If governments don’t step up, can the private sector provide enough solutions to mitigate the climate crisis?

“I think that’s the question most people ask, and I don’t think that’s the best way to frame that question,” said Michael Vandenbergh, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Climate Change Research Network. Rather, he said, “the question is, ‘What combination of public and private actions can reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change?’”

Because government response to climate change has been slow and inadequate, more people are turning to the private sector for solutions when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and safeguarding against the effects of global warming, Vandenbergh said. But that doesn’t mean private businesses can handle tackling the climate crisis on their own—far from it, he said.

The author of “Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change,” Vandenbergh has spent more than a decade studying how the public and private sectors affect efforts to curb global warming. He said both must work in tandem to handle the enormous task of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, which scientists say is necessary to prevent the worst of the climate crisis.

In some ways, that’s already happening, he said, even as the private sector takes a larger role, in part because the public sector isn’t doing enough. For example, he said, big tech companies like Google and Facebook have pressured some state governments to change how they regulate renewable energy, to allow the tech giants to build giant solar arrays to power their massive data banks.

Government also prompts actions from companies. When the federal government adopted new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs in 2007, Walmart announced it would make LED light bulbs its house brand, he said, increasing awareness of and sales for the product. LED bulbs use far less power and last much longer than the standard incandescent bulbs commonly used at the time.

As a result, the United States in 2018 reduced its carbon emissions by about 127 million metric tons, due to the electricity saved by the use of more energy efficient light bulbs, according to Vandenburgh’s research.

Despite those wins, Vandenburgh said, more government action at the federal, state and local levels is “essential” to tackling the climate crisis. “We need to get past the idea that any one response—whether private or public, federal, state or local—will solve the problem,” he said. “We need a collection of actions that can be adopted in the near term and will achieve major carbon reductions.” 

Kristoffer Tigue

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