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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


Words matter in the Paris climate agreement

We Mean Business

3 September 2015

Words matter. This is especially true for the Paris Agreement on climate change to be concluded this December. Businesses and investors have a clear stake in the words in the agreement and in the political commitment behind them, which will underpin the policy certainty they need to build the low carbon economy. Getting the right words in the right place is essential to success.

Businesses and governments alike recognise that the low carbon economy is inevitable, irreversible and irresistible. Businesses and investors are already stepping up to the plate. Through the We Mean Business coalition, 154 companies with revenues totaling $3.5 trillion, and 111 investors with $8.1 trillion in assets under management, have now made 430 ambitious commitments to climate action.

At the same time, 56 countries covering nearly 60 per cent of global emissions, including the three largest emitters – China, the U.S., and the EU – have now announced their commitments to reduce emissions and build climate resilience under the new, universal Paris Agreement. By the time Paris arrives, we expect that all of the major economies will have commitments on the table.

These are important commitments which will reduce projected warming, drive the expansion of clean industries, create low carbon jobs, improve energy access and energy security, help us adapt to a changing climate, and protect our health. But we know that these commitments alone will not be enough to keep warming below 2°C.

A successful Paris Agreement will clearly show how governments, business, and civil society will finish the job in the years ahead. The agreement we want to see will set a collective long-term emissions goal. For We Mean Business, this means net zero greenhouse gas emissions well before the end of the century, words that give us a likely chance of holding warming below 2°C.

Every country can begin to decarbonise and so can every business, no matter its sector or maturity. By mapping out their unique pathways towards net zero, each country will provide the incentives for business to do the same.

A successful Paris Agreement will also spell out the means to reach this goal beyond the first round of country commitments in Paris. These include regularly strengthening country commitments, holding governments accountable, and shifting trillions of dollars towards low carbon investment.

Regularly strengthening commitments. 

At meetings in July, Ministers converged on returning to the negotiating table every five years, but it remains unclear what they will do when they get there. Here it is---the verb that matters. No business was ever founded on a review or stock take. When leading businesses meet their targets, they immediately set more ambitious ones. Governments should put their timidity aside and agree to strengthen their commitments every five years.

Holding governments accountable. 

Transparency and accountability are the foundations of a credible agreement. Thousands of businesses publically report their emissions and are increasingly having their emissions accounting externally verified. Here what we need are rules requiring governments to make clear how they are tracking against their targets, and how well their collective effort is tracking against a 2°C trajectory. This will provide a level playing field for global business.

Shifting the trillions. 

The Copenhagen pledge to mobilize US$100 billion per year by 2020 is key to the trust necessary for a strong Paris Agreement. Businesses and investors are ready to do their part to leverage private climate finance. But minimizing dangerous climate impacts will require shifting trillions of dollars into low-carbon, climate-resilient investment. To accomplish this, we will look to the Paris outcome for clear policy signals such as carbon pricing, and partnerships with the private sector to reorient broader financial flows.

With a clear goal and clear means to reach that goal in the Paris Agreement, a 2°C world will be within reach. In its recent report Seizing the Global Opportunity, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate shows that stronger cooperation between governments, business, and civil society can put us on track.

Words matter in the Paris Agreement. The right words will speed the construction of the low-carbon economy and promote sustainable prosperity for all. In these endeavours the governments coming to Paris have steadfast partners, and we mean business.

Authors (listed in alphabetical order by organisation)

Peter Boyd, Senior Climate Advisor, The B-Team
Edward Cameron, Managing Director, Partnership Development and Research, BSR
David Wei, Associate Director, Climate Change, BSR
Kate Levick, Director of Policy and Regulation, CDP
Anne Kelly, Senior Director, Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, Ceres
Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group
Eliot Whittington, Deputy Director, The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group
Carina Larsfalten, Managing Director, Global Policy Affairs, WBCSD

Blog first published on the Huffington Post.


About We Mean Business

WeMeanBusinessWe Mean Business is a coalition of organisations working with many of the world's most influential businesses and investors. These businesses recognise that the transition to a low carbon economy is essential to secure sustainable economic growth and prosperity for mankind. To accelerate this transition, the coalition operates as a common platform to amplify the business voice, catalyse bold climate action, and promote smart policy frameworks.

The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) plays a fundamental role within the coalition, building on its policy and strategic work advocating for climate change solutions and leveraging the efforts of its EU and global business members.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, CLG’s Director, sits on the Board of Directors of the We Mean Business coalition.


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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