Christiana Figueres: We’re about 20 or 30 years too late with mitigation. So we already have the adaptation problems now from the delay of 20 or 30 years ago. And that’s why we have to deal with both of them at the same time. But we have to scale up and speed up mitigation.
Emma Cox: Adaptation just makes smart business sense. There’ve been a number of really great studies that show that if you can spend a dollar today, you can avoid multiples of that into the future, and that sort of multiple return gets business engaged.
Christiana: The combination of solar and wind, together, make up the cheapest source of electricity, even—even—against already existing fossil fuel plants, let alone against new plants that would have to be built. So it is a slam dunk. And because we’re investing more and more, they will continue to go down in price.
Ayesha Hazarika: From PwC’s management publication, strategy and business, this is Take on Tomorrow, the podcast that brings together experts from around the globe to figure out what business could and should be doing to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world. I’m Ayesha Hazarika, a broadcaster and writer in London.
Lizzie O’Leary: And I’m Lizzie O’Leary, a podcaster and journalist in New York. Today, we’re talking about progress—and the barriers to progress in combating climate change.
Ayesha: While the world’s understanding of what is needed to slow our planet’s warming has advanced rapidly, action is lagging. Delivering change at the pace and scale needed will require strong leadership, innovative technology, and profound transformation within business.
Lizzie: To find out more about the prospects for change and how we might feasibly accelerate the pace, we’ll be talking to Christiana Figueres. She’s the Costa Rican diplomat and global advocate for climate change action who played a pivotal role in negotiating the Paris Agreement in 2015. But first, let’s bring in Emma Cox, PwC’s Global Climate Leader. Hi, Emma.
Emma: Hi, Lizzie. Hi, Ayesha.
Ayesha: Emma, what are you advising clients when it comes to their role in fighting climate change?
Emma: It varies client by client, because what we’re trying to do is talk about delivering impact, really turning to actions, and you need to take action in the area that you can deliver the most impact in. So we want companies to be bold in making their promises, but then we want them to actually live up to those promises. And it’s not always easy. And I think they need to be relatively transparent where it’s hard and think about collaborating with others. This is one of those problems that companies can’t solve in isolation. They need to work with their wider supply chains, with their customers, with their consumers, and with other industry verticals and horizontals.
Lizzie: You also spent a lot of time talking to policymakers and NGOs. Are you seeing tensions between what those other stakeholder groups are looking for, or is there alignment between the business agenda and the societal agenda?
Emma: NGOs can be really, really helpful in bringing people together in a safe space to talk in a pre-competitive, collaborative way about what are the levers that are needed? How can people work together across the industry? Where do they compete by virtue of their natural market? But what are the types of solutions that they need? And then they can act also as a bridge to policymakers. By dialogue and understanding each other’s positions, we help to get more trust-building. Because a lot of this is about trust to be able to make the right decisions.
Ayesha: Emma, thanks for those thoughts. Now, we’ll come back to you in just a few moments’ time. But, Lizzie, first of all, tell us about your conversation with Christiana Figueres.
Lizzie: Well, we talked about where she feels we are now with climate change action around the world and what action could and should be taken. But I began our conversation by asking about one key component: leadership. You were one of the key players at COP21 and in 2015, which created the Paris Agreement. And what did it take to make that agreement happen? What had to change? What sort of arms had to be twisted? How did you do it?
Christiana: No twisting arms. That’s definitely not a good idea. When was that ever successful in anybody’s life, honestly?
Lizzie: So tell me what worked.
Christiana: No twisting arms. The fact that we had a recent report of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] was very helpful. We had science, and we had already a pretty good agreement that whatever came out of Paris had to be science-based, and it had to be a dynamic agreement that would set the guardrails for global decarbonization over the next few decades, until we get to net zero over 2050. So that was very helpful, because it is a long-term view with a long-term target. Also very helpful was the fact that even by then, we already had renewable technologies that were beginning to come on board. And so we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. We also had very specifically harnessed the convincing influence of many, many different stakeholders. So we had brought cities on board. We had brought regions on board, scientists, spiritual leaders, corporates, captains of the finance industries, young people, grandparents, indigenous people, women’s groups. I mean, you name it. And we had harnessed them to come around into forming what we called at that time a surround sound, so that no matter where governments looked, they would actually get the same message. But finally, I should say, what was very, I think, determining is the fact that we had conversations with most governments of the world, over especially the last two to three years before the Paris Agreement, in which the question always was: what do you want, long-term, for your country? Because once self-interest has been identified as actually being coincidental with planetary interest, then you have a much, much better chance.
