Image: World Water Council

Companies: From This Crisis, Let’s Build Our Zero-Carbon Future

As the public health emergency caused by COVID-19 grows, and the economy craters in its wake, it is clear that vast changes will remake our social and political landscape in the coming years. Whole sectors of the economy, like the airline and travel industry, are teetering, and the painful impacts on public health, together with economic dislocation, will hit communities very hard. While we care for the vulnerable, sick, and newly unemployed, we must begin planning now for the country we want to be when this cruel pandemic has finally passed.

Congress responded to the immediate public-health crisis, as it should, by prioritizing relief designed to help communities and citizens cope with and survive the impact of COVID-19. But from our experience in the recession of 2008–2009, we know that a far larger long-term stimulus will be required to get us back on our feet. As we invest in our nation’s survival, let’s focus not just on the immediate threat of COVID-19, but also on the long-term threat of climate catastrophe. We must build in the goal of zero carbon by 2050 (and the interim goal of 50% cut in emissions by 2030) that scientists say is necessary to ensure a safe and prosperous future for humanity on this planet.

Right now, Congress is struggling to reach agreement on a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package — which many experts say still falls short of what will be needed to stave off economic collapse. Lobbyists from companies are running all over Capitol Hill promoting their own narrow self-interest during this moment. If every company, and every industry sector, simply fights for their own “fair share” of this enormous pie, we will preserve and perpetuate the status quo — which will mean we decarbonize far too slowly.

This is the time to ensure that companies do their part to ensure that we are building toward a safer America — including protecting our climate to ensure our long-term health, survival, and prosperity. Many companies will need a lifeline to recover from this pandemic. Any such bailout must include requirements that move our entire economy rapidly toward that zero-carbon future — with a 50% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050. And we need companies across America to advocate for that future, not just take what they can for themselves.

Support is quickly growing behind a set of principles to guide the development of the stimulus packages that will be required. We at ClimateVoice are particularly focused on ensuring that any stimulus package helps build the zero-carbon future we need — and that corporate America steps up to advocate for the necessary policies. Based on my experience in corporate sustainability, here are three policy paths that are vital to consider:

  • Investing in green energy jobs. Unemployment is surging across the country. As we invest in putting people back to work, we urgently need the federal government to invest in infrastructure that helps scale climate solutions, like zero-emissions transportation, solar and wind energy installation, energy conservation, and high-capacity long-distance transmission lines. “Stimulus spending decisions should be screened through the lens of climate and resilience, to ensure new dollars are directed to zero-carbon options,” wrote Dr. Maria Mendiluce, Interim CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition, in a recent blog.
  • Tying bailout money to carbon reductions. I agree with Bill McKibben’s recent New Yorker article that urged: “Any bailout depends on your industry promising to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accords, and demonstrating in the next few months what that looks like.” In the case of the airline industry, he points out, this could be transformative: at current rates of growth, by 2050, air travel alone would eat up a quarter of the carbon we can emit and still meet the Paris accord targets. And I would note that these targets need to be met through real reductions, not just through offsets.
  • Greening the flow of investment funds. US banks continue to lead the way in funding the fossil fuel industry, according to the Rainforest Action Network’s “Banking on Climate Change” report. It’s a safe bet that the financial industry, slammed by a historic stock market drop that exceeds 2008, will seek federal help. When they do, there should be conditions that promote our national interests — not just their narrow interests.

Companies have a long-term interest in promoting public health, rebuilding our economy, and protecting our planet. They need to step up and help lead us out of this historic crisis — by advocating not just for their own self-interest, but also for our collective interest in a zero-carbon future. ClimateVoice will be watching to see how companies respond — as will the young people that companies want and need to hire over the next decade.

Climate warrior. Former Green Energy Czar at Google and Director of Sustainability at Facebook. Committed to a low-carbon future that works for everyone.