Is Trump Spurring Big Business to Go Green?

As the Trump administration rolls back environmental regulations, some corporations are taking the lead and pursuing policies to tackle climate change.

Protests outside the White House in June 2017 against President Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate-change accord.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
April 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Policies designed to combat climate change continue to fall from grace in the Trump administration.

Embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is routinely dismantling Obama-era regulations, including a potential rollback of fuel-economy standards—even as vehicles now upstage the power sector as the largest carbon emitters. The Interior Department, meanwhile, is aiming to open up nearly the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts for oil drilling.

But in C-suites across the country, a different conversation is taking place. Corporate titans are rapidly moving to slash carbon footprints and increase access to renewable energy. Federal inaction, in fact, is emboldening those ambitions, according to environmentalists and corporate leaders.

“I would say the change you’ve recently seen at the federal level has in many ways crystallized the importance for many companies of their leadership,” Gary Cook, a senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace, told National Journal. “Because the political winds have changed in D.C., they haven’t changed direction. You see them actually increasing their ambitions.”

Nearly 140 global companies, including U.S. firms Google and Walmart, are now part of an elite club, dubbed RE100, that aims to reach 100 percent renewable use. Meanwhile, more than 1,800 companies—such as McDonald’s, which recently joined—are part of the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition, a campaign that sprouted up following President Trump’s move to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

And a spate of new achievements and pledges, led in large part by the technology sector, is further bolstering the corporate world’s image as a major player in the fight against climate change.

Microsoft announced in recent weeks the purchase of 315 megawatts of solar energy to power its data centers in Northern Virginia—the largest corporate purchase of solar power in U.S. history, according to the company. That brings Microsoft’s total purchase of renewable energy to 1.2 gigawatts.

Meanwhile, Google, which is now contracting 3 GW of renewable electricity, is buying more renewable energy than it consumes in all operations globally, the company said on April 4.

“We need to be constantly adding renewables to our portfolio to keep up. So, we’ll keep signing contracts to buy more renewable energy,” Urs Hölzle, senior vice president at the Silicon Valley company, said in a statement. “And in those regions where we can’t yet buy renewables, we’ll keep working on ways to help open the market.”

The company aspires to use strictly renewable energy in the future, but infrastructure constraints, such as a lack of reliable renewable energy in some parts of the country, put that goal out of reach, Hölzle said.

Still, the companies are ensuring that massive amounts of new, renewable energy are marketed nationwide. A gigawatt can power 100 million light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, according to the Energy Department. That amount of energy can keep the lights on in several hundred thousand U.S. homes on a rolling basis.

A total 157 gigawatts of new renewable energy were contracted globally in 2017, marking a new global record, according to a report unveiled April 5 by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Those Microsoft and Google renewable buys are part of a broader pattern that increasingly features corporate power-purchasing agreements, referred to in some circumstances as green tariffs. Those pacts allow companies to purchase renewable energy at a fixed rate over a long period of time, while also building goodwill with the public and employees.

“They are able to claim credit for those new, green clean-energy electrons. And they’re trying to do it at a volume that’s equivalent to their annual energy demand,” said Tom Murray, the Environmental Defense Fund’s lead liaison with private-sector partners. “The tech companies are now under more scrutiny then they have been in the past. They are rapidly one of the fastest-growing energy consumers in the country and the world because of data demand.”

And the cost of renewable is dropping dramatically, based on sweeping technological advances. The cost to install solar power has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“As the competitiveness of these technologies has increased, a lot of increase in renewables is market-driven,” said Costa Samaras, an author of a recently released Carnegie Mellon University climate index and a senior researcher at RAND. “Coal can’t get much cheaper. Natural gas has. And renewables have and will continue to do so. It’s starting to make good business sense, both from a goodwill side and also from an economic side.”

The retail and restaurant sectors are trying to keep pace. McDonald’s committed in mid-March to reduce emissions across its supply chain 31 percent by 2030.

“Our point of view is this is not a political issue; this is the biggest environment issue of our time,” Francesca DeBiase, the chief supply-chain and sustainability officer at McDonald’s, told National Journal. “It’s really customer-driven. Our customers tell us—we’ve done a lot of consumer research—they tell us more and more they care about where their food comes from.”

Still, environmental groups that support the corporate policies, along with other climate researchers, say private-sector behavior can’t make up for federal inaction. “They’re definitely not going to be able to fill the void completely. In order to get a deeply decarbonized system, we have a lot further to go,” Samaras said.

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