Though hopes for Cancun are modest, we are in a phase of climate progress. Recently, all major emitting countries updated their emissions-reductions commitments through the Copenhagen Accord, and rich nations have pledged US$30 billion for long-term finance. China is coming around, finally acknowledging that it is the number one emitter of greenhouse gasses, and saying that it has no problem with transparency mechanisms. Meanwhile, there are more ways than ever for China and the United States to work together.
But perhaps most significantly, the climate talks are undergoing an overdue test, and no matter what the results will be, the onus is on business to play a greater role in global climate action. Consider these developments:
The relevance of the talks themselves is being examined. Most of the progress made this past year linked to the Copenhagen Accord, which is actually a rogue organization. While the Accord—a tally of opt-in pledges for emissions reductions—may seem innocent enough, it subverts the traditional UN process that requires unanimous agreement to move forward. The Accord—an eleventh-hour effort—was the only solution that broke the stalemate that resulted when objections from a handful of negotiators brought the talks among 200 countries to a halt. Initially controversial, this development created an impetus for a growing acceptance that, as Coca-Cola’s Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent has said, the world needs more than a single agreement to this vast, heterogeneous problem.
The UN climate talks are designed primarily for governments to work together, and they permit civil society representatives to attend. Yet, they exclude direct involvement by business organizations, even though business is uniquely informed and capable of contributing solutions for technology, finance, and managing climate risks—and arguably the real hope for fixing the climate problem in general. The need, and opportunity, for business to lead is why the UN’s former Climate Chief Yvo de Boer says he left the agency to work for KPMG. In turn, governments themselves are calling on business to take on a larger role.
Finally, there is growing appreciation that an international agreement is not a prerequisite to action, and that those motivated to solve the problem should look for ways to drive innovation, efficiency, mobilization, and collaboration without waiting. Business offers some of the best tools for this, and is well positioned to meet some of the grander calls for efforts such as starting a grassroots, networked, and distributed movement to transform the way we organize around the climate issue. Additionally, the indefinitely delayed U.S. legislation makes the opportunities for business to stand out greater than ever before.
The UN climate agency currently faces a new test—triggered by a shift in consciousness that a solution will require a different approach—that includes calls for business to be more involved. It also raises the stakes: Growing frustration with governments means that more attention is on businesses that aren’t taking action. Also, private-sector leaders will need to engage on public policy and partner with governments—and this comes with a tall order of expectations that efforts are transparent and accountable.
Overall, business now has what it has so often asked for: the opportunity to lead ahead of governments on a great global, social challenge.