Three lessons for business from the IPCC assessment on climate change

In 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the UK Parliament following a retreat of Allied forces from France. Resisting the temptation to induce a protracted postmortem on failures in the war effort, he said, “If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall find that we have lost the future.” Churchill’s words resonated with me this week while reviewing the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.

The headline from that report is that climate change impacts are likely to be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible.” Severe impacts include increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, dramatic changes to water distribution and security, oceanic warming and acidification, sea level rises, and, of course, temperature changes and fluctuations. These are likely to have pervasive effects across socio-ecological systems, geographies, and business sectors. We are already seeing the lasting, if not irreversible, implications of climate change on livelihoods, food systems, health, and human rights, and can trace impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. And as the report outlines, the risks are accumulating for every business.

As I read the report, I felt a sense of déjà vu and regret. I remember all too well the IPCC assessments from 2007, their compelling case for urgency and ambition, and the subsequent seven years of failed promises and missed opportunities. It is easy to point fingers. But as Churchill’s quotation reminds us, we would do better to focus on how to safeguard the future.

The report also highlights that adaptive capacity is not possible beyond certain temperature rises. As a result, we must also avoid the unmanageable impacts of climate change by ensuring that these thresholds are not broken

The IPCC report demands renewed investment in innovation and bold action by all—including business. So where do we go from here? I see three lessons from the IPCC report that require our immediate attention:

  • Business must fully understand and integrate climate risk into operational practices and relationships with communities. It is clear that climate change has huge significance for supply chains, access to raw materials, worker well-being, and worldwide distribution of goods and services. It is also clear that addressing climate will have implications on energy and land use. We cannot go on hiding from this risk. Companies across geographies and sectors are beginning to understand this. More need to follow, and more needs to be done. 
  • Business must understand that climate resilience will require a dual approach, combining aggressive emissions reductions with enhanced adaptive capacity. As the IPCC report illustrates, a lot can be done to manage the now unavoidable consequences of climate change. We can develop climate-smart infrastructure, improve water management techniques, and invest in research and development around drought-resistant crops, tackling climate-related disease vectors, and disaster risk reduction.

    However, the report also highlights that adaptive capacity is not possible beyond certain temperature rises. As a result, we must also avoid the unmanageable impacts of climate change by ensuring that these thresholds are not broken. Key strategies include reducing waste, improving land use, enhancing energy efficiency, and speeding up the transition to low-carbon energy sources.

  • All of the steps business and others can take now are meaningful and feasible, even in a decade of economic constraints. There is no need to wait for a technological silver bullet—and indeed, there isn’t one. An Ecofys report points out it is technically and economically feasible to reduce emissions to zero for roughly 90 per cent of current sources of greenhouse gas using existing and near-future technological options. And the steps we need to take are not only consistent with protecting the climate, but also compatible with increased business efficiency and profitability.

BSR recently developed a new climate initiative, Business in a Climate-Constrained World. At its core is a series of climate stabilization wedges, or steps for climate resilience across eight industry clusters. Our first report will be released in the middle of April. We believe cross-sector collaboration is essential to success of this strategy, so in the coming months, we will engage with our members, other business networks, and the wider climate stakeholder community to map out what we can do together to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”

We will also activate our network through the BSR Spring Forum, in Paris from June 11 to 12. Leaders from business, civil society, international organizations, and government are joining us to spur ambitious business leadership on climate, including IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele.

As the US entered the Second World War, Churchill dryly observed, “The United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative.” In the years since 2007, we have explored so many climate alternatives: Some tried to deny the science, others said that action was too costly or impractical in the absence of a technological leap, and a vocal group even argued that we could manage climate change through adaptation. The IPCC report leaves us in no doubt that these alternatives are exhausted approaches to a generation-defining challenge. It is now time for us to finally do the right thing and pursue climate resilience with urgency and ambition.

Edward Cameron is director for Partnership Development and Research at the BSR New York. This post originally appeared in the BSR blog.

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