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From Fringe to Core: The ‘Green’ Economy Grows Up

YUN09.19-Daimler Electric CarYUN09.19-Daimler Electric Car
Daimler’s Smart brand ForTwo cabrio electric-drive car.Courtesy of Daimler AG

Central bankers aren’t hired to be tree huggers. But lately the pinstriped protectors of global capitalism are sounding almost like environmental activists. In June, the Bank of England said it will ask U.K. insurers, as part of the bank’s biennial insurance-industry “stress test,” to assess how climate change might hurt their bottom lines. That same month, François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Bank of France, urged central bankers worldwide to gauge a bank’s exposure to climate risk when deciding how much collateral to demand in exchange for central-bank money—­calling for “thoroughly integrating climate change into the monetary policy framework.” By next year, China’s securities regulator plans to require publicly listed companies in the country to disclose environmental data to investors. What’s behind this green awakening?

In short, something big is happening in the global economy: Green is growing up. 

A decade ago, “cleantech” was the overhyped darling of venture capital firms and corporate public relations departments—boosters sure they could do well by doing good. Many lost big. 

Now the adults of the global economy are launching a second, more structural sustainability push. Fortune 500 companies and leading financiers are pouring billions into clean alternatives to dirty technologies. In May, for example, Daimler AG announced that 50% of the new ­Mercedes-Benz cars it sells in 2030 will be fully electric or plug-in hybrids and that its new-car fleet will be carbon neutral by 2039. 

$2.1 trillion: Aggregate financial impact of climate-related business opportunities recently identified by 225 of the world’s largest companies (according to CDP).

The multinationals making this shift are keen to protect not merely the planet but also their returns. Which raises thorny questions. A crucial one: Which companies and countries will win in this shift, and which will lose?

Exploring all this—a­s well as sharing best practices and creating a community of leaders who will gather to shape this transformation over time—is the goal of the inaugural Fortune Global Sustainability Forum. Global executives, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs, activists, and innovative thinkers will gather Sept. 4 to 6 at the Hilton Yuxi Fuxian Lake in China’s Yunnan province—in a country that is critical both to business and to the environment, at a spot of breathtaking beauty. The forum will focus on four key areas: clean energy, green finance, food and agriculture, and waste and plastics.

What started as CSR—corporate social responsibility, widely seen as a fringe pursuit—is increasingly seen by the C-suite as strategically core. Action on the environment is starting to look smarter than inaction. But whose profits that helps or hurts—not to mention whether it does much for the earth—will depend on countless future decisions. The goal in Yunnan is to start shaping them.

A version of this article appears in the September 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline "From Fringe to Core: ‘Green’ Grows Up."

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