When the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, environmentalists were disappointed, but then businesses stepped up on their own to fight global warming. Two Vanderbilt experts say evidence shows that progress can continue to be made regardless of what the government is doing.

“More than 100 of the largest businesses in the world came out and said, ‘We’re still in,’” said Michael P. Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law at Vanderbilt University and director of its Climate Change Research Network.

Those corporations – including prominent firms like Hewlett Packard and Mars Incorporated – did that for a good reason, Vandenbergh said.

“If you’re a company, whatever your political views, you have to function in the marketplace,” he said. “And 70 percent of people think companies should be doing more on climate change. You feel vulnerable that if you get labeled as a bad actor in this area, you might begin to lose retail and corporate customers, employees, investors and lenders.”

Progress beyond government

n a new book, Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change, Vandenbergh and co-author Jonathan M. Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental science, make the case for how the private sector and businesses can fill the environmental gap.

“I’m not optimistic that it will solve the problem tomorrow,” Gilligan said. “I am optimistic that the private sector can make a difference. We can eliminate a billion tons of carbon emissions each year over the next decade. That would matter.”

Vandenbergh and Gilligan point to numerous ways private-sector companies can benefit by taking environmentally friendly actions. Reducing global warming can be profitable for companies, sometimes simply by lowering the electricity bill.

“We know that enormous amounts of money are being wasted on things like jet fuel in the aviation industry,” Vanderbergh said. “A recent study found that airlines don’t provide pilots with information about how to use fuel efficiently, so they are wasting hundreds of thousands of gallons.”

More efficient fuel usage would lower costs for an airline as well as lessen emissions, he said.

Environmentally friendly potato chips

Similarly, a U.K. snack food company discovered through an audit of its carbon emissions that it was buying potatoes by the pound, so potato farmers were picking their potatoes when they were wet, storing them in humidified warehouses, and transporting heavy potatoes. By changing how they pay the farmers, the company could reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

“Now, they don’t have to waste all this money by having to transport heavy potatoes and then dry them out,” Gilligan said.

In their book, Gilligan and Vandenbergh explain why many private organizations can be motivated to reduce carbon emissions and call for a concerted effort to mobilize private action. What you can do

In addition to corporations, religious and civic organizations, investors, lenders, insurers and households all can play an important role in narrowing the gap that remains after the Paris Agreement.

“The key is to make the conceptual leap — to recognize that the private sector can make a large contribution, buying time while government is in gridlock,” said Vandenbergh.

Here are some examples:

  • You can control how efficient the car is that you purchase.
  • You can control whether you drive that car in an efficient way.
  • You can control where you set your thermostat.
  • You can control whether you purchase a more fuel-efficient heater or air conditioning unit.
  • You can control how long you have your lights on.
  • You can multiply the impact of your personal actions by influencing your friends and neighbors.