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Exhaust from a vehicle. (Stefan Redel/iStockphoto / Getty Images)
Exhaust from a vehicle. (Stefan Redel/iStockphoto / Getty Images)

Agenda 2020

Is managing climate change a feel-good luxury for businesses? Add to ...

The Agenda 2020 series asks experts to discuss what business leaders should be doing now to prepare their organizations to be healthy, efficient and growing by 2020. Read more at tgam.ca/agenda2020.

Climate change has already had widespread consequences for businesses, such as disrupting Coca Cola’s sugar supply and decreased snow levels at ski resorts. Companies are just starting to figure out how climate change will affect their bottom line in the coming years.

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Chris Turner, author of The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, and Ian Bruce, manager of science and policy at the David Suzuki Foundation, talk about what businesses are doing now, what they can do in the future, and how extreme the shift to climate-change business practices needs to be.

Is climate change going to affect the way companies do business in the future?

Chris Turner: The short answer is yes, climate change is the grand universal problem which affects everything, which means it affects all businesses everywhere. It does so unevenly both across time and space, so a lot of the impacts are uneven and unpredictable. There’s absolutely no question, we are already living in a world being heavily altered by climate change, where everything from extreme weather events to the cost of doing business in a world where carbon dioxide increasingly has a price on it is affecting bottom lines, commodity prices; basically anything you can name ultimately traces back to the instability of the planet. Climate change is already affecting the way many business sectors do business. If they haven’t felt it yet, they are absolutely going to.

Ian Bruce: I would certainly agree. In Canada, we’re already feeling the impact of climate change. We’ve witnessed some of those impacts with some of the more extreme weather events we’ve seen in the country over the past few years. The insurance sector is one of the business sectors that has changed dramatically over the past few years. We’re starting to see the cost of inaction on climate change throughout today’s economy. In Canada, one of the fastest growing economic sectors is the clean technology sector, which has largely been driven by climate change, as well.

What kinds of challenges and opportunities will climate change create for businesses in the next five years?

CT: I think the challenges are on several different fronts. The first one is obviously the most direct – like what we saw in Calgary last year with the flood. If you’re a major multinational business operating in a city like Calgary and suddenly the downtown core of that city is paralyzed for days, potentially even weeks (although Calgary did manage to respond quite quickly), what does that do to your business? How do you begin planning your business for the kind of resilience it’s going to need to be operable in jurisdictions where these acute events are becoming more common? If you’re in the resource sector, you might have vulnerabilities that weren’t previously understood to be vulnerabilities that you need to be assessing and planning for, whether it’s supply chains or where you’re actually obtaining resources. Is climate change hitting those spots in ways that you need to be prepared for if you intend to continue to operate smoothly through this increasingly volatile climate time? That’s the key one.

There are also challenges and opportunities on those slower, longer-term scenarios. The big challenge, even before we get into acute weather events and that sort of thing, is simply a business climate and a social climate in which the licence to operate is going to be contingent on you being able to demonstrate as a business that you are contributing to dealing with this problem. If your business is seen as being on the wrong side of the climate issue, you may begin to see the possible ramification of that social licence to operate, as we see with the pipeline debates and that sort of thing.

IB: I think certainly there are huge opportunities for businesses as the world looks to find an effective solution to climate change. Large economies around the world are looking to modernize their energy systems, reduce carbon emissions, as well as improve quality of life (such as provide cleaner air). Canada could be an innovator and developer of clean-energy solutions and help sell these technologies to large economies where the demand is strong. We’re already seeing that trend. It’s probably one of the biggest untold economic stories in the country; how significantly Canada’s clean technology sector has grown over the past 10 years.

The irony is these are technologies we’re not necessarily using here in Canada that are being sold internationally to large economies in Asia, California and many other global markets. World leaders are looking for solutions to climate change. China this last year, dealing with toxic levels of air pollution, is prioritizing clean energy at levels we’ve never seen before. China surpassed the United States to become the No. 1 investor in clean technologies. This is showing how quickly the global trends are changing and has provided huge economic opportunities for countries to be innovators and developers of clean energy and new ways of using our natural resources much more efficiently.

CT: You were mentioning, Ian, that there are already significant business sectors growing. This is something that I actually ran into at a conference in Prince George just a few weeks ago: the bio energy sector. This sector in Canada has emerged basically out of the forestry sector in British Columbia, where forestry waste is being turned into wood pellets almost exclusively for use in Europe, where it’s used as feedstock for biomass plants to produce electricity and heat. One of the interesting narratives coming out of that emerging business sector was the difficulty they were having. And this is where an opportunity lies: getting policy makers and the broader business sector in Canada to see an opportunity here, whereas it’s obviously an opportunity in Europe.

How can companies change their business practices now to counteract some of these effects?

CT: I would say that the first step is an internal audit. Some companies have already done this. Almost any company in Canada of any size probably has someone who is in charge of climate change and environmental impacts and might even have as grandiose a title as chief sustainability officer, or something like that. Often, that stuff is kind of off to the side, so it’s business as usual moving along and then you’ve got this side track where you’re trying to do a little bit less bad out there. I think one of the first things to do is recognize that that part of your business is as core to your business as any other bottom line. Really, what you should be doing is saying what could we be doing top to bottom to make our business more resilient, more sustainable? The answer to that question is very different sector to sector and business to business but the most important thing is to recognize this is not a luxury, this is not something you’re doing altruistically just to make the world a better place.

IB: As Chris mentioned, as well, there are a lot of advantages to being early adopters and innovators when it comes to developing new technologies around clean energy or the adoption of greener practices that are required to address climate change. I’ll give one example around the power sector. The changes that are going on with modernizing our energy system and our electricity system with things like smart grids are completely challenging the old business model. There are success stories already in Canada where companies have seized opportunities and are achieving major success because they’ve got their finger on the trends that are happening globally in the markets versus just focusing here, domestically.

How extreme does the shift need to be in order to ward off further environmental issues?

CT: It seems like it’s going to be a pretty extreme shift because, in the long term, we are talking about a whole new basis for a global industrial economy that’s largely carbon free.

IB: I think what we’re seeing right now challenges the myth that you have to choose between the environment and the economy. Clearly, what we’re seeing globally and in Canada is that we can drive environmental innovation and have a prosperous economy at the same time. Showing leadership on climate change, not only does it help protect our communities and our future but it’s helping to drive innovation and new business opportunities.

Answers have been edited and condensed.

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