WBCSD chief Peter Bakker: the real work starts with turning climate pledges into plans

(Photo: WBCSD)

An increasing number of companies have rallied behind commitments to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century. But the greatest challenge they now face is making detailed plans on how to get there, the head of a Geneva-based business coalition on sustainable development has warned.

Over 360 companies have committed to a 1.5°C future in line with the Paris climate accord, which marked its five-year anniversary this weekend -  more than twice the number that signed up at the COP25 Climate Conference a year ago.

As world leaders gathered at a virtual summit hosted by the UK and France this weekend to mark five years since the Paris agreement was adopted, more businesses and countries came forward with commitments or strategies, in a sign of growing momentum in efforts to stall the planet’s warming trajectory.

In an interview with Geneva Solutions Peter Bakker, chief executive of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a CEO-led coalition of 200-plus businesses, takes a positive perspective on the shift in business attitudes but says more work is needed to turn ambition into action.

There’s been no shortage of carbon pledges from businesses but the action that follows is often less inspiring. What are you seeing in terms of progress - are companies delivering?

It depends if you are a glass half-full or half-empty person. If you're a half-empty person, you would say emissions are still increasing in the world. We know much more precisely than before that we need to reduce emissions but the actual decrease still has to happen. From that point of view, the world is not doing enough.

But if you're a glass half-full person and you compare where the world is today with 2015 when the Paris Agreement was negotiated, there is actually an enormous amount of progress. Trying to achieve a 1.5 °C [compliant business model] has become the norm. Every business that is serious is talking about how we can get to net zero no later than 2050. If you look at the companies that have set targets and made commitments, there's actually now the emergence of “a race to the top” of companies wanting to be net zero. You now also begin to see companies come out with targets for 2040. Apple, Google have set targets for 2030 even. So you see even more and more of an acceleration.

How has Covid-19 impacted companies’ progress on climate commitments?

As the whole world got struck by Covid-19, the amount of attention and concern about sustainability broadened....many companies have continued to come out with new commitments and not the most likely ones.  BP, for example, in February was the first major oil and gas major company to come out with a net zero target by 2050. Shell has done the same and so has Total and Malaysian company Petronas.  You have also seen Unilever and Nestlé make commitments  - and not just commitments but also operating plans behind it.  From that point of view, I'm optimistic in the sense that everybody is now aiming for the right targets.

What is the biggest challenge businesses face in achieving targets they have set for themselves?

From inside company boardrooms, we can see that there's a real translation into strategy,  positioning, and rethinking business models.  But I think what is important - and that is where many are having their biggest challenges - is how do we translate the 2050 or 2040 target into an operating plan, including an investment or a research and development plan that will halve the emissions by 2030? People kind of know what type of solutions to aim for. But where the real work has to happen is in making sure that in the next 10 years we actually put investments and solutions in place that do halve emissions by 2030. That for me is the big battlefield.

Speaking of solutions, you published a report last week looking at kind of nature-based solutions that can help deliver some of these targets. Can you give some examples?

Solving climate change or getting to net zero is not as easy as moving from fossil fuels to renewables. Renewables can do a lot but they cannot replace all fuel. Our estimate is that roughly 55 per cent of required emission reductions can come from the transition into renewable energy. Between 20 to 25 per cent will come from a more circular economy, that is the reuse of materials that are not in the earth. And then the remaining 20 per cent we will need to work hard to work on what we call nature-based on natural climate solutions. And there's a whole series of them.

There are, for example, enormous plots of degraded land in the world. How can we reutilise this by converting it into sustainable forestry or sustainable wetlands? There's also an enormous chunk of work that we need to do in the agribusiness where the current agricultural monocrop-type models have resulted in soil degradation.  If we change that to a model of regenerative agriculture, then the soil quality, and the biodiversity in the soil is much improved, but also the carbon sequestration in the soil will also increase. And that's what nature-based solutions are all about: can we somehow make the natural system work for us and can we do it in such a way that it not only sequesters carbon but also improves the biodiversity level in the soil or the forest for example?

The issue biodiversity gets less public attention than the climate crisis. Do you think the urgency of biodiversity loss is being neglected?

We're a bit unlucky because in October of 2020, we were supposed to all be in China for CBD COP15, the COP for biodiversity. What Covid-19 has shown us is that it's not wise to think about biodiversity independent of human health and from issues like inequality. All of these things are interconnected. This is the type of thinking that has increasingly emerged from the crisis. The good news I see happening now is that there are two big events scheduled for the second half of next year that will push this more integrated approach to climate and biodiversity.

The first, obviously, being COP26. The UK Government will hold the presidency and they have from the start, already from last year onwards, said ‘we need to talk about both nature and climate’. The second big event that will happen next year is the Food Systems Summit that the United Nations is organising for the first time.  This global summit will look at four elements at the same time: producing healthy food, producing food in a sustainable manner - and that means both the biodiversity as well as the climate aspect - and doing that in an equitable way. These two events will hopefully mobilise a whole series of initiatives, projects, commitments, and offer an opportunity to integrate the issue of biodiversity with climate and human health, and so on.

UN secretary‑general António Guterres’ recently described the transition out of fossil fuels to renewables as “the challenge of our generation”. How can we get businesses to speed up the transition and break the habit?

If you take the automotive sector as an example. When Tesla started to be somewhat of a name, let's call it five years ago, if you were in the boardrooms of other automotive companies, they said, ‘that's never going to work’. You can’t have an only electric fleet. People want combustion engines. But Tesla continued to grow and now everybody is talking about Tesla.

Leading companies in Europe like Volkswagen, have now made commitments to roll out more electric models… Soon enough there will be enough product availability for governments to say, after 2030, no more combustion engines are being sold. And that may sound far away for you…But from an automotive company’s perspective, it only represents one cycle left to transition to 100 per cent electric.  So there is a leap now and that's the reason why so many companies still haven't left fossil fuels.

Again, if I look at the speed of transformations, and that's a combination of leading companies taking the initiative, regulators stepping in and investors beginning to ask much deeper questions on these topics, it is actually quite high now. And as I said earlier if you take a half-empty glass approach, you can say the emissions aren't declining. But I can see a speed of transformation that I've never seen before. Will that mean that all companies jump? No, absolutely not. And some companies will actually have to be at the end of it all, forced out of fossil fuels. And that will happen, no doubt.

The world is a very complex place, but I think that it is looking a little sunnier than it did even a few months ago. Some of the major oil and gas companies have made commitments that five years ago, I would have not thought were possible. And at one point, every industry has a tipping point.

Once 20 to 25 per cent of players have made the move, then the move becomes inevitable and everybody will have to follow. It hasn't happened yet but the conditions are there to make it happen.

And when do you expect that tipping point to be?

It will depend on industries because some industries will have some technical, logical issues to resolve. But I’m convinced somewhere between 2025 and 2030.