With world leaders failing us, the private sector must intervene for climate action

With discouraging inaction from global leaders, our greatest hope for climate remediation lies in the hands of the private sector


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Private sector leaders meet in New Delhi, India, to discuss climate action.

Ashlyn Segler, Staff Columnist

Our generation celebrated Earth Day as kids. We learned to recycle, take shorter showers and turn off the lights when leaving a room. Smokey the Bear taught us to prevent wildfires, and the Lorax taught us to save the trees.

As college students, our generation is now forced to suffer the consequences of a rapidly warming world. In the 21st century, we have witnessed widespread flooding, prolonged droughts, devastating wildfires and intense storms, all of which have displaced millions of people across the world. Our coast will be swallowed up by rising sea levels, and according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the sixth mass extinction is already upon us and killing millions of species we know and love. Our generation is using terms like eco-grief and eco-anxiety to describe the overwhelming weight of the world we’ve inherited.

The planet on which we grew up will be wildly different from the one we’ll have to learn to inhabit. And for many, this dissonance has fostered resentment toward older generations and the political leaders who once promised to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius at the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.

Now, nearly seven years later, the United Nations climate summit known as COP27 concluded on Nov. 18, 2022, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and the failure of countries to “keep 1.5 alive” was on wide display. A recent report released by the U.N. noted that the planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels, and under today’s global leadership, we are currently on track to warm an average of 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. While the difference between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees Celsius may seem insignificant, with every fraction of a degree we allow the planet to warm past the previous goal of a 1.5-degree baseline, we prompt the planet to fly past its catastrophic tipping point for inhabitable life on our planet.

In short, the stakes are high.

But there is hope.

With discouraging inaction from global leaders and the increasingly plausible death of the 1.5-degree dream, our greatest hope for climate remediation lies in the hands of the private sector.

Even in the absence of legislative climate policy, private institutions such as corporations, universities, non-profits and even small startups have the opportunity to vastly influence climate action.

Access to capital, technical capabilities, political leverage and public influence means the private sector is well-equipped not only to develop innovative climate solutions but also to raise public environmental awareness and hold politicians accountable.

Most importantly, the private sector has the financial capacity to fund a global transition to clean energy and purge our society from its dependence on fossil fuels.

And beyond any philanthropic motivations of corporate responsibility, there are immense economic incentives — and formidable consequences — depending on the private sector’s level of collective mitigation.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, biodiversity loss and subsequent ecosystem collapse due to warming will put $44 trillion of economic value generation — over half the world’s total GDP — at risk. Alternatively, a transition to a nature-positive economy has the potential to create annual business opportunities worth more than $10 trillion and 395 million jobs by 2030.

Faced with daunting financial ramifications, as well as shifting public attitudes in favor of eco-friendly actions, many companies have begun to recognize the importance of investing in sustainable solutions. This has spurred the recent popularity of environmental social governance (ESG) initiatives and socially responsible investing (SRI) in the corporate world.

And while a lack of a standardized, reliable framework for corporate carbon accounting does give way to the practice of greenwashing, in which an organization provides misleading or false information about its environmental impact, ultimately the benefits of climate accounting outnumber the negative consequences. Even in scenarios of greenwashing, published claims of sustainability provide a public standard to which consumers can hold companies accountable.

Ideally, the public and private sectors will converge to collaborate on climate action, like we saw in President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which funneled over $369 billion into low-carbon technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and nuclear power plants. But until global leadership is able to curb carbon emissions enough to put the world back on track for 1.5 degrees of warming, the private sector needs to step up and intervene in the fight against climate change if we want any chance to mitigate climate catastrophe.