What's Next After Climate Strikes? Experts Look to Businesses to Accelerate Action, Pressure Governments

Consumer product giant Unilever's declaration on Monday to halve virgin plastic use by 2025 is part of a trend that climate scientists are eyeing with tepid optimism.

Scores of businesses announced climate action ahead and during the United Nations Climate Summit last month. Eighty-seven companies with a market capitalization of $2.3 trillion said they would be carbon neutral by 2050. Google, which has been carbon neutral since 2007, announced 18 new energy deals that it said would expand its worldwide portfolio in solar and wind by 40 percent. And Amazon declared it would reach net zero emissions by 2040.

These pledges aren't nearly sufficient for the world to meet the targets laid out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's landmark 2018 report, which has stoked global alarm. But scientists told Newsweek that the commitments could both accelerate private-sector climate commitments and push national governments toward implementing actions needed to limit climate change below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"Most governments in the world are really there to do the bidding of their own domestic companies. That's why the German government for so long, even though they got great marks for being green on electricity, were really slow on electric vehicles. Because they were to defend VW and BMW," Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, told Newsweek. "Essentially, governments are fronts for businesses. And the more businesses that go green, the more governments will be fronting for green, not for dirty [energy]."

Whether motivated by existential concerns, values-driven consumers, the rapidly declining costs of clean energy or acknowledgment that climate change also poses an enormous financial threat, more companies are pledging climate commitments after years of inaction.

Many, though, are not, and some of the biggest polluters have yet to address emissions. The Carbon Majors Report said that 71 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2017 came from just 100 companies. Twenty-five fossil fuel producers were responsible for over half of greenhouse gas emissions over that time. And, as The Guardian has reported, fossil fuel companies have continued to fight climate regulations even while touting their commitment to clean energies. Other businesses declaring ostensibly bold climate action have been accused of greenwashing, or pledging climate action that boosts company image but fails to address their most environmentally damaging practices.

The years of corporate and governmental delays on climate action mean that while action from industry leaders can create pressure on other businesses, governments now need to implement transformative national restrictions to reduce emissions to levels recommended by the IPCC.

"Some of these leading companies need to decarbonize faster," Greg Gershuny, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute's Energy and Environment Program, told Newsweek. But "without the government umbrella of creating incentives and creating direction for all companies," businesses are "only going to have a limited impact."

Although private industry decarbonization announcements won't single-handedly shift emissions output quickly enough to enable the infrastructural changes needed, they can help exert pressure on the government.

Lobbying groups have long sought to prevent U.S. legislation addressing climate change. Lobbying tracker InfluenceMap said last month that the two most powerful trade organizations opposed to global climate action, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, are based in the U.S. Seven of the 10 most "negative and influential" groups are in Washington D.C., according to the group's report.

Lobbyists, however, can also promote climate action, and organizations like We Mean Business are doing that.

"It's not enough to do something at the company level—CEOs who have taken positive steps to address climate change in their companies should also be demanding the government take action, too," Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, told Newsweek.

Extinction Rebellion
Protesters gather around a small sailboat in Times Square, New York, as part of a protest by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion on October 10. Spencer Platt/Getty Images