COP22: Three Reasons for Optimism

I've just spent an amazing week at COP22 in Marrakech. Having attended COP 15, 16 and 17, I was delighted to return to the 22nd Conference of the Parties on Climate Change. This year is a pivotal COP, focusing on implementing the historic Paris Agreement from 2015.

The COP started with significant shudders as people around the world internalized America's decision to elect Donald Trump as President. Trump, after all, has not been a vocal proponent of the action needed to protect the planet from catastrophic climate change.

What I found heartening in this year's COP experience is the continued resilience of climate negotiators, especially those from developing and small island states as well as the ongoing tenacity of NGOs that work valiantly on mitigation and adaptation efforts around the world. Even more so, I was proud of the business engagement.
In a mere three days, Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership, coordinated an open letter from the business community indicating its support of the Paris Agreement. 365 companies signed on including DuPont, Gap Inc., General Mills, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Hilton, HP Inc., Kellogg Company, Levi Strauss & Co., L'Oreal USA, Mars Incorporated, Starbucks, VF Corporation, and Unilever. These companies represent over $100 million in annual revenue. Additionally, ten companies: Ben & Jerry's, Clif Bar, Danone, Fetzer Vineyards, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars Incorporated, New Belgium Brewing Company, Stonyfield, and Unilever from the food & beverage space issued their own statement of support for the effort that is needed to protect us all from the devastating effects of warming in excess of 2 degrees. These public statements were in alignment with many of the conversations taking place this week at COP22.

As I participated in meetings with other businesses, NGOs and government officials, I walked away with the following observations:

• The business case for climate action is real and action has reached a tipping point. As the bottom-line benefits of climate action become even more clear, we're seeing commitments from business that are beginning to align with the science and indicate the scope and scale needed to truly make a difference. One example: 15 months ago the Climate Group launched an initiative called RE100 - a commitment to 100% renewable energy use on behalf of signature companies. What began with three companies, IKEA, Mars and Swiss Re Group, has blossomed to 83 today. Together these companies represent capacity for 100TWh of renewable energy demand.

Business isn't making these commitments because they are nice to do. Quite the contrary - they see the savings in using energy more efficiently. And they see that in many places around the world renewables are available at cost parity or cost benefit when compared to fossil fuel sources. This indicates that no matter what regulation may or may not exist moving forward, businesses see the ROI in making decisions that benefit the bottom line and in turn our environment.

• Business and society are increasingly recognizing and addressing the intersections between climate change, water stewardship, food security and human livelihoods. Climate change presents itself most visibly in the form of dangerous storms and debilitating droughts, yet we're now seeing many more organizations make linkages to other important issues like food security.

Think about the 500 million smallholder farmers around the world who produce the food we all rely upon. These people are on the front lines of climate change and they can't grow what they need to make a living if their crops are wiped out by drought, flood or other unpredictable weather. The impact of climate on agriculture was a key point of discussion during COP22. That makes sense as Africa, the host continent, continues to grapple with producing the food needed to feed its people and to build thriving agro-enterprises.

• Big data is changing the game for business and society. Building upon the intersections noted above, 'twas not that long ago when it was hard to determine where to focus efforts and direct interventions to address the significant human and environmental impacts within corporate supply chains. Today, we have data that can tell us how to diagnose the problem and what to do about it (if we choose to ask for and listen to it).

At the U.S. Center (the space at COP22 where the U.S. government held court), multiple presentations from NASA, U.S. Department of State and others demonstrated the power of data, especially data visualization. We can now see the world's hot spots for water stress or acute climate impact. And where a decade ago it was hard to point a finger at real sources of impact, today we can map supply chains and see where the things we buy come from and what types of conditions - both human and economic - exist in those places. As access to data continues to grow and visualization improves, we can expect a heightened appetite for transparency. With transparency will come a greater understanding and a better roadmap for climate action.

In the year following the Paris Agreement, much has changed. We've seen major advancements and commitments as well as a few unforeseen hurdles. Yet, the overwhelming takeaway, for me, leaving COP22 is a feeling of momentum. As the business case for addressing environmental issues grows stronger and more organizations commit to necessary change, the energy behind these forces builds in turn. In fact, most agree that the transition is inevitable. Now, we'll spend the next 365 days (until the next COP) digging in on important issues, advocating for the future we envision and building upon this undeniable impetus to fuel a better world.