Climate Change

How businesses can empower people to take action on climate change

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Image: Josh Willink, StockSnap.

Irfan Kamal
Head of Sustainability, Aspiration
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  • Momentum is building around the urgent need to tackle climate change, particularly among younger generations.
  • Businesses can enable individuals to contribute to sustainability projects, like tree planting schemes, through their online activities.
  • Reforestation projects using these kinds of revenue models are already proving successful but there is plenty more that can be done.

Individuals around the world now believe climate change is one of the most pressing problems facing humanity, with a median of 67% across 23 countries citing it as a major threat to their nation. In the US, the percentage of the population alarmed by climate change has tripled over the past five years. And there is increasing urgency, with Gen Z particularly vocal in expressing that more has to be done now to help the planet. Yet individuals by and large are unsure what are the best actions for them to take personally, and also feel their actions may not end up making a difference.

Empowering individuals at scale is key for people to become a major part of an "all-of-the-above" strategy that includes nature-based solutions, technology development, strong action by governments and innovation by businesses to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon capture. Businesses, in particular, have a special role to play in empowering individuals, for two reasons.

Image: Pew Research

Firstly, individuals have unprecedented levels of trust in businesses – in a recent 28-country survey, businesses were rated the most trusted institution, ranking highly on a combination of competence and ethics. Secondly, individuals are increasingly looking to businesses to be impact leaders, with over 90% of millennials and Gen Z believing that businesses have a responsibility to make positive changes in the world. Businesses are rewarded for helping: almost two-thirds of sustainability-focused businesses surveyed indicated their sustainability projects drove revenue increases.

Yet, with a few prominent exceptions, businesses are still focused on reducing carbon in the context of their own climate footprint, targeting their Scope 1 & 2 emissions. This is a great start, but misses the tremendous potential businesses have to engage individuals. Visionary corporations are now starting to look beyond their own footprint reduction and seeing how they can empower and engage their customers and employees to drive genuinely large-scale climate action. This includes companies like Google, with its new bold commitment to empower 1 billion people to reduce their environmental footprint by 2022.

One uniquely promising area for businesses to engage with individuals is around nature-based solutions like forest conservation and tree planting. In a recent Pew Research Center survey in the US, planting 1 trillion trees was not only the highest ranked climate intervention supported by individuals (90% of surveyed adults), it was unique in receiving high support regardless of respondent party affiliation.

Reforestation efforts not only have strong individual appeal, but they can also be applied on almost every continent, and have the potential to sequester one-sixth to one-quarter of human generated carbon emissions. And forests are remarkably efficient carbon capture machines – with each tree taking in about 48 lbs per year when grown – and can also provide a range of other benefits, such as helping prevent erosion, restoring biodiversity and providing a source of income for local communities.

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Yet, even with this strong interest, the bar is high since it can be hard to engage individuals to take action. The individual empowerment solutions that will work, will likely need to be easy to use, provide some degree of automation, be cost-effective, and provide clearly communicable and measurable value.

There are some emerging successes that are pointing the way: identify a consumer behaviour done at scale and add an automated, straightforward climate action to it. The sustainable search engine, Ecosia, has taken the simple, frequent action of search and made it climate friendly. Every 45 searches on Ecosia plants one tree, resulting in over 120 million trees funded to date.

Another area of high-volume consumer behaviour is debit and credit card transactions. Aspiration has built “Plant Your Change” technology that enables anyone to automatically round up their change on any debit or credit card purchase to plant a tree. A limited launch programme has funded almost 4 million trees in under a year – and that’s with a tiny fraction of the 115 billion credit and debit card transactions per year (in the US alone) being rounded up to plant trees.

These types of actions are easy, cost-effective, efficient, and provide individuals with clearly trackable benefits that can be integrated into a personal sustainability impact dashboard that shows and encourages progress in expected sustainability improvements. Most importantly, they help individuals feel that not only can they engage in easy, individual sustainability action, but that they can be part of a programme achieving it at the scale necessary for measurable impact on the planet.

The world is anxious about climate change. There are effective solutions that people can adopt today, including tree planting at scale. But since nature-based solutions can take time to have impact, businesses need to start immediately to have an impact this decade. Let’s get started today and empower the billions of people who are eager to take action and help save our planet.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Climate ChangeForestsCorporate Governance
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