The low-carbon future has been given a new legitimacy, and now is the time to act

Following the conclusion of the COP21 talks in Paris, Business in the Community’s Environment and Market Solutions Director Stephen Farrant reflects on what has been achieved, and why business now has a unique opportunity to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy.

This Saturday, the world woke up to the realisation that, at long last, the leaders of 195 nations had achieved some real progress on climate change. Great credit is due to the French hosts for their diplomacy and meticulous orchestration of the conference, and for steering it to a positive and universally accepted outcome. It's an amazing feat, especially given that just four weeks earlier, France was reeling from the terrorist attacks in Paris – although the links between social unrest, extremism, and the worst effects of climate change on the world’s poor are perhaps stronger than is sometimes recognised.

It is hugely encouraging that, late in the negotiations, the language moved from focusing on a 2ºC limit on average temperate rises to something more ambitious, even if only aspirational. Through coalitions such as We Mean Business and others, certain business leaders have been heavily involved in the planning for COP21 and this has clearly paid off. The commitment made to reviewing and strengthening the agreements every five years is something that many in the business world had been seeking for some time.

At last the world has a clear direction and new momentum towards a low-carbon future, giving the de-carbonisation agenda a new legitimacy, for governments, for business and, critically, for investors. However, although the Paris Agreement clearly offers much in terms of direction, ambition and hope, it is still very short on legally-binding detail. Matters are certainly not all sorted out, and failure to take action now will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

So, now is the time to act, and the business community has to lead the charge and capitalise on this new opportunity. Otherwise we will all look back on December 2015 as a fleeting moment of misplaced optimism.

Illustrating the urgency of the task facing the global community now, it has been estimated that, to give us even a two-thirds chance of limiting climate change to a rise of only 2ºC, just 1,000 GT of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100. However, in the three years between 2011 and 2014, energy emissions alone accounted for a further 140 GT of Co2, leaving a remaining global ‘budget’ of only 860GT to be used for the rest of the century.

Limiting the change to 2ºC – let alone something closer to 1.5ºC - simply does not look likely based on our trajectory over recent years. So we must use the momentum of Paris to begin, right now, a very significant reduction in our emissions, coupled with a massive investment in renewables and clean energy.

For BITC, this is the “smart growth” opportunity, - growth that recognises, addresses and takes responsibility for climate change, growth that nurtures healthy ecosystems, and growth that encourages a step-change in resource utilisation through the circular economy.

COP21 therefore presents a unique opportunity to move forwards strongly and positively, and for business to re-enforce its position as a key part of the solution.

Let’s keep hold of the leadership, imagination, courage and global co-operation that were the hallmarks of COP21. Real change will happen in the coming months and years, and will be down to the actions and decisions we all make as employers, employees, entrepreneurs and customers, not just what happened during those ten momentous days in Paris.