Perspective  |  June 7, 2021

Opinion: Will corporations choose climate transformation or climate status quo?

by Jamie Beck Alexander

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[Images: namiroz/iStock, eugenesergeev/iStock]

Two years ago Mark Carney, then-head of the central bank of England, called into question the very existence of corporations that don’t adhere to the steep emissions reductions required to limit warming to 1.5°C: “Those that fail to adapt will cease to exist.”

Since then, the continuing rise of emissions has led to mounting pressure on companies—from employees, regulatory bodies and activist investors like the recent success of investor activism at ExxonMobil. Carney’s prophecy may soon be coming to pass. Is it possible for corporations to be part of the transformational change required, or will they remain complicit in the status quo?

You could be forgiven for thinking that business was already leading the way on climate. During the past four years of climate denial in the White House, attention shifted to corporations to carry the mantle of leadership. And since it was largely useless to engage with the Trump White House on climate policy, companies expressed their climate ambition through promises—signing pledges and making public commitments targeting a year in the future when they would finally stop pouring planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. These often followed a tired formula: “X company commits to achieving net-zero planet-warming emissions by y decades from now.”

But our atmosphere hasn’t seen returns on these promises: of the one-fifth of the world’s largest companies that have set a net zero target, the vast majority are nowhere near actually meeting them and very few have set interim targets to keep them honest. And while these lofty proclamations are being made— to great fanfare at international climate conferences—these same corporations are delaying and opposing climate action through side doors. Companies are pursuing emissions reductions in their sustainability teams, but their investments, lobbying activities, governance practices, trade associations, financed emissions, products and relentless focus on growth completely eclipse any incremental reduction in emissions.

Corporate emissions reductions pledges—however ambitious they may be for a particular company—completely miss the deeper issues that the climate crisis demands we grapple with, and only play at the edges of the revolutionary change we need. When the authors of the IPCC Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes,” this ambiguous “doing less bad” approach cannot be what they had in mind.

The rise of regulatory and investor pressure and employee activism, coupled with the climate ambition of the Biden-Harris administration provide a moment of truth for all those nice-sounding corporate climate commitments, and will give us an indication of which companies may survive the tumultuous decade ahead.

The companies left standing in the era of climate change will share some key characteristics that we need to recognize. Yes, they’ll account for their emissions—those they cause directly, those caused by use of their products, and those that they finance, all with limited reliance on offsets (read: you won’t see the words “net zero” anywhere in their language). But while engaging in this longer-term work, they will take immediate action today by leveraging their clout and trade associations to advocate for bold climate policy and regulation at the federal and state level, pushing for faster action within and outside their business interests. Their investments will support public goods projects and the scaling of equitable climate solutions. Their boards will be climate competent and their executive compensation will be tied to environmental and social outcomes.

Going forward, companies will survive in the era of climate change because they exist as intentional and engaged parts of the solution, serving a public good, and completely aligned with the parameters of a just climate future. They will exist as the culmination of thousands of individuals; employees, customers, and community members—working together with policymakers and society—to reimagine the huge swaths of our economy that are currently incompatible with the future we need.

This moment in human history calls for nothing less than transformation. Using solutions we already have in hand, we need to fundamentally shift the ways we grow and produce our food, warm our homes, move about from place to place, construct and power buildings, and relate to nature, our communities, and one another. This kind of change, and the urgency with which we need to pursue it, requires a symbiotic relationship between government, business, advocacy groups, communities, and individuals as collaborative agents of change.

We are on the cusp of a desperately needed moment of transformation in the United States. A moment that requires all parts of society to move together, completely aligned toward a shared goal: a just, thriving planet for all. Whether corporations will be dragged into this future through regulation, swallowed by the pressure, or use the full extent of their expansive resources to help bring it about has not yet been determined. But they’ll soon be forced to decide. Let’s see what they do.

This opinion piece was originally published by Fast Company on May 8, 2021. Jamie Beck Alexander is the director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown.