Lizzie: So let’s spin forward eight years. Here we are. Things feel a bit fractious. What is the thing that is the most key to adapt to 2023?
Christiana: The one piece that I would pull out as not being helpful is that we have polarized this issue beyond anything that ever was or that is necessary. Part of it is geopolitics, but actually, a large part of it comes because science has continued to evolve and give us more granularity and more certainty about the fact that we are running out of time. And so the urgency of this, coupled with deepening impacts that have become deeper and more frequent across the world, especially in the summer of 2023, with the amplifying impact of El Niño on top of everything else, well, that has led to a very understandable sense of grief about what we have lost and continue to lose, desperation about what could be, panic about the projections that science is giving us. And so those human, very understandable human reactions have led to a very lamentable circumstance of blaming each other, of what I would call a circular firing squad, even within the climate community, of throwing rotten tomatoes at each other. Because we’re…
Lizzie: Meaning “You didn’t do enough, and we’re here because of you”?
Christiana: Yeah. Well, “you didn’t do enough” or “your solution is not gonna work” or “your approach is the faulty,” you know, and that is completely equivocal.
Lizzie: Where is the place where the progress needs to be most accelerated?
Christiana: We have to deploy every single lever and pull every single lever that we have. Today, I would say most of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of, certainly, national governments to enact the policies, the measures, the incentives that they know work in order to decarbonize the economy and raise our resilience level. Most of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of corporates, who are responsible for most of the emissions and who have access to the technologies. Much of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the financial sector, who can really shift where their portfolios are going from high carbon to low carbon, and certainly to civil society, because civil society is already playing and will continue to play a very important role of pushing.
Lizzie: You mentioned the leadership that can come from the business sector. And I kinda wanna drill in on that, because I think that’s important to our audience. They might be in a boardroom, they might be an executive, and a lot of their job is both leadership and reconciling conflicting priorities—whether that’s within their organization or with stakeholders, suppliers, what have you. So how do you go about achieving that kind of reconciliation? Is it tapping into that self-interest that you talked about at the beginning of the interview?
Christiana: Absolutely. I am here to break the news that addressing climate change remains a responsibility. And it is the responsibility of everyone who has any agency, no matter over what. When you look at the solution space here, you understand that, actually, because we have invested so much, and because the technologies are so way superior, all of the solutions of renewable energy are actually less costly. Solar has come down 80% in cost over the last few years—meaning that solar is by far the cheapest source of electricity in more than 90% of the geographies of this world. Wind, both onshore and offshore, has come down 60% in cost. And the combination of solar and wind, together, make up the cheapest source of electricity, even—even—against already existing fossil fuel plants, let alone against new plants that would have to be built. So it is a slam dunk. And because we’re investing more and more, they will continue to go down in price. And that actually means that they are on what we call an exponential curve of improvement. You know, we are definitely on a path here of cleaning up our grids. We are still dominated by coal, but that will very soon no longer be the case.
Lizzie: So let’s talk about two things that coexist: adaptation and mitigation. The UN Secretary General said they should be pursued with equal force and urgency. I wonder how you feel about that. Is there a danger that thinking about climate adaptation disincentivizes decarbonization?
Christiana: The fact is, Lizzie, that we have come to the point where we have to, as the Secretary General said, we have to address both of them, while fully understanding that the rate and speed and scale of one is dependent on the rate and speed and scale of the other. We’re about 20 or 30 years too late with mitigation. So we already have the adaptation problems now from the delay of 20 or 30 years ago. And that’s why we have to deal with both of them at the same time. But we have to scale up and speed up mitigation. If we delay effective mitigation over the rest of this decade, then we have pushed adaptation, loss, and damage beyond the manageable. That would be a crisis.
