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.


An Expression of Hope and Frustration re Climate Change Progress

In our podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in conversations over the past three years with a significant number of truly outstanding economists who have carried out important work in the realm of environmental, energy, and resource economics.  My most recent guest is no exception, because I am joined by Geoffrey Heal, the Donald Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, where he previously served as Senior Vice Dean, essentially the chief academic officer of the School.

More to the point, Geoff Heal is the author of 18 book and some 200 articles, a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, where he served as President.  And Geoff has also held – and continues to hold – important advisory and other positions with governmental, multi-governmental, and non-governmental organizations.  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

Among his writings is the pathbreaking 1979 book “Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources,” co-authored with Partha Dasgupta, which is widely viewed as a seminal work in the field of resource and environmental economics.  I asked Geoff how the book came about.

“Partha and I enjoyed collaborating, and I think it’s something that we just felt sort of intellectually compelled to write because we felt the time was right and we felt that we could make a contribution … particularly acting together,” Heal remarks. “But I don’t think we had any sense of the impact it would have, quite frankly.  And I find students still reading it today, which is quite remarkable.”

Heal also addresses the question of how much the field of resource and environmental economics has changed during his time in academia over the past 40 years.

“The field has been transformed, hasn’t it? I mean, in the last decade or so, it’s been transformed into a much more empirical field than it was before that. What they call the ‘credibility revolution’ in economics has taken hold in environmental and resource economics,” he said. “We’ve got a vast number of papers using interesting novel data sets to look at climate impacts or regulatory impacts, and I think they’ve increased our understanding of the impact of environmental issues and environmental policies… considerably.”

Serving as a Coordinating Lead Author in Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, which was finalized in 2014, Heal had a front row seat in the analysis of climate change policy. That said, he admits he is a bit frustrated with the pace of collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the effects of global climate change.

“I think that we know a lot about how to solve the climate problem. I think the technologies that we need to solve it are largely, perhaps not totally, but largely available… So, I think we know how to move to an electric grid which is powered entirely without fossil fuels,” he states. “We have a lot of the pieces available. We’re not just deploying them fast enough to reach the targets that we think we need to reach …so I find that frustrating. We’re very close to being able to achieve the goal, but we’re not actually doing what we need to do.”

When I ask Geoff Heal why current climate policies don’t seem to be accomplishing their goals, he cites politics.

“It’s the enormous influence of the fossil fuel industry and the sense of mostly some conservatives that this is a plot to increase the powers of the state. And of course, the Ukraine war has really been a major problem too, because it’s caused Europeans to move away from natural gas and in some cases back to coal, which is a terrible piece of backsliding, and it’s understandable under the circumstances, but it’s very regrettable from the climate perspective,” he says. “The Ukraine war, I hope, is a temporary phenomenon, whereas the power of the fossil fuel industry and the sort of conservative misapprehensions about what climate change is all about, I think are more real and more enduring.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 47th 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.


U.S. Climate Change Policy in an Era of Political Polarization

Political polarization has reached alarming levels in the United States, with few moderates remaining in either the Republican or Democratic party who are capable of bridging the partisan divide on many, indeed most issues.  Climate change – and more broadly, environment – is one such issue.  I’m pleased to say that in the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA), we featured a conversation with Congressman Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana’s 6th Congressional district, who serves as the Ranking Member of the House Select Committee on the Climate CrisisA video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

As many readers of this blog know, in this webinar series I feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this most recent Conversation, I was fortunate to engage with someone who has had solid and important experience in government. 

While stating that climate change is a “huge problem” in need of innovative solutions, Congressman Graves makes the case for bridging political divides by aligning environmental sustainability with economic sustainability.

It is significant that Graves represents a district that has been and will be seriously affected by climate change. The region has lost more than 2,000 square miles of coastline to subsidence and rising sea levels, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. “This is a huge personal issue for us…South Louisiana is a state that doesn’t have a large margin of error in regard to sea level rise.” he says.

Yet Congressman Graves also acknowledges that the political divides in Washington make it very difficult to agree on climate policies, noting that politics has become “a blood sport, with party first, and the country after that.” And he remarks that things don’t seem to be getting any better at the moment.

“I don’t see a trend in the right direction,” he says. “I think people are taking things that people used to be able to rally around, like kittens and dogs and apple pies, and found ways to make them partisan.”

Climate change is certainly one of those issues, the Congressman states, because the discussion has become more emotional than science- and data-driven. But he also notes that if politicians begin speaking about the issue with an eye toward the economic benefits of creating a more diverse energy portfolio, the issue may begin to gain traction among people in both political parties.

“If you bring up climate change and global warming, you’re going to have pretty different views among Democrats and Republicans. However, we have found that if you begin slicing it up into different components [you can achieve some consensus],” he says. “I can be in a room with some liberal folks and talk about the protection of communities and the resilience of ecosystems; it resonates, absolutely. And I can be in rooms with conservative folks talking about how we’ve funded these [climate-related] disasters over and over…and there are all sorts of studies…that have clearly shown how making investments in the front end in resilience or hazard mitigation more than pays for itself in the longer term.”

While Graves expresses his ambivalence toward instituting a national carbon pricing system, he speaks passionately in favor of investing in technological solutions that balance environmental with economic sustainability, including investments in wind, solar, and geothermal. The challenge, he says, is in understanding where the best returns-on-investments will be.

“We’ve got to do a better job now helping decision makers know where and how to most effectively use the tools available to where you get affordable energy, where you get resilience performance, and where you get lower emissions over the long run.”

Congressman Garret Graves also argues that small innovative businesses could play a significant role in helping mitigate the climate crisis in the coming years.

“That is exactly where the problem is going to be solved,” he remarks. “We are going to innovate our way out of this…[because] innovators have the opportunity to come in and disrupt.”

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in our full Conversation here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous episodes in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration,” Ottmar Edenhofer talking about “The Future of European Climate Change Policy,” Nathaniel Keohane reflecting on “The Path Ahead for Climate Change Policy,” Valerie Karplus talking about “The Future of China’s National Carbon Market,” and Laurence Tubiana reflecting on “A European Perspective on COP26.”

Watch for an announcement about our next webinar. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the website of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.