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GMF WS19 Nick Nuttall
Image: Nick Nuttall

Climate change and business

Interview: Charlotta Lomas
May 20, 2015

As the Business & Climate Summit gets underway in Paris, DW spoke with the UNFCCC's Nick Nuttall about expectations for a new climate deal, putting a price on carbon, and the role of business in climate change.


Deutsche Welle: We are now 200 days away from the climate summit in Paris. How optimistic are you that a climate deal can be reached?

We're very optimistic that indeed we will get a deal in Paris in December 2015. There is a lot of movement by countries right now, and to date we have just under 40 nations that have put forward their climate action plans for Paris. Many, many more will join during the summer months in the run-up to December.

Two recent studies found that current pledges by major emitters are inadequate if we are to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. What influence do these findings have on the climate process?

This is not a surprise, it is something we've been saying for several months now, and it is absolutely clear that the pledges and the contributions to the Paris agreement by all nations won't add up to what we need to do.

What Paris has to put in place is some kind of pathway and the finance to achieve a peaking of global emissions in the next decade and then a deep, deep, deep decarbonization of the economy, such that by the second half of the century, the emissions that are in the atmosphere are so low that they can be readily absorbed by healthy forests and other eco-systems. Restoring the balance of planet earth is the goal, but that is not something you achieve overnight.

Mountain of coal in Germany (Photo: Roland Weihrauch dpa/lnw)
Can the world kick its addiction to coal?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

We put a lot of hope into these negotiations, but the UN talks alone, as you say, cannot solve the problem of climate change. What else is needed - and what role does business play?

Yes, we put a lot into these climate meetings, and no, Paris will not solve climate change overnight. But we hope it will put in place the pathways and the solutions and the determination to solve the climate challenge. Otherwise there would be no point in going to Paris in many ways.

On the issue of business, I think one of the things now accepted by everyone is that governments cannot do it all, and that we need our cities and our urban areas and we need companies. We also need citizens, but we need the private sector, whether it be large corporations, medium-sized corporations, the investment community, or the banks and pension funds.

I think we are seeing a very big sea change in terms of the kind of relationship between governments and what we call non-state actors. In the past it was a kind of macabre game of pass-the-parcel, with governments saying "Can we move? Do we have the confidence of our business community?" And the business community saying, "We're not prepared to move until the government has actually put in place the kind of policies that give some certainty about where the world is going."

I think that game is over, and we are seeing a lot of progressive companies moving ahead, a lot of cities moving ahead, and a lot of governments encouraged by this movement of the private sector.

Adobe Headquarters in San Jose, California (Photo: EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO)
Progressive companies like Adobe have taken initiative to invest in renewable energiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How important is it for companies to put a price on carbon?

In a sense we have lived for many years with the understanding that the polluter pays. Whether it be chemical discharges into river systems, or waste generated by households, the notion that the polluter pays is very much enshrined. But right now with climate change, that is not the case. So a price on carbon, whatever that price is going to be, needs to be there.

At the moment we have a very uneven playing field. We have a situation where the polluter is not paying, but where the polluter is being rewarded. Only over the last few days, we've seen a report by the International Monetary Fund saying that something like $5 trillion worth of subsidies are being given to the fossil fuel industry. That's astonishing, and it's not a fair playing field for the clean and renewable energies.

What role does the current business summit in Paris play in the negotiation process?

There are some very big key events this year, political events such as the G7 and the G20. We have the Financing for Development meeting happening in Addis Ababa, and then we have the Business & Climate Summit, which is a chance for the industry to rally round the Paris agreement, and build confidence of the governments and the businesses behind what they are doing.

I think it is part of a general landscape we have seen emerging since the UN Secretary General's climate summit last year in New York, where many businesses - from big consumer goods companies like Unilever, to the insurance industry - are committing to all kinds of targets with governments and with each other to ramp up a climate-friendly world.

And how can the energy sector be de-carbonized in a way that insures economic growth?

There are two kinds of energy industry. There is that of oil and gas and coal, and then we have the renewable energy industry - which is growing really fast. Every year, something like $270 billion is invested in new renewable energy, which is more than in new fossil fuels. We're in a new fascinating moment in time, where we've had an oil price down at 40 dollars a barrel just recently, and that [would typically have ended] renewable energy investment, but in fact it's been the other way round, the oil companies have had a problem. You've seen companies handing back their leases in the Arctic because they are no longer profitable.

I think we have some major oil and gas companies who recognize that the future cannot be about just burning whatever you can dig up or suck out of the ground. I think many realize that these assets will be stranded assets if we get the right kind of agreement in Paris.

Coal plant spews smoke in Gelsenkirchen, Germany (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
There is a growing push to put a price on fossil fuel pollutionImage: picture-alliance/AP/M. Meissner

What can we expect from the business community at the climate summit in Paris in December?

There is actually an initiative launched at the last UN climate meeting in Lima, called the Lima to Paris Action Agenda, and this is a way of bringing forward the initiatives by cities, but also the private sector to Paris. And we are hoping that in Paris we will see many companies coming forward, with even braver and bolder commitments like 100 percent renewable energy in their operations, to commitments to a long-term goal to have climate neutrality or net zero emissions within their own businesses by the second half of the century. So Paris should be quite exciting in terms of the business action.

Nick Nuttall is currently living in Bonn, Germany, where he works as the spokesperson for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Before joining the United Nations Environment Program in 2001, he won several awards for his reports about technology and environment.

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