Lizzie: The people who are going to be listening to this interview—our listeners tend to come from a business background, a government background; they spend a lot of time hearing from each other. And I wonder what you think are the voices they don’t hear from that they should be listening to.
Christiana: How radical would you like that answer to be?
Lizzie: You can be as radical as you want.
Christiana: The first voice that none of us hear, because they don’t have a voice, is the voice of nature. We sort of have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are separate from nature, that we are here, humans, and nature is over there someplace. Where does the air that we breathe come from? And how long will you last without air? Where does the water that we drink come from, and how long would you last without water? My point: our survival depends on nature. The fact that we think that we can go beyond the boundaries of what nature can actually tolerate from us, that is the first problem. And the reason why we have done that is because nature cannot speak for herself unless we speak for her. So, of course, the answer that you were looking for, Lizzie, sorry, is yes, all of those who are, you know, less privileged, all of those humans who don’t sit at the decision table. And I agree with that also. So this is not an either/or. It’s an and/also. Let’s start by listening inside ourselves to the voice of nature and understanding that we 150% depend on that. And so the destruction of nature that we are incurring now is nothing less than suicidal to us.
Lizzie: It’s very sobering to hear you say that. And I’m gonna give you a moment, I think, to paint a potential future for us. What does a world that has successfully come together to tackle climate change look like?
Christiana: Let’s just let our imaginations fly. Let’s think of cities of the future that are organically designed for humans, not for cars, where there is more green than cement, because those areas that were previously devoted to parking lots and busy roads, and I don’t know what else are actually now turned into parks or vegetable gardens or flower gardens. Let’s think about buildings that actually produce all the energy that they need either on the roof or on their walls or windows, because we’re developing those technologies. And so we actually have more electricity than we can possibly use—abundant, cheap, clean electricity for everyone. Let’s think about a city or cities that are silent, Lizzie, and they’re non-congested. We could have electric public transportation that takes off 70% of the vehicles, that is not noisy, that is much more effective in bringing us from point A to point B, or shared vehicles. And we get rid of the noise pollution, of the air pollution that is killing 7 million people a year. Let’s think of rural areas that actually are being able to produce much more food than they actually need because we have regenerated and restored our soils, and we have developed methodologies to be able to have sustainable agriculture. I mean, I can go on and on, Lizzie. It’s a world that we want. And so, let’s pull that future into the present.
Lizzie: Christiana Figueres, thank you so much for talking with me.
Christiana: Thank you very much, Lizzie. Good to see you.
Ayesha: Emma, let’s come back to you. Now, Christiana painted us a picture there of a very different reality from the current situation on our planet. Let’s first pick up on what she said about how to get there. One of the points she made included deploying every single lever we have when it comes to accelerating progress. And that includes from business, and mitigating their emissions. Does business have all the levers they need? Do they just need to pull them?
Emma: There isn’t one single magic bullet, so that we can’t just flick a switch and get there. Businesses need to take stock of what are the levers where they can have the most impact and make a commitment and a transition plan. They need to start to keep that live and talk to stakeholders about where they are on the journey, and realize that this is a long-term system change. They need to connect it to everything across their business, and keep learning and course-correcting. It’s about having a really strategic look. And then, because the task is so urgent, it’s about not waiting for perfection, but just getting on with it.
Ayesha: Overall, Emma, do you feel like things are moving faster or slower when it comes to how businesses are approaching climate change mitigation?
Emma: I think business has come on leaps and bounds, and society as a whole really now understands that climate change is here and an urgent problem. But we’ve got zero room for complacency. We’re not moving fast enough. This is the year of the global stock take. It shows we are way, way off where we need to be; and the severity of action that we need to take by 2030 to reduce our carbon emissions is enormous. I think the opportunity here is for business to lead the way, as we’ve been saying, but there are big headwinds. We’ve got a very complicated geopolitical situation. We’ve had high inflation. We’ve got a lot of political change going on in many jurisdictions. We’ve got pressure on businesses in terms of threats of greenwashing, activism against them in various different ways—some being told they’re going too slowly, some being told that this is not an area that’s going to deliver shareholder value, et cetera, et cetera. So business has to navigate that in a careful way. It needs to understand that this is something that can actually be a value driver as well as a risk, to understand what the actions are it can take in relation to their strategy as a whole. I think one of the things that’s going to drive action as well is there’s been a big increase in disclosure requirements, and we’re going to see more of that. So more businesses are going to have to start to report, which I think they have to be careful to see that not as an end in itself but as an opportunity to get more information and use that information to, in turn, drive action.
