How can the world’s biggest polluters show they are on “the right side of history” when it comes to tackling climate change?

Written by Tom Reynolds, Account Director in Madano's Energy practice.

As the old adage goes, “actions speak louder than words”, and where climate change is concerned, 2018 saw significant action from some of the world’s biggest corporate polluters.

From Shell setting carbon emissions targets and linking them to executive pay, to the Royal Bank of Scotland cutting lending to coal, oil sands and Arctic oil projects – these are just a couple of examples where big companies have demonstrated a willingness to “walk the walk” when it comes to addressing climate change.

However, rather than putting minds at rest that climate change is being adequately managed, the proactivity of big polluters serves to escalate the urgency at which climate change must be addressed. This in turn heaps further scrutiny on those same polluting corporates, putting any subsequent attempts at climate action firmly under the microscope. In the fight against climate change, increased scrutiny is vital.

From a communications perspective, the big question will be whether polluters are able to convince the public that they are taking climate change seriously, and that their actions do reflect the escalating need to decarbonise. If the first couple of weeks of 2019 are anything to go by, this is certainly something big companies ought to be thinking about a lot more carefully.

Take Barclays for example. Despite unveiling stricter policies for coal, oil and gas investments, the bank’s decision not to pull funding for fossil fuel projects entirely, has led Greenpeace to conclude that Barclays is “on the wrong side of history”.

Barclays – like many big corporates – are still justifying their continued investment in fossil fuels by pointing out the need to ensure energy security and recognising that, for now at least, fossil fuels still have a role to play in achieving this.

They are not the only ones saying this. BP Chief Executive, Bob Dudley recently warned that insufficient spending on oil and gas production could have “far reaching” consequences for energy security across the world.

There is a clear communications challenge in continuing to balance energy security with climate action. This “balancing act” message is slowly weakening, and will only continue to do so, as urgency to address climate change intensifies.

As Business Secretary, Greg Clark set out in a speech towards the end of 2018, the “energy trilemma” policy conundrum – the need to balance energy security, decarbonisation and cost to consumers – is coming to an end. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Business Secretary on this point, what the end of the trilemma means for businesses is that solutions to achieve both energy security and decarbonisation in tandem are needed. The two are not mutually exclusive.

So, what can big corporate polluters do to ensure their place on the “right side of history” is secured?

It goes without saying that proactivity to address climate change must continue. Beyond this and with the “energy trilemma” dead and buried, companies’ ability to hide behind energy security as a legitimate explanation for half-measure climate action is significantly diminishing.

To keep in step with shifting public opinion and increasing urgency to address climate change, companies must recognise the dual need of achieving energy security alongside decarbonisation, rather than pitting one against the other.

As far as communication is concerned, companies should be telling stories of the emerging technologies and innovations that will help achieve these dual objectives. Renewables, hydrogen, biofuels and CCS will all have a role to play.

How these technologies will be brought to market in a way that weans us off fossil fuels is yet to be seen. As the urgency to address climate change increases, so will the expectation that companies rise to the challenge, are seen to be taking responsibility and ultimately deliver.