efforts have centered on reducing company footprints by minimizing waste and the use of energy and water while staying profitable, Vermeer said. But now companies have an opportunity to focus instead on what Vermeer calls their "handprint."

"Instead of having a bolt-on, minimize-the-downside risk to sustainability, companies are increasingly seeing sustainability as one of the engines that can drive their success in the next generation of the industries that they participate in," Vermeer said. "Handprint is an idea that companies have a whole set of assets, capabilities and relationships that are potentially relevant to these kinds of questions. They have an ability to do research and drive innovation around new technologies and new business models and new processes for meeting people's needs that don't have the same resource requirements or the same impacts on the climate."

Vermeer said businesses with global supply chains are already feeling and reacting to the impacts of climate change.

"An example of that is food companies," he said. "In many places, they're experiencing more droughts, more storms and increasing impacts on crop yields.  And they expect these conditions to get more severe in coming years.  To address this issue, they are investing in drought-tolerant crops, shifting to more stable growing regions, and investing in more resilient infrastructure.  Recently, Kelloggs and General Mills have also committed to slash carbon emissions across their operations and supply chains.   For many companies, there isn't a debate about the reality of climate change - the discussion now is how to prepare and thrive in a climate-changed world."

Jim Rogers former CEO of Duke Energy, said while the Paris agreement should be celebrated, it is also "only the beginning of the beginning."

Rogers said some of the world's largest companies are already taking action, including Wal-Mart and Lockheed Martin, both of which are investing in solar power.

"There's a wide range of major companies in the U.S. that are taking action consistent with their sustainability objectives to address the issue of climate change," Rogers said.

Vermeer said business can take the lead in three areas: Innovation, investment and implementation.

"Government understands the problem, but government isn't always the best engine for innovation," he said. "Business has the resources, the skills and the intuition to find these new approaches that society desperately needs. It's going to require trillions of dollars of investment to transform our system to a truly low-carbon system that is compatible with a stable climate. And businesses themselves are going to have to be the guinea pigs for systems that operate differently."

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