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Weathering the storm

Political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic means responsible businesses may have to go it alone.

November was a month of extremes for those engaged in climate change. It started on a high when the Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4th (remarkably quickly given that the deal was agreed less than a year ago). But that tide of optimism turned on November 9th as Donald Trump blustered his way to victory in the US presidential elections.

The US is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. “The Donald” is the man who promised to “cancel” the agreement to cut emissions. Putting two and two together, that seems like a hopeless combination for cutting emissions enough to keep global warming under 2°C. “Unless Donald Trump was lying about his proposed climate policies, we are on course for more than 3°C warming,” noted New Scientist in a recent analysis.

Even the apparent softening of his stance – from one of fierce scepticism (global warming is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non competitive”) to an “open mind” over his country’s involvement in the accord – has been laughed off in some quarters as the media trying to force a wedge between Trump and his support base.

Only a fool would deny that a sustainable future looks a lot further away than it did a month ago – especially if the president-elect digs his heels in. And consider this: by the time of the next US election in 2020 the world will already have emitted enough CO2 to warm the planet by 1.5°C – the limit that the Paris Agreement says the world should ideally keep to.

So Trump may be a spanner in the works but the wheels are already in danger of coming off. Look a little further ahead and the storm clouds darken further. The United Nations Environment Programme recently reported that the pledges in the Paris Agreement are nowhere near enough. “The predicted 2030 emissions will, even if the Paris pledges are fully implemented, place the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.9°C to 3.4°C this century,” it noted. Hang around any longer before raising the ambitions bar and we would “likely lose the chance to meet the 1.5°C target, increase carbon-intensive technology lock-in and raise the cost of a global transition to low emissions”.

It isn’t only Trump (and the Daily Mail) that fails to understand the extent of the risks and scale of the challenge, either. In November, the Commons environmental audit committee also published the findings of its inquiry into sustainability and the Treasury. The conclusion was damning: “We heard multiple examples of where the Treasury has ridden roughshod over other departments’ objectives, changing and cancelling long-established environmental policies and projects at short notice with little or no consultation with relevant businesses and industries,” the MPs noted. They said the ministry “puts short-term priorities over long-term sustainability – potentially increasing costs to the economy in the future, and harming investor confidence”. That the chancellor, Philip Hammond, failed to mention climate change in his first budget in what is likely to be the hottest year on record gives little reason for seasonal cheer.

The UK, EU, US and the world are in a state of political flux that threatens (among other things) to burn the foundations of a global green economy almost as soon as they’ve been laid. But with every new year comes renewed optimism and the question arises: should the private sector simply ignore policymakers and go it alone on climate change, slashing emissions, investing in renewable energy and even pushing more sustainable diets?

That’s a “no-brainer”, according to Alice Stollmeyer, an influential climate and energy policy expert based in Brussels. “Reality will trump Trump,” she wrote on her blog. “Even from a strictly economic viewpoint, the US and global shift towards more resource efficiency and renewables energy is a no-brainer.”

The shift isn’t swift but evidence to support the benefits of more sustainable business is snowballing. As Frances Way from the Carbon Disclosure Project highlights later in this issue, some firms are already showing that decoupling emissions from revenue isn’t just possible: it actually pays. J Sainsbury, for instance, achieved revenue growth of 18% over five years alongside a 22% fall in emissions.

These companies unfortunately remain the exception rather than the rule. Much like the environmental audit committee discovered when digging around at the Treasury, CDP found that “overall company targets were short-term and lack ambition: if every company achieved its current climate goals, it would still only take the group one quarter of the way to a 2°C pathway”, Way notes.

Trump is hard to ignore and his presence in the White House for at least the next four years is a dangerous distraction (and not just in relation to climate change policies). However, environmentally minded, socially aware and ethically run businesses will be here long after that.