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Why the Pope needs the Boardroom

Pope greets the crowd

22 June 2015

As the Pope's call for sustainability faces a backlash, Gail Whiteman argues that the time will come when religious and business leaders regard each other as allies. 

In what may be remembered as the most influential papal encyclical of this century, Pope Francis today asked Catholics and non-Catholics alike to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle.

The Pope targeted his message broadly – he moved across religious divides to call for collective action by all. He advised us to heed the warnings from science and significantly reduce our energy consumption, or risk widespread destruction.

Released formally on 18 June, the Pontiff’s draft missive was leaked earlier this week with much media fanfare. Unsurprisingly, by Wednesday, backlash on the Pope’s draft message was growing in certain conservative sectors. On Day 1 of his campaign trail, for instance, Republican candidate Jeb Bush argued, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.” Somehow, the story goes, religious teachings on how to make us better people and how to save humanity from climate-Armageddon should remain poles apart.

Political hopefuls like Jeb are dead wrong when they argue that Pope Francis should stay out of economic policy. In fact, the Pope needs the boardroom more than anything else – and the boardroom needs him, too.

This may sound like heresy. Understandably, the Pope is not on the board of a major multinational company (nor is the Dalai Lama). Yet the boardroom may be the most effective place for kick-starting meaningful action. Indeed, the Vatican should consider how companies drive much of the climate problem, and how companies can be a critical part of the energy solutions.

Research by PwC and The Carbon Disclosure Project show that only 50 companies emit over 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and show an upward trend (using 2013 data). If those 50 companies – and their chief executives – seriously listened to the Pontiff’s call to action, we would be much closer to the deep decarbonization of our lifestyles and a viable low carbon global economy.

Encouragingly, there are many multinationals that already support the need for a new kind of economic policy, one that ensures significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Organizations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) have close to 200 CEOs as members. Notably, the WBCSD has developed science-based targets forAction2020 – a global platform to scale-up business solutions for social and environmental priorities, including ambitious plans for the COP21 Paris climate negotiations in December (and beyond). WBCSD member companies, in a similar way as the Pope, believe that “bold climate action makes good business sense”. And an impressive number support the benefits of putting a price on carbon.

While Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is unlikely to embrace the Pope’s views on all matters (e.g., gay marriage), they both share a belief in the validity of climate science and on the urgent need to reduce emissions now. And if the Pope is not comfortable trading in his robes for a three-piece suit just yet, the time will come when the Vatican and Boardroom recognise each other as common allies.

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