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“The drumbeat on climate change is louder in many companies than in governments,” says ex-UK energy minister O’Neill

· 6 minute read

· 6 minute read

In a recent interview, the high-profile former U.K. energy minister Claire O’Neill explains what’s on her agenda as WBCSD’s new director for energy and climate.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has moved to put itself at the forefront of corporate leadership on climate action by appointing the high-profile former U.K. energy minister Claire O’Neill as its managing director for climate and energy.

O’Neill led the U.K. presidency of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) negotiations until February this year, when she was summarily removed from the post and replaced by Alok Sharma. O’Neill then took to the airwaves and wrote a widely reported open letter to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson denouncing the “black ops” surrounding her dismissal and saying Johnson’s failure to prioritize climate diplomacy had left the U.K. “miles off track” from delivering a successful COP26.

Both O’Neill and Peter Bakker, the WBCSD’s president, spoke to Terry Slavin of Reuters Events Sustainable Business in an online call on the eve of the recent announcement of O’Neill’s appointment. Bakker said the CEO-led organization of 200-plus companies needed to find a strong leader to replace Maria Mendiluce, who left in May to become CEO of the We Mean Business coalition. He said he expected the appointment would “make some noise, but we’re even more hopeful that, beyond the noise, it will create real acceleration in what companies can do.”

Claire O’Neill, Managing Director for climate & energy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

It is clear that O’Neill, who also headed the U.K. delegation to the last COP negotiations in Madrid in 2019, intends to transfer those leadership skills to her new post. She pointed out that in contrast to governments, where “short-term politics often gets in the way… the drumbeat of ambition is louder in many of the private sector companies than in a lot of governments around the world,” she said. “And I think we should harness that. It shouldn’t be either [government action] or [private sector]. It’s both.”

Indeed, O’Neill cited the composition of the organization as one key motivator for her decision to come aboard. “One of the reasons for being really keen to join was the fact we do have this incredibly high-quality membership, we have members who have prepared to change the way they do business completely, and also to cooperate,” she added. “And I think one of the things we realize is that if you can get sectors cooperating, on supply chains, on shipping, on policy asks of governments, we can make a huge amount of progress.”

As former U.K energy minister, O’Neill brokered a deal to provide government support to the offshore wind industry, something that will be key to delivering the U.K.’s net-zero by 2050 commitment. She said more deals of these sort should be struck to promote technologies like carbon capture and storage, green hydrogen, and methane reduction.

“We’ve got to get the companies and their supply chain, and governments aligned with both bringing things to the party,” she explained, adding that’s already starting to happen with hydrogen in the European Union in particular. “But… it’s too fragmented. We know from our members how very keen they are to get some of these solutions.”

Learning from setbacks

O’Neill said the “most depressing” aspect of the 2019 climate negotiations in Madrid had been failure to reach agreement on Article 6 of the Paris agreement, which attempts to set up a market-based framework for emissions reductions, including through nature-based carbon offsets.

However, now she thinks the private sector could show COP26 negotiators a way out of the impasse, citing the work of the Natural Capital Solutions Alliance and of Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor, who recently launched a private sector-led taskforce to scale up voluntary carbon markets. Indeed, by creating a well-functioning and transparent market in voluntary carbon offsets, the private sector could blaze a trail for regulated markets to follow, O’Neill said.

“We have got to support COP, we’ve got to make it a success, but we need to show that whatever happens in the negotiation rooms, there is real action and real progress from the corporate sector and from NGOs.”

“You have to take the world as you find it, and I think all too often in the climate space we try to create a perfect world before we act. Politics just has to run its course, and we need to get on with it.”

The delay of COP26 from this year to next November does mean that it will come after the U.K.’s exit from the European Union in January, the terms of which are still being negotiated. Asked whether Brexit would undermine the U.K.’s claim to climate leadership, O’Neill said she has “absolutely no doubt that the U.K. will maintain or exceed E.U. standards for environmental [protection in areas like] food quality, and of course it has a far more ambitious legislative program than many countries when it comes to net-zero.”

However, she admitted the uncertainty is a massive distraction. “So, it needs to happen. We need to do it in an orderly way, and we need to be good friends,” she explained. “There’s incredible work going on in the E.U., particularly on the international diplomacy side and on the big green recovery, and we need to remain good friends and colleagues with those countries.”

On the positive side, the delay to COP26 means that the U.S., whose leadership under then-President Barack Obama was crucial to achieving the Paris Agreement in 2015, could be once more driving greater ambition if Joe Biden wins the presidency this November, and reverses President Donald Trump’s move to withdraw from the climate talks.

But what if Trump wins another term? Could the corporate momentum behind climate action in the U.S. stall? O’Neill pointed out that WBCSD members have been part of Michael Bloomberg’s America’s Pledge coalition, committed to fulfil U.S. obligations to cut CO2 emissions under the Paris Agreement even if the federal government withdraws from it.

“You have to take the world as you find it, and I think all too often in the climate space we try to create a perfect world before we act,” O’Neill observed. “Politics just has to run its course, and we need to get on with it.”

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Reuters Events Sustainable Business. You can read the full article, by Reuters Events Sustainable Business editor in chief Terry Slavin, here.