As the world’s leaders congregate in Paris today for a two-week conference on climate change, Associate Professor James Tansey of UBC’s Sauder School of Business explains why there’s a big business contingent at this year’s conference and what to expect from them.

James TanseyWhy is there such a strong business presence at this conference?

Over the last few editions of this conference, we’ve seen bigger and bigger showings from the business community – a lot are keen to see action on climate change. As more and more companies are making plans to become more sustainable and to help combat climate change, holding out is less and less viable. We’re seeing companies like Exxon facing lawsuits around climate change, for suppressing information or denying the link between their actions and climate change. It’s reminiscent of the big lawsuits that were levelled against tobacco companies. In terms of public pressure, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. Business leaders don’t want to be behind the times.

So yes, the business community is more of a presence, and they’re not trying to derail the agenda – rather, they’re actively engaged in discussions. I think the show of support for government action coming from many business leaders is really important.

What will business leaders be pushing for?

A lot of companies seem quite open to carbon trading and carbon taxes, as evidenced last week by the fairly strong showing of support of Alberta’s new plan for carbon pricing. Corporations often prefer carbon pricing as it’s more flexible for them than other options such as more heavy-handed regulation. So that’s what they tend to push for, alongside long-term transparency as governments roll out new policies. They don’t want governments to tinker with the system once it’s in place, and modify prices on the fly, as that’s just a pain for businesses to be readjusting constantly. By and large, the business community wants to have some control, as many would tell the government, “You can tell us where to go, but don’t tell us how to get there – let us figure that out.”

Do you expect to see big changes coming out of this conference?

On some issues, yes, some no. I expect the richer countries will come together and agree to support developing economies mitigate and adapt to climate change, but that kind of commitment has been made at almost every climate conference – and then the bank accounts sit empty as they don’t actually follow through on the big pledges. The money never arrives, so there’s good reason to be cynical.

I’m more optimistic about getting some binding targets in place, which is very difficult, but it’s the main focus of the conference. A lot of background has already been done, including some important moves by China and the United States. China has typically been resistant to climate action, feeling it would prevent them from catching up to the richest countries, but they seem to be seeing things differently now. And the Americans are making progress too, but they would still need to pass any binding targets through Senate and Congress – and that’s never easy.

Tansey teaches courses in sustainability at the Robert H. Lee Graduate School, part of the Sauder School of Business, and is the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing.

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