Business is finally starting to reckon with climate change

There are no guarantees when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. But if business takes it one unmet need at a time, the possibilities are endless.
March 16, 2020, 8:30 AM UTC
Illustration by Phil Wheeler

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business Faces the Climate Crisis.

At its core, business is about meeting needs. Your local deli is a neighborhood fixture because people crave delicious sandwiches. The tax prep industry exists because people hate to fill out 1040s. Big Oil was built to serve a modern world hungry for energy to power our cars and trucks. Before Netflix, we didn’t grasp how essential streaming movies could be. Whether big or small, timeless or newly imagined, these urgent demands are what drive businesses to innovate and grow.

Today, the world is confronting a colossal unmet need unlike anything we’ve grappled with in the past. The warming of our planet thanks to human activity is causing dramatic changes to the climate. According to the Global Carbon Project, emissions hit a new record of 43.1 billion metric tons in 2019—the third straight year of increases. If unaddressed, CO₂-driven warming is likely to alter life on earth in dramatic ways over the coming decades, and to come with a price tag of trillions of dollars in lost economic output. Finding solutions to this potentially existential threat is imperative.

There’s no getting around the fact that business, up to this point, has been a big part of the problem. Companies have flooded the planet with refrigerators, SUVs, and plastic soda bottles for decades, with little thought to the consequences beyond the bottom line. They’ve feasted on cheap energy from burning fossil fuels, and their lobbyists have battled legislation to incentivize change.

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But there are signs that we may be reaching a turning point. The business world—far later than it should have, and still not as aggressively as it needs to—is finally beginning to face up to the climate crisis.

“I do think we’re seeing some exciting momentum,” says Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organization focused on sustainability. “Nowhere near enough, but there is meaningful change.”

As an example, Mountford points to the statement in December from 631 institutional investors managing more than $37 trillion in assets, urging governments to phase out coal power, put a price on carbon, and end subsidies for fossil fuels. Then there is the growing number of large companies around the world—826 at last count—that have taken on increased accountability for their own actions by signing up for “science-based targets” to reduce their carbon emissions under strict monitoring by NGOs.

Companies are responding to a new set of vital needs. Increasingly, consumers want to know they’re spending money with businesses that are on the right side of sustainability. And talented recruits are demanding that employers demonstrate their commitment to mitigating climate change. Not to mention that there are huge amounts of money to be made. As part of a project called the New Climate Economy, Mountford and her team calculated that there’s a $26 trillion economic opportunity in moving to a low-carbon economy. “Now is the moment to start to reboot,” she says.

In this Fortune Special Report, we explore the complexity of this crucial juncture for business and the planet. To get an inside perspective on how advocacy is shaping corporate behavior, we turned to author and activist Bill McKibben. In partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, we sent reporter Vivienne Walt and photographer Sebastian Meyer to Malaysia to investigate the struggling plastic recycling industry. And we asked veteran energy writer Jeffrey Ball to explore Big Oil’s high-stakes bet on carbon capture.

There are no guarantees when it comes to tackling climate change. But if business takes it one unmet need at a time, the possibilities are endless.

A version of this article appears in the April 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Business Faces the Climate Crisis.”

More from Fortune’s Special Report on the Climate Crisis 

Big Oil’s Hail Mary
Plastic that travels 8,000 miles: The global crisis in recycling
—5 charts projecting the cost of climate change by 2100
Sci-fi tech tackles climate change with fake trees
Inside ‘Project Odessa,’ an experiment in greener fossil-fuel power

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