THE BLOG

The Tanker Has Turned

05/29/2015 10:02 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016

Last week was pivotal for climate change. The conversation among the business and government leaders at the Business and Climate Summit in Paris focused on how we will create a low-carbon future. Until now, the mainstream debate had been whether we even need a low-carbon future.

Business plays a considerable part in determining the fate of climate change. Creating innovative business solutions, and finding new ways to generate energy and reallocate capital to shift the global economy are not without their challenges, and don't happen overnight. But the huge private-sector tanker has finally turned. The question now is how quickly it can sail toward a low-carbon economy.

I am optimistic that we can still get on course for a 2°C future. It won't be easy, but the discussions last week in Paris provide many reasons to believe this transformation is underway -- and gaining steam.

Increasingly, there is a widespread recognition that low-carbon business practices are actually better, and to quote economist Nicholas Stern, "the trade-off of environment and economy is fake."

Hannah Jones, Nike's chief sustainability officer and vice president of the company's innovation accelerator, was clear that innovation lies at the heart of Nike's future. Embracing the circular economy to find new ways to make Nike's products is already underway: She used the example of working with soft drink giants Coke and Pepsi to make sneakers from used drinks bottles.

Peugeot-Citroen CEO Maxime Picat, whose company is now manufacturing low-emission and electric vehicles, also noted the role of innovation. "We are mobility providers," he said. "We want to continue to provide mobility -- sustainability mobility. Innovation provides a lever to [reach] that goal."

And in the buildings sector, Philippe Delpech, COO of UTC Building & Industrial Systems, talked about "proactive" energy efficiency, moving from basics like better insulation and the installation of LEDs to the use of smart energy-management systems that can transform how energy is used in buildings.

The deployment of technological innovations will be particularly critical in cities. As more people move to cities and mega-cities, we need to think differently about buildings, mobility and utilities -- and information and communications technology (ICT) will play a strong role in supporting smart growth.

The ICT sector is not only leading the way on smart technology, it is also taking the lead on decarbonizing its own energy use. Apple, Facebook and Google have all pledged to use 100 percent renewable power. And during Climate Week Paris, Infosys announced that it has joined RE100, a leadership platform highlighting the benefits of renewable power. Infosys plans to increase the number of solar installations at its campuses from 2MW to 50MW over the next two years -- with a likely investment of more than $2 million.

Not surprisingly, the voice from the renewable energy sector was heard loud and clear: Renewable power is now at grid parity in many places in the world, and with improved storage options it will become an increasingly attractive option for power provision. Sindoor Mittal, CEO of India-based Welspun Renewable, was confident that investment in solar and wind will allow India to meet future energy demand -- simply because it makes economic sense, not because it is low carbon. Others echoed the competitive price of solar in India, which was one of the drivers behind Infosys' shift to solar.

Notably, the Business and Climate Summit also presented voices from carbon-intensive sectors calling for a change in the world's energy mix. Daniel Benes, chairman and CEO of Czech power company CEZ, which is heavily dependent on coal, spoke of his company's plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, primarily through a shift from coal to nuclear and renewables.

And Saudi Arabia's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al Naimi stirred the crowed with his pronouncement that, eventually, "we're not going to need fossil fuels." "Hopefully, one of these days, instead of exporting fossil fuels, we will be exporting gigawatts of electric power," he added.

Liu Zhenya, chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China, had a similar message, telling the audience that China is in the process of decarbonizing power across its grids.

These messages, from companies across sectors, including those that rely on carbon-intensive energy, demonstrate the growing consensus that a transitions is needed, practical, and, in fact, already underway.

And it didn't stop there. The final piece of the jigsaw -- private-sector finance -- was on clear display last Friday on International Climate Finance Day.

Henri de Castries, CEO of AXA, announced his company's commitment to divest from the remaining €500 million of coal investments between now and the end of the year -- an enormous step. And on the same day, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin stated that France will soon pass a law requiring institutional investors to disclose their carbon footprint.

The broad call for effective carbon pricing mechanisms also signals that reallocation of capital is underway. Costing carbon will enable the markets to internalize climate change and help make low-carbon choices more financially attractive.

The breadth and diversity of business leaders speaking about their companies' actions -- and how they can go even further with a strong agreement at COP21 in Paris -- provides hope that this kind of progress will happen. And it presents reason to believe that low-carbon prosperity is within our grasp.

Now that the "tanker" of business has turned, it is time to accelerate our progress.