We Need A Political Price On Denial And An Economic Price On Carbon

Social Good Summit, New York – Day two of the Social Good Summit, and the energy hasn’t subsided. In fact, energy is not only palpable in the 92Y building, but it’s also one of the main topics of discussion of the day. Several sessions addressed the issue, framed by Al Gore’s passionate plea for action on turning the tide on climate change. Gore electrified the crowd right off the bat – with his charisma and genuine approach to story telling, he reminded the crowd at the Social Good Summit – and the thousands following online – that we continue to put 90 million tons of carbon pollution in the atmosphere every 24 hours, that the accumulated amount of man made pollution traps as much heat each day as would be released by 400 Hiroshima atom bombs. Gore connected these facts with the visible disruptions in water cycles, rising air and ocean temperatures, and the dangerous acidification of oceans through the addition of carbon dioxide.

Gore then set the stage for the rest of the afternoon’s discussion on climate change. “We are already paying the cost of carbon, so it is high time that we put a price on carbon,” he said, exhorting civil society to speak up and be vocal about our collective need to both put an economic price on carbon, and a political price on denial. “When we put a price on carbon, the zillions of economic decisions made every day will start to factor in that price – and low carbon and carbon free choices will become more attractive,” Gore explained. And, indeed, the fight against climate change, and charting a sustainable course towards the future, is a fight that must be fought on many fronts. Business, civil society, NGOs, international organizations and of course governments must be involved and work on different but parallel tracks.


Representatives from IKEA and Coca-Cola were in attendance today to speak about how their companies are seeking to mitigate the impact of their activities on climate change, as well as how these corporations are adapting to the need to have a lower carbon footprint. Because, yes, many major corporations have realized that a business model that relies on unsustainable practices are bound to fail in the future. IKEA, for example, looks at sustainability not just from an environmental perspective, but also from a social angle. In addition to having installed 500,000 solar panels on their stores and warehouses, and running and operating 17 wind farms across the world to power their activities, the company also has more than 1100 suppliers who each comply with a code of conduct; they have 80 auditors who conduct audits of these suppliers throughout the year to ensure good working conditions and fair wages for workers. Jeff Seabright of Coca-Cola explained that the company recognizes that the science of climate change is real, that the case for action is compelling, and that they need to play a role. As a beverage company for which water is a vital input, the company clearly has a important stake in protecting clean water sources. But, as Seabright noted, “business has to raise its game”. For Coca-Cola, it means having a business action framework that looks at carbon footprint reduction, how to leverage the business’ core capabilities in the market place to begin shifting “business as usual” practices, and developing a strategic vision with civil society and government – the “Footprint, Hand Print, and Blue Print” model, as he called it.

For IKEA, this takes the form of promoting and selling goods which help consumers reduce their impact on climate. IKEA will soon only sell lights that only work with LED bulbs, which use 85% less energy than traditional bulbs. It also means sourcing cotton and other raw materials from third-party certified suppliers. As Seabright from Coca-Cola noted, it is important to illustrate what is possible in the business community, and what business opportunities open up when driving towards a lower carbon economy.

For business, taking action on climate change means encouraging responsibility both within their companies and among their consumers. It means taking the long view and modifying business  practices to ensure that sustainable social and environmental strategies are employed. It means collaborating with other sectors of society and not ignoring the facts in the name of preserving outdated business models.  As IKEA’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Steve Howard, said, “[IKEA is] on a journey. If you’re in the business community, put [sustainability] at the heart of your business strategy.”


Timothy Wirth, the Vice-Chairman of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, made the case for government action on climate change. “While we can all make a difference individually, how governments make policy is hugely important,” Wirth noted. He spoke about how the government is regulating industries, such as refrigeration and cars, and how these policies are making a significant difference and are “interesting blueprints” for legislating on carbon pricing. What is needed, he argues, is both a national and international effort to deal with climate change and reducing carbon output. What we know is that governments have a responsibility to look for ways to put a price on what is “bad”, and incentivize what is “good.” While an international treaty is ultimately what we need to aim for, because of the significant differences and gaps between countries – politically, economically and socially – Wirth admitted that an international treaty won’t be a single document, and won’t be immediate. Enormous differences between nations need to be reconciled. This gap was illustrated during a conversation between Christina Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC and Rachel Kyte, VP of Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

There are many different ways to put a price on carbons. The easiest, fairest and most predictable is to put a tax on carbon. But this is politically difficult. Countries are experimenting with different forms of carbon pricing to reflect their different political and economic realities. Other schemes to address the issue of carbon pricing including setting up market based mechanisms, such as cap and trade, which will get you “volume and speed in terms of private sector innovation”, said Kyte. These varying methodologies mean it’s difficult to measure progress relative to one another. But, eventually, we will have to move towards standardization, “to ensure that a ton reduced in Kyoto is equal to a ton reduced in Santiago de Chile,” said Figueres.

While there isn’t a global agreement, and a solid international treaty is not yet on the horizon, governments see that there is a clear self interest in terms of competitiveness, the environment, human health to have a price on something we want to diminish. As Figueres argued, when you put a price on carbon “you institutionalize accountability– otherwise, we’re in a space with no consequences.”

Governments must aim to create a “low carbon, high resilience society” by 2030, Figueres noted – they will need to be bold. For example, Kyte explained that if we are to think about carbon as the currency of the 21st century, we will need a reserve, rating agencies, institutions.

In this context, Wirth believes the US needs to be a leader. “What can each country do very well? [For the US], what can we do in terms of energy efficiency, R&D, deforestation, renewable energy?” Individual countries’ efforts and attempts at developing carbon pricing mechanisms are the building blocks towards getting to an international agreement. When we – as a global community – get to the point where we can agree on a UN standard, it will be a critical point. “When the UN sets a standard, they become something that every country can take on and be accountable for via civil society,” said Wirth, adding that “change comes about because of grassroots activity, organizing and bringing that message and that pressure to DC.”

Civil Society

And, indeed, civil society, grassroots movements, artists, entertainers, activists and individuals all play a fundamental role in this fight. Members of the rock band Linkin Park, for example, spoke today about an initiative they’ve developed to bring the issue of energy poverty to the forefront and engage their fan base. Thanks to a video game, they’re tapping into the enormous energy of their community to make them passionate about environmental issues. Parker Liautaud, a young polar explorer, inspired the audience with his stories of activism that led him on several polar expeditions during his teen years – to bring attention to the issue of climate change.

As Al Gore noted during his closing remarks, “political will is a renewable resource.” He invited everyone to consider how their lives, and things they care about, are affected by climate challenge. This level of personal connection, and a willingness to speak up – whether not letting climate change denialists get away with it in conversation, educating  our communities, and keeping our elected representatives accountable – are key elements of winning the fight. As Stacy Martinet, the Chief Marketing Officer of Mashable put it, “Everything we do, we can bring a climate consciousness to it.