On the eve of wealthy G7 nations’ conference in England this weekend, an “Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders,” convened under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, called on them to “accelerate a just transition.” The letter, signed by 70 chief executives from around the world, urged leaders to catch up with “at least one-fifth of the world’s largest 2,000 public companies” that have already created net-zero pledges. At the letter’s crux is a call for collaboration: “Work together with the private sector for bolder actions on shared ambitions within a clearer and more ambitious policy framework.”
Several of the same companies calling for bold action have helped bankroll the politicians who are now keeping climate policy from passing in the world’s biggest economy and its second-biggest polluter: the United States. PACs affiliated with just 10 companies represented on the list—including AstraZeneca, Hewlett Packard, and Allianz—contributed a total of $1.7 million toward congressional Republicans during the 2020 election cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. (Many of the firms listed are based abroad, and unable to contribute to elections here.)
President Biden may have said plenty of nice things about climate action in Cornwall this weekend, but back home Republicans—joined by centrist Democrats—prevent him from making good on those platitudes. Having funneled all legislative hopes for climate policy into an infrastructure package, even senior administration officials are now worried that the greener policies therein could get cut in a bid to find common ground with a GOP eager to strike down anything called climate policy.
The companies signing this open letter, even those donating generously to Republicans, aren’t necessarily lying about their commitment to climate policy. While corporations like the low taxes and scant regulations that the right-wing tends to favor, there is also real money to be made in a greener economy. Electronics manufacturer Siemens, for instance—which gave $5,000 to Mitch McConnell last cycle—is developing a sizable wind and green hydrogen business. Not all industries are as fanatically attached to the fossil age as coal, oil, and gas companies.
One prominent fixture on the list is accounting and management consultants, including the Boston Consulting Group, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Deloitte. These firms, (which don’t have corporate PACs) could stand to reap generous contracts from companies to hash out corporate net-zero plans, conduct risk assessments, and disclose emissions either voluntarily or for regulators. Deloitte’s 2020 filing with the Carbon Disclosure Project listed, in response to prompts, opportunities alongside the risks posed by rising temperatures and response to them. “Deloitte sustainability related services cover a wide range of practice areas including sustainability strategy, sustainable finance, renewable energy, and smart cities,” its self-assessment stated. “Growth in these services is expected, particularly under scenarios requiring large reductions in carbon emissions.” Changes to high-carbon industries driven either in climate destruction itself or climate policy, Deloitte added, “represent opportunities for Deloitte to grow revenues by helping Deloitte clients in these sectors address the climate change impacts on their business and mitigate transition risks.”
There is already a $30 trillion market for Environmental, Social and Governance assets, a figure likely to grow in the coming years. Public-private partnerships for green infrastructure—encouraged by the European Union’s Green Deal—could prove lucrative for companies like the Jacobs Engineering Group, another signatory, whose own Carbon Disclosure Project filing notes the potential for “expanded project opportunities” in everything from smart cities to regulatory approval processes to natural disaster “planning, response and recovery.” The financial sector, economist Daniela Gabor wrote recently, would like climate-related government spending “directed to ‘derisking’ private infrastructure, to cover the gap between the fees paid by users of essential public services and the commercial rates of return expected by private investors.”
There’s money to be made if governments fail to solve the climate crisis, too, cleaning up the mess of either the 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming already locked in or the further heating that could follow. Management consultants, including Deloitte, have made small fortunes off Puerto Rico in the years since Hurricane Maria. Just last month, Deloitte was approved by the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (“La Junta”) for a $1.9 million contract with Puerto Rico’s Central Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience Office, meant to “capitalize on opportunities to rebuild a better, stronger and more resilient Puerto Rico.” That’s in addition to a $54 million contract approved last June for professional services to the same office. Deloitte got $26 million for work with the island’s Department of Treasury last November. ManpowerGroup—another signatory—collected an $11.2 million contract in February to provide professional services to Puerto Rico’s Department of Health.
The Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders’ letter showcases some of the contradictions in corporate responses to climate change. Certain segments of the financial, consulting, and construction sectors, clearly, will benefit if G7 leaders follow the letter’s calls for “scaling natural disaster defences and risk transfer solutions,” promoting “partnerships to eliminate deforestation,” and boosting “climate-related risk transfer mechanisms,” among others. And plenty of the CEOs’ suggestions urgently need to happen, like scaling up renewables and upping R&D funding for green innovation. The trouble lies in assuming an accumulation of corporate profit motives will add up to a habitable planet. While governments certainly could shoulder the risk of mitigation and adaptation as the private sector hoards the rewards, it’s not the best foundation for robust climate policy to save lives.