CEESP Guest Editorial: Private Sector Engagement and a Zero Carbon World

20 November 2013 | Article

Private Sector Engagement and a Zero Carbon World: Principles and Priorities for the Conservation Movement- by Brendan Mackey

In the words of the Earth Charter “We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise.” 

The human endeavour as currently configured is manifestly unsustainable as evidenced by the fragility of national economies and their dependence on oil; a non-renewable source of energy which has the unfortunate side-effect of causing global warm and climatic disruptions that will continue for millennia.

Conservation organisations whose focus is nature conservation now face a dilemma– should they continue to work with fossil fuel companies or should they divest themselves of all engagement and support?
The argument in favour of engagement stems from the fact that fossil fuel energy corporations have massive ecological and social impacts (e.g. Shell Nigeria, BP Gulf of Mexico) and there is an opportunity to work in cooperation with these corporations and help them minimize some of the impacts from their operations.

Why do fossil fuel companies seek relationships with conservation organisations? For large corporations like Shell and BP, the two critical business parameters are ‘net present value’ (NPV) and ‘risk’. One of their risks of most concern is ‘access’ or, more precisely, the lack of access to new territory for exploitation. For example, the fossil fuel industry is manoeuvring to exploit the Arctic Circle now that it is opening up (ironically and sadly) as the result of global warming from fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. By focussing on the ecological footprint of their project operations, corporations hope to demonstrate they are socially responsible and can be trusted to mine carefully in what is a fragile bioregion.

The case against engagement is that fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions represent a grave threat to human wellbeing and the greater community of life, and the time has come to divest ourselves of fossil fuel and invest in alternative energy sources. The time for action is now as this is the critical decade and further delay risks triggering dangerous reinforcing feedbacks in the Earth System.

Yet we are caught in a paradoxical loop: systemic changes are needed in our modes of production and patterns of consumption, yet despite our concerns we remain dependent on fossil fuel-fed energy grids and transportation systems. Circuit breakers are needed that send a clear signal as to the direction we must be heading and start providing rewards for those businesses ready to grasp the opportunities.

President Obama spoke directly to this issue in a recent speech on climate change: “… ultimately, we will be judged as a people and as a society and as a country on where we go from here…what we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up and speak up and compel us to do what this moment demands… Invest. Divest…”
The IUCN is a unique organisation having government and nongovernment membership that provides a platform for negotiating cooperative approaches to help keep nature alive and flourishing in all its bio-cultural diversity. These two houses, however, provide constraints as well as opportunities. Nonetheless, within these boundaries, there is ample room for IUCN to make significant contributions to the climate change problem consistent with its general policy approved by members at the Barcelona Congress that “CALLS ON Parties to the UNFCCC, in order to keep global temperature increase below 2°C, to adopt a shared vision that balances climate stabilization, adaptation, sustainable development and the means of implementation, including…a long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-85% below 1990 levels by 2050” (Resolution 4.075 Climate change mitigation targets and actions for biodiversity conservation).

The new, planet-saving economy will be based on alternative, renewable energy sources especially solar, wind, and geothermal. A massive surge in renewable energy infrastructure will be needed in the transition to a zero carbon economy. There is an urgent need for principles and methods to ensure that the ecological impacts of these developments are avoided and minimized. IUCN should partner with the alternative energy sector to develop and promulgate these new global standards. Such an initiative would position IUCN at the forefront of the green economy movement, ensure biodiversity values are not ignored, and inspire a new generation of environmentalist.

Professor Brendan Mackey is the director of Griffith University Climate Change Response Program. He is also the Regional Councillor for Oceania.