Rallying ambition within the private sector to fund zero-emission technologies is key to climate change mitigation, leaders said at a World Economic Forum meeting held virtually on Wednesday.
“I think most of us feel very strongly that no government in the world has the amount of money we need to effect this transition,” said John Kerry, the chief U.S. climate envoy, during the online panel, normally held every January in Davos. “This has to happen by virtue of the private sector being engaged.”
COP26, the United Nations’ climate conference held last November in Glasgow, provided such an opportunity.
“Glasgow was exciting, not because we actually solved the problems, but because the breadth of private sector companies showed up with the willingness to get involved in solving those problems,” said Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Gates’ climate investment fund Breakthrough Energy — which raised $1.5 billion over the past six months for green technology — is part of the First Movers Coalition. Launched at COP26, the coalition is a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and the WEF.
“We need all the leading companies to come into First Movers,” Gates said. “It really does come down to economics. The dirty way of making things is very mature, whether it’s steel or cement or aviation fuel.”
WEF president and panel moderator Børge Brende cited the fund’s Global Risks Report 2022 to contextualize the importance of private sector involvement. The report outlines that climate action failure is the most severe global risk over the next 10 years.
“Emissions have gone up actually in 2021,” Kerry said. “The world used 9% more coal than we did in 2020…and coal is the dirtiest fuel.”
Arguably the most notable COP26 advance — the Glasgow Climate Pact requiring countries to report environmental progress — culminated in a controversial compromise about coal specifically. In a last-minute change, China and India softened language, opting for a “phase down” instead of a “phase out” of coal.
This move was one of several reasons climate activists like Greta Thunberg criticized COP26 for being “business as usual.”
“We have to help countries be able to wean themselves from coal,” Kerry said. “It’s not enough just to sit here today and say ‘hey, you got to get off coal.’ How are they going to do that?”
According to Egypt’s Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad, it’s essential to bridge the gap between governmental policy and private sector innovation.
“There are some success stories that could be further replicated,” Fouad said. “One story is [of] Egypt and its transition to renewable energy.”
The host country of COP27 this November, Egypt has made recent strides in clean energy. In December, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi inaugurated the Benban Solar Park, the largest solar power plant in the world.
Anna Borg, president and CEO of the Swedish-based electrical giant Vattenfall, said it’s in companies’ best interests to adapt to clean energy’s rising prominence.
“As business leaders, we are used to managing and taking risks,” Borg said. “Every time I talk to my colleagues in the First Movers Coalition, for example, we, in addition to discussing how to solve this from a global perspective, also end up talking about the business opportunities.”
Vattenfall and Fred. Olsen Seawind were awarded the rights this week to develop a floating offshore wind farm off Scotland’s east coast. The project could produce enough electricity to power more than 700,000 UK homes.
Kerry ended the panel by emphasizing that the price of world inaction exceeds the cost of carbon. He linked black carbon — formed from fossil fuel combustion — to the high rates of environmentally-induced asthma among children that cost the U.S. billions each year.
“We’re paying a price for carbon,” Kerry said. “Solar and wind are, in every form of accounting, net cheaper than coal and cheaper than gas.”