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Unilever boss urges world leaders to reduce carbon output

Car exhaust pipe emitting smoke Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "If we don't tackle climate change we won't achieve economic growth," says Unilever boss Paul Polman

The head of Unilever has called on world leaders to raise their game in the battle against climate change.

Chief executive Paul Polman said governments must set clear CO2 targets to force low-carbon innovation.

Speaking ahead of a business climate summit in Paris this week, he urged fellow chief executives to help create a “political licence” for politicians to promote clean energy.

But firms dependent on cheap fossil fuel energy are unlikely to agree.

“It’s clear that, increasingly, the business community is aware of the costs of climate change. Momentum is swinging towards people realising that we need to take urgent action to stay below two degrees [increase in global average temperature],” Mr Polman told BBC News.

Economic threat?

He said there had been a "long dance" between politicians and chief executives over who should take the lead on cutting emissions.

“There was a belief among some politicians that the main challenge is job creation and economic growth, and if we get side-tracked with climate we might not achieve the economic growth.

"The reality is, if we don’t tackle climate change we won’t achieve economic growth.”

Mr Polman said Unilever had faced business costs €300m-to-€400 million (£216m-to-£316m) higher than normal due to extreme weather.

Along with Virgin’s Richard Branson and vehicle industrialist Ratan Tata, he is in a group called The B Team, which urges governments to bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the middle of the century.

This group will form a strong presence at the business summit, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 people to Paris. The French capital is also the location for the world leaders’ climate summit in December.

'Risk issue'

Another group in Paris, RE100, will announce new members today. It is aiming to encourage 100 world-leading firms to obtain 100% of their energy from renewable sources.

Nick Mabey, who runs the green think tank E3G, said: “We’ve seen the underpinnings of climate politics grow. Now we have a $5tn (£3.1tn) low carbon economy.

"We have the G20 discussing the risks to financial markets from climate policy and a real understanding of how climate change is hitting countries and cities. And in the end it’s the politics of the real economy that’s going to drive action.

“With firms, it’s moved from being something you did for corporate social responsibility. Now it’s a risk issue for every major company.”

The World Bank's climate chief, Rachel Kyte, told BBC News: “There’s really a conversation beginning between business and government about what are the conditions necessary in the economy for us to grow in a cleaner direction.

“The message to fiscal policy managers and CEOs [chief executive officers] is they have to understand this is the direction of travel.

"To be a first mover working out how to be competitive in an economy which has less carbon in it… that is the stuff of business.”

Fossil fans

But for every CEO who makes promises in Paris this week, others will warn against a rush away from CO2.

America’s fossil fuel giants, the Koch Brothers, are spending $900 million on political advertising to make their case.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some people argue that developing countries need cheap fossil fuels to escape poverty

Fossil fuel advocates, in organisations like the Global Warming Policy Foundation, argue that developing countries need cheap energy to lift their people out of poverty. They claim fears for the climate are exaggerated.

Oil company Shell meanwhile, acknowledges the threat from climate change, but is planning for strong demand for oil and gas for decades to come.

Whilst public research and development promotes renewables - like solar, wind and hydro - private investment still focuses on making fossil fuels cheaper.

Polly Courtice, who runs the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, says it is hard to gauge how many firms are willing to embrace a low-carbon agenda.

“The general awareness that climate change is an issue to be addressed is much more firmly embedded than before," she said.

"Most of the firms we work with have emissions targets built in to their plans, which certainly wasn’t the case back in 2009 [at the Copenhagen climate summit].

"Whether the targets are ambitious enough is another matter.”

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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