At this year's climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, policy negotiators from all over the world gathered for two weeks to try and salvage global climate negotiations. In short, there were some successes, but mostly in the realm of funding adaptation, rather than actually cutting emissions, which is a bit like funding life boats on the Titanic (as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, there are many important reasons why climate negotiations have failed to accomplish what we need them to for so long).
But, anyway, in parallel to what must have been incredibly frustrating policy meetings, the business community gathered at the same time. I believe that business may be succeeding where policy is failing.
I attended one of the new entrants into the green business event game, the World Climate Summit. A quick background on the players: the Summit was thrown by a new organization dedicated to green business leadership, with events aided mightily by friend and colleague, the uber-connected Aimee Christensen.
I was there mainly to help out with the Gigaton Awards, an event modeled as a mini-Oscars for green business (Note: I was asked to emcee the affair, but I'm not officially linked with any of the organizations behind it). The force behind the Awards was originally Sunil Paul, a clean tech investor and entrepreneur. Sunil created the Gigaton Throwdown, a challenge to the world to find solutions to reducing carbon emissions at the scale of a billion tons (for context, the world emits 48 gigatons, and scientists say we need to cut at least 14 gigatons from business as usual scenarios by 2020 to have a 50/50 shot at keeping temperatures stable). According to Sunil's team, this level of cuts should be the new measure of success for industries and countries alike.
The Awards were an offshoot of Sunil's initiative, but were thrown in conjunction with the Carbon War Room (CWR), an organization founded by Sir Richard Branson and led by solar entrepreneur Jigar Shah. CWR's goal is also to find large-scale technologies and strategies for tackling climate change.
The point of the Awards was to heap praise on companies that are actually cutting emissions in order to inspire others. I won't go into detail on how the companies were nominated and winners selected, but in short it was based at first on concrete emissions reductions.
Not surprisingly for the first year of a green business award show, the nominees were a who's who of green leaders. In the end, Nike, 3M, Suzlon, Vodafone, Reckitt Benckiser Group, and GDF Suez took down prizes for their respective sectors. And 3M, which has been doing pollution prevention for 35 years now, took the end-of-night Gigaton Award for Best in Class.
Frankly, given the challenges of climate change and the policy failures of recent years, it was nice to celebrate business and the work it's doing. This is hard work and many of the executives representing their companies are in fairly thankless positions.
All that said, it's clear that these Awards were just a beginning. We're not at gigaton scale by any stretch. The winners have made cuts on the millions of tons at most. Gigatons have to happen at the industry and value-chain level, and that is the work that the CWR is doing.
There was one industry announcement in Cancun that demonstrated what real scale looks like. Coke's CEO Muhtar Kent, representing the Consumer Goods Forum and its Board of 50 CEOs, announced some monumental goals for the sector. These include...
(1) no net deforestation around the world (think sugar and palm oil plantations)
(2) a phase out of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants which contribute greatly to global warming.
Combined, these goals are in the gigaton scale range.
So when companies get together across value chains, they can think very big. The Awards were about individual achievement, but the whole day at the Summit was geared toward bringing companies together.
And at the end of a long day of meetings, it was great to add a dash of fun and style. The honorary Award winner, Ted Turner, had the best speech of the night. He established that this battle to green the economy and society is in fact a battle. He said that people who are working hard on what they know is right will always beat the people who know in their hearts that what they're doing is wrong. He ended with this rallying cry:
"We're right. They're wrong. We're going to win...BIG...and SOON!"
How refreshing to come out with fighting words so simply. You know, business is nothing if not pragmatic. Driving change and convincing people that green is good for business requires logic, facts, examples...but also passion, emotion, and yes, cheerleading. What's wrong with celebrating every now and then?
This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.