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Profile  |  January 24, 2023
Drawdown Science team member Yusuf Jameel
Drawdown Science Profile: Yusuf Jameel
This article is the third in a series introducing the members of Project Drawdown’s new science team. Yusuf Jameel joined Project Drawdown in 2021 as a research manager for Drawdown Lift. In January 2023 he transitioned to the Drawdown Science team as associate scientist, data science. A multidisciplinary scientist with experience in water resources, public health, data analytics, and science communication, he’s passionate about finding solutions to climate change and bridging the gap between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Yusuf obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Please welcome Yusuf as he shares his thoughts on growing up on the banks of the Ganges River, enhancing human well-being through the adoption of climate solutions, porcupine hair, and more. Q: When people ask you what you do with Project Drawdown, what do you tell them?  A. As a member of the science team, I work on climate solutions using my experience in data analysis, especially on solutions that also address the food–energy–water nexus. I also work on translating the science in a way that makes it widely accessible.  Q: Of all of the things you could be doing, why did you choose to join Project Drawdown?   A: Project Drawdown is on a mission to actually address the biggest problem the world is facing today, climate change. I was really impressed by the book. It was the first to lay out that yes, we can address climate change—it's not just about gloom and doom, it’s also about opportunity. Project Drawdown addresses climate in a way that’s multidimensional, promotes the best science, addresses the different audiences, and passes the mic. That really motivates me. Q: What do you consider some of the biggest obstacles to implementing and scaling up climate solutions?  A: First is unlocking the finance to fund climate solutions globally. We need capital from the private sector, from banks divesting from fossil fuels, and we need to invest in green solutions. Another challenge is politics. We need to think more altruistically. This is a global challenge requiring everyone to join hands, yet it has not been the case so far. The good news is, public perception is changing. Hopefully politics will change, and more capital will be funneled into climate solutions. Q: OK, time for a break. What’s your favorite food? A: I would go with my comfort food, and that’s biryani. It’s a big tradition in South Asian countries, and if you ask anyone in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, biryani is probably one of the top dishes. It’s not the healthiest dish, but it’s just so comforting.  Q: I’m sure you have many, but can you tell us about one superpower you bring to this job? A: I’m a jack of all trades. Whether it’s high-level thinking, brainstorming ideas, or actually doing the work, I’m comfortable doing it all. I’m also adaptable. If a situation requires me to step up and take the lead I can, or I can step back and follow.  Q: What's a childhood experience that relates to the work you're doing today?  A: I grew up on the banks of the River Ganges. Every now and then there would be flooding. As a result, many people would go through an annual cycle of losing crops and be entrenched in a cycle of poverty, unable to get out. This had a profound effect on me. When I started reading about climate change and seeing flooding events become more and more intense, I recognized the need to address climate and development holistically.  Q: What’s your favorite Drawdown Solution?  A: There are so many of them! I really like Distributed Solar Photovoltaics and Reduced Food Waste, but my favorite is Clean Cooking. I think that solution can revolutionize the lives of billions of people in the world, especially young girls. It not only addresses climate but also vastly improves health, addresses gender equality, and opens up economic opportunities. If we can implement clean cooking and distributed solar, we’ll see huge changes in the lives of billions of people globally.  Q: Time for another break. If you were a nonhuman animal, what animal would you be?  A: As a kid I had short hair that was like vertical hair, as if I had had an electric shock. So many of my friends called me Porcupine. People  would rub my hair all the time as it felt like velvet. Now I keep my hair long.  Q: What gives you hope?  A: I derive my hope from two things. First, we’re rapidly advancing technology—a lot of people from across the world are putting their effort into finding and implementing the best and most important solutions to address climate change. Second,  when I was at COP27, I saw that young people are really leading the movement. That gives me hope that we can do meaningful work on this very important but challenging issue. Q: Anything else you’d like to share?  A: I like nature. I especially like mountains. This is something I realized very late in life, maybe because I grew up in cities with very little nature around. When I moved to Utah, I started going to the mountains. I realized how peaceful and how nice it is, and I can’t not talk about it.  As human societies are getting more urbanized,  a lot of us, especially young people who live in large metropolises, are cut off from nature. And I hope they reconnect with nature. We need to appreciate nature and biodiversity much more than we do. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back. We need to love it, respect it, and protect it.
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