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Why new COP climate commitments need regulations and corporate buy-in

The Mississippi River, photographed on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at the Melvin Price Lock And Dam.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Mississippi River last July as seen from the Melvin Price Lock And Dam. Many companies rely on the river but may not yet see the value of paying for projects that promote its resilience.

The United Nations’ COP28 conference in Dubai wraps up this week with new pledges from companies and countries to cap methane emissions and new commitments to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector.

These kinds of deals are typically made or announced at the UN’s annual climate change conference with thousands of delegates bringing ideas for new initiatives or announcements of new programs.

One such announcement from the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative promotes new climate-resilient infrastructure in communities along the domestic 2,340 miles of the river, said MRCTI Executive Director Colin Wellenkamp.

It’s part of the organization’s larger push to garner interest and support for projects that emphasize resilience, he said.

“Linking cities to global firms that can help them with climate impacts,” Wellenkamp said. “Developing parametric protections of natural assets along the Mississippi River with the reinsurance industry.”

That goes along with 100,000 acres of new conservation land and infrastructure along the river to alleviate drought and protect cities from flooding, he said.

This kind of restoration work takes commitments from local governments and corporations, too, Wellenkamp said.

“We’d like to connect the actors across the world that have a stake in what happens along our Mississippi River, that have a stake in how the river works for their company,” he said. “And (have them) support it with actual resources.”

Building that buy-in to large-scale or long-term resilience projects can be challenging, but Wellenkamp argues companies are more likely to offer their support when they see how investments like these can benefit their bottom lines.

It’s a tactic Munich Business School sustainability management professor Nancy Landrum agrees with.

“We need to connect the environmental crisis that we’re currently facing with the company’s current and future operations,” she said. “All companies rely on natural assets to some degree, whether it’s clean water, clean air or even disease control.”

More than half of the world’s total gross domestic product is moderately or highly dependent on nature or the services it provides. But that link has not always been clearly emphasized, Landrum said.

“We need to make these connections,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s been done very clearly or explicitly for executives.”

Landrum adds corporate climate commitments also need to come from the highest level of a company for them to be the most effective they can be.

“Get this integrated at the C-Suite level, at the executive level,” she said. “They have to be driving this change, they have to make it a company-wide initiative and they have to integrate it into corporate strategy.”

And it can’t be viewed as a one-off type of initiative either, Landrum added. Companies have a clear role to play in solving climate challenges, but she argues they need to consult climate scientists, environmental groups and others with clear expertise when developing these solutions.

“We do not need more business, marketing, PR people, more corporate types who really don’t understand the gravity and urgency of the situation that we’re facing,” she said.

That kind of approach can call into question the commitment a company has toward solving climate challenges, or if it has other interests, Landrum said.

Though corporate buy-in is important, regulation can be more effective in achieving climate related goals because it makes commitments nonvoluntary, she added. Landrum points to the difference between Europe and the U.S., which have per capita carbon emissions of 7 tons and 17.6 tons respectively.

“Legislation and regulation that forces companies to get on board is a much stronger, more successful approach,” Landrum said. “It’s more coordinated, it’s more strategic, it unifies everyone's work, it gives us a goal to work for.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.