Engaging companies and the tragedy of the commons

4th Sep 2014

The urgent call of science is telling us, as a society, as countries and as individuals to act in concert to help diminish the worst impacts of climate change. According to the IPCC, greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by 20-40% by 2020 and ideally up to 85% by 2050 to keep the planet below a 2°C temperature rise. At the current rate, this seems like no easy task. Much of the reductions made today are set at the discretion of each company at best, or are non-existent for most cases. With more countries pushing back from international climate negotiations, the role of businesses becomes key in showing leadership on climate issues. A recent study claims that just about 90 companies stand at the helm of contributing to two thirds of all historic carbon emissions since the industrial era, a fact that just can´t go unnoticed and begs for an answer.

If looked through the lens of ‘the commons,’ we have that companies, particularly large energy intensive, consume and deplete the atmosphere, a resource we all share and live off on this planet. With unequivocal and continuing rising emissions we are overwhelming the commons. Until now, corporate behavior remains fundamentally rational, acting almost contrary to the whole group’s long best term interests. The present exploitive behavior may not leave the atmosphere ‘unusable’ but surely the impacts of climate change will be devastating for the economy in the years to come. The trajectory of the ‘business as usual’ shows that humanity is well on track for this irreversible damage. This is why the allusion of the Tragedy of the Commons becomes relevant when thinking our current climate situation.

This is not about trying to find a culprit here, but it needs to be said that corporates can do a lot more to manage and reduce their carbon footprint. At WWF we want to invite businesses from all sectors to take responsibility and give its fair share to help humanity out of this climate turmoil. By engaging corporations into setting targets and publicly tracking performance, companies will feel not only part of the problem, but part of the solution. We stand by the belief that a shared effort will warrant positive results for climate because it gives companies a shared ownership of the solution to the problem. When making climate commitments, large companies will set a trend for smaller companies because the objective is to demonstrate that emissions reductions can be meaningful at all levels of economic activity. The message for companies is the following: We want to drive economic prosperity in a carbon constrained environment.

What is most thrilling is that companies acting together have the power to influence the realm of politics. If companies understand the value of collective action, there will be a much higher chance to influence policy both at the national and international level. Even better, companies acting together will amount for greater reductions and ultimately for a more likely stabilization of our climate.