IMD International

Push the boat out on climate change action: What’s your plan?

Aileen Ionescu-Somers on the COP21 summit

December 2, 2015

In view of recent events, you may be forgiven for thinking that there could have been some forward thinking by our leaders regarding the desperate migrants currently seeking safe haven from conflict. You may also feel the influx could still reach cataclysmic levels unless our leaders collectively work on safe long-term equitable solutions for millions of people forced to leave their homes.

But have you as yet pondered upon the prospect of a dawning era of climate migrants? The current flow will most certainly accelerate from its currently steady trickle to a virtual torrent unless the leaders at COP21 in Paris find sustainable long-term solutions for halting climate change and avoiding its worst excesses? Pushing the boat out further – if you pardon the pun – have you reflected upon what these trends mean for your company and for you as a leader? If not, you should.

The changing climate has already made life very challenging mostly for citizens of countries around the globe that are ill-equipped to deal with it. Paradoxically, these are also countries that were not the main contributors to it. 

Climate migrants

A steady stream of climate migrants are trickling into cities from drought-affected lands or coastal areas that are experiencing rising sea levels leading to flooding and increased salinity as well as extreme weather events such as cyclones. 

These climate migrants – for the most part unrecognized as such by the global community – flock to makeshift zones in cities that are themselves ill-prepared to face the challenges of climate change; places like Mumbai, Calcutta, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Min City, Shanghai, Bangkok and Yangon. 

And yet, making these cities “climate safe” is rarely part of the urban development picture. Hundreds of millions of people in India do not have any access to electricity; yet what is the potential for cheap renewable energy solutions for these people? 

Even in developed countries, we are hampered with a legacy of building stock, infrastructure and transport systems that are actually impeding a transformational shift to a climate safe society. Message to leaders: business opportunities will ensue if we can just let go of the old models to which we desperately hang on. 


In Paris, there is room for optimism on the climate and energy question. It is a good indicator of support for climate change action that 40,000 people have turned up for COP21 just days after atrocious acts of terrorism had struck the city, inflicting a deep and open wound on liberty, equality and fraternity… Already on the first day of the conference, India made a game-changing announcement of plans for a new solar alliance to provide solar energy access to the poor. The collaboration, which will include nearly 100 countries and impact billions of people, shows that it could be feasible to address climate change and poverty simultaneously.

The importance of having an action plan cannot be underestimated. Of late, the leaders of Europe have learnt the folly of not having a plan where conflict migrants are concerned. Concerning the climate, what is different from previous chaotic and unsuccessful summits is that many countries (157 in total representing 184 countries) have put their Intended National Determined Contribution plans on the table even before arriving for the negotiations. But this gives no room for complacency; many of these submissions are assessed as “medium” or “inadequate”, but at least there is a plan.

Policy makers need to heed the fact that it is still difficult for many businesses and other organizations to accept the costs of internalizing greenhouse gas emissions. Even though we know that a stretch target of 100% renewable energy can be achieved using existing viable technologies, massive subsidies for fossil fuels – still between 7 and 12 times the subsidies for renewable energy technologies – must urgently be abolished.

Keep it in the ground

Our leaders, whether policy makers or businesses, must not forget that 2/3 of fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground to limit the ⁰C increase in global temperatures, which cannot now be contained below 2⁰C. In addition to removing fossil fuel subsidies, feed-in tariffs and also policies to encourage grid access are crucial. Furthermore, leaders must address the fact that the barriers going forward for the solar industry are not so much cost-related as linked to existing infrastructure and availability of technical know-how in the market place.

The world urgently needs coalitions of leaders that will work strategically on climate and energy innovation: “brave explorers” willing to take risks in unveiling the visions of a new paradigm and uncovering its feasibilities.

In the future, it will be necessary to clarify energy policy frameworks and bring a far more strategic – rather than merely tactical – approach to new energy solutions. At company level, we need squadrons of corporate champions for this cause and companies that are further down the ladder need to learn from best practice and emulate those further up. And improvements will need to be measured not only from an intensity standpoint, but also from the point of view of efficiency.

Corporate leaders still need to ask questions that might be asked about any viable strategy:

  • How do we create a vision for our energy and climate strategy that can be convincingly “sold” internally in the company?
  • How do we best structure the company to innovate and take action on climate change?
  • What can drive internal change to promote action on climate change?
  • How can we learn from our failures so that we can move our climate change action plan to the next level?
  • What and how should we communicate about our climate change initiatives?
  • What cooperative models currently exist that may be interesting for our company to link into, and/or do we need new ones?
  • What are the barriers and promoting factors for making such models work better?
  • How do we manage and measure the social and environmental aspects of climate change impact in our value chains?

…and so on…..

Huge potential in Paris

Ultimately, a global agreement in Paris has the potential to accelerate an energy transformation that is thankfully already happening thanks to dynamic renewable energy markets, commitments by leading businesses, and action by cities, communities and individuals.

However, technological innovation is not the sole answer to combating climate change. Rather all the cards must be played at the same time: policy incentives, education, community initiatives, technological innovation and comprehensive organizational change. A new value paradigm is essential, and a more comprehensive understanding of how we value environmental services such as the carbon sink that is represented in forests. Although predictive capacities have greatly improved, they must also add value and contribute to promoting climate resilience by feeding in to climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Financing will be required to accelerate action beyond current pledges. To promote equity, support and innovation will be needed to limit climate impacts in vulnerable states and prevent avoidable damage to cities, communities, land and coastal areas.

Above all a longer term view must prevail: for the sake of future generations, we need to move our perspectives beyond 2030 to at least 2050, if not 2100. And we need to stem that climate migrant flow at source.

Dr Aileen Ionescu-Somers is the director of IMD's Global Center for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) Learning Platform.

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