By Justin Worland
On a brisk Monday in Houston in early March, dozens of protesters gathered across the street from the giant Hilton hotel hosting CERAWeek, the energy industry’s hallmark annual conference. Their signs accused the corporate executives inside of betraying humanity in pursuit of financial return. STOP EXTRACTING OUR FUTURE, read one. PEOPLE OVER PROFIT, read another. Two days later, inside a standing-room-only hotel ballroom, Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. secretary of energy, offered a different message to the executives: the Biden Administration needs your help to tackle climate change. The scene encapsulated this moment in the fight to address global warming: some of the most ardent activists say that companies can’t be trusted; governments are saying they must play a role.
They already are. The U.S. Department of Energy has partnered with private companies to bolster the clean energy supply chain, expand electric-vehicle charging, and commercialize new green technologies, among a range of other initiatives. In total, the agency is gearing up to spend tens of billions of dollars on public-private partnerships to speed up the energy transition. “I’m here to extend a hand of partnership,” Granholm told the crowd. “We want you to power this country for the next 100 years with zero-carbon technologies.”
Across the Biden Administration, and around the world, government officials have increasingly focused their attention on the private sector—treating companies not just as entities to regulate but also as core partners. We “need to accelerate our transition” off fossil fuels, says Brian Deese, director of President Biden’s National Economic Council. “And that is a process that will only happen if the American private sector, including the incumbent energy producers in the United States, utilities and otherwise, are an inextricable part of that process—that’s defined our approach from the get go.”
Despite that momentum, risks abound. Companies have an incentive to make big commitments, but they need a credible system to set the rules of the road and ensure that those pledges can be scrutinized. Even then, corporate progress is unlikely to add up to enough without clear policy that incentivizes good behavior and/or punishes bad behavior. “To catalyze business, we need governments to lead and set strong policies,” says Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives at Apple and a former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “That’s just what the science says.”
Nor are companies built to address the array of social challenges—millions displaced, millions more with livelihoods destroyed, the escalating health ailments—that will arise from climate change and the transition needed to address it. “The private sector has been surprisingly aggressive on climate in the last 12 months,” says Michael Greenstone, former chief economist in Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “But that is a very misshapen approach: there’s no real substitute for a coherent climate policy.”