Fight climate change, make money

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Story highlights

  • Richard Branson and Paul Polman: Aim for net zero emissions by 2050
  • Financial benefits to taking climate action clearer by the day, they say

Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group. Paul Polman is the CEO of Unilever. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Though the public rarely notices, businesses succeed because of their planning. To see what is happening now, while positioning yourself to make the most of the future, is ultimately the key to turning a profit. Indeed, more than having the start-up capital or the latest hit piece of technology, knowing what the future might bring is a critical component of success in business.

Of course, when it comes to climate change, we don't know everything that's in store for us -- the likely impact and consequences are still an issue of intense debate. But the outlines are clear enough to make it worth our time to start planning ways to fight it and to allow us to make money along the way.
That's why the B Team, a group of global business leaders, is calling on policymakers from around the world to set a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in this year's Paris climate agreement. We're asking governments around the world to be as ambitious as possible in combating climate change, because to do anything less than that is a risk that businesses -- and the rest of the planet -- can't afford.
This goal has its roots in science but gets its urgency and ambition from the world of business. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this century, we have only a 66% chance of preventing 2˚ C (3.6˚ F) of warming and avoiding catastrophic climate change. Any business leader will tell you that those are terrible odds. They aren't good enough for businesses, and they're not good enough for the planet.
As a result, we've tapped into that great global resource of ambition, and are calling for an earlier goal of net zero by 2050. While this bumps up the U.N. target, earlier action will mean greater odds of success and savings down the line.
Codifying this goal into the international agreement that's taking shape would send the strongest possible market signal that there's money to be made in taking climate change seriously. A net zero position allows business leaders to take short-term action and make long-term plans to develop profitable ways to be competitive, even as they limit emissions, increase efficiency and find strategies to offset the remaining emissions that can't be avoided.
The financial benefits to tackling climate action are becoming clearer by the day. Around the world, renewable energy is increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels, driving investment and delivering a profit. More companies than ever are instituting internal carbon prices and other climate mitigation strategies to prepare for further climate action and welcome the clean energy revolution. While businesses in different industries are at different stages in their move toward sustainability, a goal of global net zero greenhouse gas emissions would prompt a market-based race to the top.
We need policymakers to take this target seriously, from Main Street to Wall Street and all the way to the international negotiating table. Business leaders hate unnecessary risk. If governments don't implement strong and responsible climate policy, we are courting both economic and environmental disaster.
This transition, if done equitably and conscientiously, will create jobs, spark innovation and fight global inequality. An estimated $90 trillion will be spent on global infrastructure in the next 15 years, regardless of what future we choose. Economists estimate that the switch to a fully low-carbon infrastructure would raise costs by only 4.5%. If we choose to spend that money wisely under a paradigm of climate action, we can lower emissions, lower our risks and lower the number of people who go without electricity and other essential services. Simply put: Will we spend that same money to go clean, or to stay with the dirty status quo?
We're business leaders, but we're also global citizens.
At its heart, the call for global net zero is about finding a practical way to finally start leaving the world better than we found it. It's about getting leaders around the world to understand that the earlier we act on climate, the more profitable it will be. It's about realizing that proactive climate policy creates incredible opportunities for businesses and for sustainable development and reduces the enormous risk of climate change to our bottom line.
Ambition is a formidable tool. It builds businesses and makes nations. It takes us to the moon and it puts food on the table. We pride ourselves on being ambitious business leaders: staying ahead of the curve, innovating in our fields, and setting the standard for excellence in our fields.
Delegates from across the globe met last week in Switzerland to discuss the international climate agreement ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties taking place this December in Paris. We urged them to keep the 2050 target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions in mind. Yes, the goal is ambitious and bold. But it's badly needed.
For people, for profit, for the planet, we propose net zero by 2050.