Doing nothing isn’t an option when it comes to carbon neutrality – Kiran Dhanapala 

We live in an age of nonlinearity. Everything proceeds with speed, and there are no necessary and certain preconditions for one thing to lead to another. Scientific predictions are being exceeded. The idea that time is moving us to something good no longer holds true. And uncertainty and change are the new norms.

Climate change highlights this through its visible effects including heatwaves, record high temperatures, droughts and floods. In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the need to achieve a net zero emission world economy by 2050 – to keep global warming to within 1.5ºC of preindustrial levels. Yet, policy makers continue to opt for coal power plants over renewable energy!

A UN report published in July points to the implications of temperature rises especially for vulnerable populations. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report on climate change and poverty makes for dismal reading. It hits hard at governments and the private sector but also criticises the human rights community for relegating the effects of climate change to the margins. It also comments on the obligation of governments to mitigate these impediments.

The report views climate change as a failure of profit driven corporate actors, and a fossil fuel industry that knew it is responsible for higher emissions and the likely effects of climate change. It details how fossil fuel companies thwarted binding emission commitments and obstructed meaningful change.

Government complicity in subsidising fossil fuels is as high as US$ 5.2 trillion a year (6.3% of global GDP). In the last two decades, rather than protect people from climate change, global trade and investment treaties offer investors significant rights over resources.

The report calls for an economic transformation that decouples economic wellbeing and poverty reduction from resource depletion, fossil fuel emissions and waste.

Radical change can be effected by way of incentives, pricing, regulation and resource allocation. Hope is offered by the 23 countries that have already decoupled growth from emissions through renewable energy, carbon pricing, and green subsidies and jobs. It surmises that the barriers to change are social and political rather than technological or economic.

This report notes that climate change reflects a market failure and the private sector cannot be relied on to find solutions to voluntary emission reduction commitments. It warns against climate change maladaptation in privatising basic services and social protection. An over-reliance on the private sector can lead to ‘climate apartheid’ where the wealthy pay to escape overheating and hunger while the rest suffer.

In this context, doing nothing is not an option; it requires carbon neutrality for individual entities and wider public policy to scale up impact.

Carbon neutrality – and even carbon positivity – is ongoing at the country, city and corporate levels. While the US as a whole rolls back its environmental safeguards, progressive states such as Hawaii and California are committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2045 while New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act aims for 2050.

Companies can achieve carbon neutrality through a mix of internal emission reduction strategies and external measures, including carbon offsetting and renewable energy certificates. Credibility and transparency are the keys. External programmes are vital, and help direct finance to social and sustainable development initiatives in developing nations.

Good practices necessitate that companies transparently engage in mitigation with communities and governments. Yet, corporate leadership is often piecemeal. Companies tend to lead a double life in their purported leadership of countering climate change, projecting leadership on climate change with corporate targets while not pushing for regulations and legislation that enforce climate change efforts across the economy.

Climate advocates scrutinise corporate discrepancies. They highlight a blind spot in sustainability rankings, which assess companies on the basis of sustainability performance by listing them according to a specific grading system.

The Environmental Defense Fund evaluated the methodologies of key corporate sustainability rankings for inclusion of a company’s policy engagement activities and how this translated into overall rankings or scores. One specifically highlighted support for climate policies; two of the penalised or disqualified companies actively opposed progressive climate policy; and five of the eight had questions or criteria on a company’s public policy position or activities.

Climate change leadership calls for becoming carbon neutral or positive, along with advocating climate friendly initiatives and public policies that scale up economy wide action to avert climate disaster.

That’s the mark of true leadership.