By Jon Powers
Last year the world witnessed a transformation as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg succeeded where leading scientists, former Vice President Al Gore, and so many others could not. Greta set the world on fire, galvanizing tens of millions to the street to end the false ‘debate’ over climate change and coalesce around the urgent need for action. Her activism, coupled with the reality that we are — quite literally — witnessing the world on fire from Australia to the Amazon, has permanently shifted public opinion. When we look back, 2019 will be remembered as the year climate deniers were sent packing along with their excuses for inaction. Thank you, Greta.
While Greta’s courage made her Time’s Person of the Year, it takes decisive action on many fronts to bring about real change. Now, for the first time, we are seeing bold initiatives to address the climate crisis coming out of the most powerful boardrooms across America and the world. These corporate leaders did not wait for Greta’s message to take hold in Washington and Davos to start taking action themselves.
In just the first two months of the new decade, major announcements from the upper echelons of business and finance signal that the landscape has permanently shifted. From Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion climate pledge to Jim Cramer’s pronouncement that fossil fuels are “in the death knell phase”, some of America’s most conservative institutions are betting big against our carbon-intensive status quo.
BlackRock’s Larry Fink said in his annual letter that taking climate change and its associated risks into account is essential to understanding investor risk. He highlighted: “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” This message from the CEO of the world’s largest asset manager should help move us past the treatment of the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) framework as ‘nice-to-have’ and instead make these metrics central to investors’ decision making.
Microsoft made the profound announcement that they will be carbon negative by 2030 and remove their historical carbon emissions by 2050. Climate experts have been calling on us to go “net zero” emissions, meaning we remove as much carbon as we emit, but very few companies have been ambitious enough to push toward carbon negative. These impactful decisions will not just affect Microsoft’s business but will push their suppliers and competitors to make transformational changes as well.
One of the most critical pieces of combating climate change is the shift to a clean energy economy. Once dismissed as ‘alternative energy’, solar and/or wind is the cheapest form of electricity for more than two thirds of the world today. Accordingly, corporate leaders across the country and the world are making significant commitments to purchasing renewable energy for their operations. More than 200 companies have committed to 100% renewable energy, including corporate behemoths like Apple, Walmart, Facebook, and Google. According to BloombergNEF, corporate renewable power purchase agreements were up 44% in 2019, totaling 19.5 gigawatts in all.
This does not only mean more solar panels on retail rooftops; it means these companies now have a vested interest in state-level policies that help them fulfill their renewable energy commitments. Just imagine the firepower they’ll bring to the table when lawmakers know jobs and investment are on the line.
Clearly, much more is needed if we are going to solve the climate crisis. If 2019 was about Greta’s transformation of the public dialogue, let us make this next decade about meaningful action. Corporations have the power to be the foundation for change. And their stakeholders are saying loud and clear doing the right thing by the planet is the right thing for the brand and bottom line as well. That’s a message that will drive many boards to demand the change we need.
Jon Powers is co-founder of the renewable energy investment platform CleanCapital. An Iraq War veteran, Powers served as the federal chief sustainability officer for the White House under President Barack H. Obama and special advisor on energy to the U.S. Army.