Private Sector Initiatives to Address Climate Change

Over the past decade or more, there has been increasing attention to private-sector initiatives to address climate change, with scholarly research and considerable action being centered in business schools, particularly in the United States.  This is the focus in the latest episode of my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”

I engage in conversation with Michael Toffel, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS).  We discuss the many ways in which business schools are giving much greater attention to climate change and other environmental issues, as well as how businesses and governments can and are working together to address climate change.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Toffel, who is a Faculty Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and hosts the Climate Rising podcast at HBS, cites several examples of climate initiatives that are bubbling up organically throughout the private sector.

“What’s very interesting are …. the movement on the finance side, where you’ve got a lot deeper pockets of capital, pools of capital that are seeking out climate solutions,” he says. “You’ve got this whole ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] area that’s evolved … [which is] putting new screens on the types of investments that they want to include in their portfolio. You’ve got companies making these net zero commitments, which include a combination of decarbonizing their operations and their supply chains, and then using carbon credits to offset the residual. And a bunch of commitments in that regard remains to be seen.”

Michael emphasizes that it is uncertain how much this climate talk will translate into action.

“That’s long been an interest of mine – are companies following up with action? Who is? Who isn’t? And so that continues to be an interest of mine. We will see. A lot of my research in this area has taken the form of case writing, because so much of this is so new, and we don’t have years and years of data sets to do the type of empirical work that my scholarly work tends to gravitate toward.  We’re learning in real time through cases, and then doing some empirical scholarship as well.”

Toffel cites two recent projects he’s been involved with that he is especially proud of.

“On the scholarly research side, [there] is a study that’s just coming out in AEJ Applied Micro, a leading journal or field journal … that looks at the effectiveness of U.S. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to target companies for inspection. OSHA is dramatically underfunded in the sense that they can maybe inspect every establishment that they regulate [once] every 100 years, and so they really need to make some tough decisions about where to go,” he says.

“Traditionally, they’ve been making these decisions for a lot of their inspections, based on where the problems have arisen in the past … and we conjecture and find some evidence that if they change that [strategy by] using more modern techniques and machine learning to figure out and predict where are problems more likely to be in the future, or where might their inspections do the most good … they can really reduce injuries by the thousands, with millions of dollars of consequences of reduced injury, pain, and suffering.”

The other research he cites is a Case Study, co-written with his HBS colleagues Shirley Lu and George Serafeim, on BMW’s approach to decarbonization.

“It’s a very engineering focused company, so they have a very engineering orientation to carbon accounting, to carbon management, to reduction, and to even their publicity around all of this. And their CEO has taken a perspective that whereas other companies are having these phase out dates for the internal combustion engine … they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to make that claim because we don’t know if we can keep that promise, in part because we don’t know if the infrastructure is going to be there to power electric vehicles, and will it be electric or will it be hydrogen powered fuel cells? We’re not really sure where the technology will shake out.’ So, they’ve been reluctant … to make such promises, because they have a culture … where they [don’t] want to … make promises until they know they can keep them.”

Reflecting on his almost two decades at Harvard Business School, Toffel remarks on how far the field of environmental management has come in recent years.

“When I applied to Ph.D. programs, this topic was very fringe,” he says. “This whole thing has completely changed, where most business schools now are leaning into the idea of environment and climate in particular … and scholarship is really exploding on these topics. So, that’s been really heartening to see. In addition, students’ interest in this has really risen incredibly in the 17 years that I’ve been here. Originally, no one talked about environment. Now … students are bringing these [issues] up. They’re demanding more content.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 52nd episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.