Last week, I attended the ‘Business Day’ event held by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as part of World Climate Summit 2013 during COP19 in Warsaw. The mission of the day was to explore WBCSD’s ‘big ideas’ to avoid the trillionth ton of carbon. For WBCSD, the big ideas are business solutions, the core of their recently launched Action 2020. The Action 2020 framework for action builds upon Vision 2050 and considers nine priority areas, including climate change, which addressed together will bring about transformative change.
The day largely consisted of panels with more voices and insights than time to explore them. While there was neither an explicit call for collaboration nor are WBCSD’s business solutions defined as collaborative in Action 2020, all of the big ideas seemed to require it. Panel after panel identified who needs to come together to do something without directly addressing what the collaboration is, requires or really means.
As a business membership organization, WBCSD’s ‘must haves’ on climate change are practical and concrete: carbon capture and storage (CCS), forests as carbon sinks, electrifying cities and low carbon electrification of remote areas. Individual companies expounded on these solutions in practice and the technologies involved, ranging from the complexity of CCS to the simplicity of planting more trees. However, what was not discussed was how all these ‘must-haves’ share a need: collaboration. The need for business to work with countries to make CCS a reality is taken for granted. The complex collaborative working that will be required to increase wooden house-building in Europe to support the sustainable management of forests as carbon sinks will require bringing together myriad actors, including but not limited to architects, builders, local authorities, timber merchants and certification bodies.
Cities were also highlighted as hubs where electrification can have maximum impact, making them low carbon beacons. Electrifying cities towards zero emissions and implementing high efficiency measures for mobility, buildings and industry has huge potential for scale across cities and tangible benefits such as improved air quality. Siemens openly called for partner cities that could benefit from their ICT intelligence as an effective solution to harmonize electricity supply and demand. The interest from cities will come, but the interesting complexity will come about in the underbellies of the projects: companies such as Siemens working closely with the public sector at the municipal level as well as with construction companies and utilities.
In a session focused on whether we will address the carbon challenge on time, the Chair of Eskom Holdings hit on a prerequisite for collaboration: trust. That ‘we need to bridge the gap of mutual distrust’ between policymakers and business comes as no surprise. But it is important to hear this from a business leader. In our report Changing Tack we see trust, collaboration and leadership as fundamentally interlinked and reinforcing. The right leadership enhances trust, and trust is a facilitator of effective collaboration. Both trust and collaboration are essential if we are to put a price on carbon: it requires international consensus among numerous stakeholders and the domestic tools to carry it out. We can only hope the urgency of the carbon challenge and the practical nature of the business solutions offered together will have the potential to prompt leaders to emerge to accelerate the building of government-corporate trust.
There was more acknowledgement of the need for collaboration when it comes to such wider political negotiations, mainly because business continues to feel sidelined in the climate change talks. WBCSD suggested this may require the ultimate business-to-business collaboration: a ‘coalition of coalitions’ to unite a fragmented business community and get a single message across to the world on climate change. This sounds fascinating, but how does one get there?
Finally, a few members got to the ‘elephant in the room’: there are structural, systemic reasons for our current predicament relating to growth, inequality and power. Therefore, solutions cannot solely lie in practical technologies such as CCS. We must re-think those structures, parts of which undoubtedly rest on some existing collaborations. As someone in the audience put it, ‘We do need disruptive business models and it’s scary for a lot of us. Those of us who can envision it are probably the only ones who can stay in the picture.’ How far beyond business-as-usual will WBCSD business solutions go? Are ambitious, collaborative solutions like those in Action 2020 led by the businesses of today enough to tackle climate change and inequality now and in the future? Time will tell, and the clock is ticking.