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Not Business as Usual: Private Climate Action

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Over the past several years, quiet initiatives by private actors to cut carbon emissions, adopt climate-smart agriculture practices, and increase renewable energy have grown in scope and ambition. These private efforts are not mandated by public law, yet collectively they take on the attributes and functions of a governance system that could be vital to societal decarbonization. But according to ELI Visiting Scholar Lou Leonard, this system “is at a delicate moment, perhaps having flown too far, too fast. Its future, and perhaps ours, depends on whether bridges are built, barriers are cleared, and current and new players come together to help it endure.”

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In the July issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, Leonard explores the field of private climate action and offers new ways of thinking about the path ahead. Instead of evaluating specific initiatives or actions of particular businesses, he begins with a look at the opportunities and benefits of private climate governance, including its potential to deliver emissions reductions as well as other advantages it brings to the broader effort to address climate change. The number and type of private actors making voluntary commitments is large and growing; taken together, these “represent an opportunity to reduce emissions on the scale of entire nations.”

A robust private climate governance system, explains Leonard, can offer many benefits at a time of political controversy and public confusion over climate change in the U.S. and elsewhere. Recent research points to significant emissions reduction potential from private climate action, so he reviews scholarship around private environmental governance. Leonard also tests the current landscape of initiatives and makes “what lawyers might call a prima facie case that the current field of private climate activity constitutes an ‘effective’ and ‘legitimate’ system of private governance.” 

Finally, Leonard looks at gaps in the system and suggests a research and action agenda that might allow the climate community to bridge them. After all, he writes, “the challenge ahead is to address barriers, while generating the support and attention needed to give this body of work the best chance to take its place as one of the key strategic approaches to tackling climate change.”

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All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.