Lizzie: What kind of benefits are there for businesses that understand the risks of climate change and build up resilience by incorporating adaptation measures into their business plan?
Emma: Adaptation just makes smart business sense, Lizzie. You know, if you face any risk as a business, you evaluate it, and you think how you mitigate it. You don’t wait for the risks to drop. We did an interesting piece of work with the World Economic Forum on a framework for taking business action on adaptation, looking at the opportunity side, because that’s where business gets excited. So how can they capitalize on opportunities or do things more effectively with fewer products or different types of materials to help make a more future-proofed adaptive business? And then actually these are things that they need to solve working with others. There have been a number of really great studies that show that if you can spend a dollar today, you can avoid multiples of that into the future. And that sort of multiple return gets business engaged.
Ayesha: We talked about the importance of nature and having a nature-positive strategy for business in an earlier episode of Take on Tomorrow. But Christiana brought it up in her interview as the voice we should be listening to. But we aren’t doing a great job. What does listening to nature mean for business, and how willing is the business community to adopt a nature-positive strategy?
Emma: The good news on this is that the agenda’s really changed. I was in New York for Climate Week in September, and we saw there nature really rocketing up the agenda. September also saw the launch of the task force on nature-related financial disclosures, which is the first framework for business to report on nature. And it’s like the reporting that we’ve seen now becoming much more widespread on climate, but for nature. But there’s quite a long way to go. And a lot of businesses think it’s quite complicated. So we’re doing a lot of talking to clients about breaking that down, making it simpler, helping them understand that.
Lizzie: Well, I wonder if those clients hear the phrase climate change mitigation and think extra cost. Is that true, first of all, and are there examples of mitigation actually saving money for businesses?
Emma: There are many examples of mitigation that can save businesses money. I mean, the fastest way, if you like, to save money here is not to use the energy in the first place. So one of the things we’re really focused on is looking at the demand side for energy. At the same time, other parts of climate change mitigation do take considerable financial investment. So what you’re seeing there is the emergence of new financial models and new types of risk shares and new and innovative products that could help businesses actually get on that road and partner with others in their mitigation journey.
Ayesha: And, Emma, a final word from you about Christiana’s vision of a future world: do you think that’s achievable? And what’s your vision for a future world?
Emma: Ayesha, that made me smile listening to Christiana talking about her vision for that beautiful greener world of the future. What she painted was that picture of a future-positive, what I’d call like a good life 2.0. How do we reinvent ourselves into a future which brings that peace, prosperity, and security that we all need, living within planetary boundaries and in harmony with nature, so that we can harness resources on a long-term sustainable basis? So my vision, I guess, echoes that. And I really want to be optimistic that we can put ourselves on an urgent path to innovate, change the way that we behave and act as business and society in order to achieve that good-life 2.0 vision of the future.
Ayesha: Well, Emma, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you and getting your insight. Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Emma: Thank you very much, Ayesha. Thank you, Lizzie.
Lizzie: I think I keep going back to the same thing echoed by both Emma and Christiana: the opportunities for businesses that work on adaptation and mitigation, but also this thread of hope, of a possibility of a future where we, as a society, have worked on and tackled climate change.
Ayesha: I completely agree with you about that point of optimism. A couple of things stood out to me: Christiana’s point that if you look at things like solar and wind and renewables, they are actually becoming cheaper. So, yeah, I think there’s lots to be optimistic about. I suppose the one note of concern I picked up from both our guests was that the nature part of the conversation still feels like it’s got a way to go.
Lizzie: Well, that brings us to the end of this episode. Next time on Take on Tomorrow, we’ll be live from the COP28 climate conference in Dubai. Take on Tomorrow is brought to you by PwC’s strategy and business. PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity.