The onEarth 10

Think you can’t mix a healthy climate with a healthy economy? These business leaders and innovators are betting the world on the fact that we can.

There’s a persistent, if inaccurate, perception that fighting climate change will hurt the global economy. These ten international business leaders and innovators think differently; they understand that the uncertainty brought by a warming world won’t be good for anyone’s bottom line. (In fact, the World Bank just estimated that climate change could send 100 million people into extreme poverty.)

Some of the “onEarth 10” are helping poorer countries adapt and actually grow in a warmer world, some are spurring investment in the renewable industries that will power our future, and others are simply building better products in better ways and teaching others how to do the same. Whatever their wheelhouse, these trailblazers are leading an economic and technological transformation that will help drive the world toward climate action.

Many of those on our list will be in Paris next month for the U.N. climate conference, meeting with political leaders and speaking to the public about how ignoring carbon emissions is not a good business plan for the planet. Here’s your chance to meet them now.

Nawal Al-Hosany 

You might think clean-tech advocate Nawal Al-Hosany would be daunted by the state of affairs in her home country, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the sixth-largest oil producer in the world last year, and the government plans to ramp up production 30 percent by 2020. The country’s national climate pledge, submitted to the United Nations ahead of the Paris conference, makes no specific emissions reductions targets, even though a global business-as-usual scenario, studies suggest, would harm the Gulf region even more than most. (It’s already really, really hot there.) But where others may see an economy wedded to unsustainable practices and climate extremes, Al-Hosany sees an ideal opportunity for the UAE to emerge as a global leader in clean energy technology.

Al-Hosany currently serves as the director of sustainability for Masdar, a planned urban community in Abu Dhabi that claims to be “the world’s most sustainable eco-neighborhood.” Masdar certainly proves that a little ingenuity (and a lot thoughtful planning) go a long way: By using architectural techniques to capture prevailing winds, this city-within-a-city is cooler by 10 degrees Celsius than anywhere else in Abu Dhabi. But one of Masdar’s most important functions is to start diversifying Abu Dhabi’s economy by making it the intellectual epicenter for alternative energy. In 2011 the UAE won a bid to have the International Renewable Energy Agency’s first headquarters built in Masdar by offering rent-free offices and up to $350 million in grant funding for energy projects in developing countries, among other perks.

Incentivizing innovation is a big part of Nawal Al-Hosany’s work—she is also the director of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, an award for achievements in renewable energy and sustainability, which, at $4 million, is the largest of its kind in the world. Al Gore, one of our other “onEarth 10” honorees, incidentally, was one of this year’s award winners. Perhaps we’ll see the pair schmoozing it up.

Felipe Calderón

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/iStock

During his tenure as president of Mexico from 2006 to 2012, Felipe Calderón made clear his belief that countries of all prosperity levels could come together to solve the climate crisis. In 2010, he presided over the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, which established the Green Climate Fund, and in 2012 he passed the General Law on Climate Change, which set carbon reduction and renewable energy goals. The progressive move made Mexico the second nation ever to issue binding emissions-reduction targets, and the first in the developing world.

Now Calderón is leading an international effort to upend a pet theory of climate deniers: that fixing the climate is bad for business. He chairs the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, whose flagship project, the New Climate Economy, researches how countries can achieve sustainable economic growth while mitigating climate change. With the support of seven governments, the project has now published two aptly timed reports that will, one hopes, give decision makers a helpful nudge ahead of the Paris climate conference. Felipe Calderón calls the choice between climate action and economic prosperity a “false dilemma,” and thanks to him, other leaders are beginning to see that truth.

Hela Cheikhrouhou

Photo: JeonHeon-Kyun/epa/Corbis

Directing the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund is to live a series of contradictions. Tunisian Hela Cheikrouhou is both a beggar, asking the leaders of the world’s richest countries to spare a few hundred million dollars, and a benefactor, disbursing billions of dollars to developing nations for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. She likewise shifts between cheerleader and stoic. In the same speech, she mixes impenetrable jargon (“accredited entities” and “significant multiplier effect”) with Churchillian imperatives (“We have no choice but to succeed.”)

Public exhortations, although part of the job, seem slightly out of character for Cheikhrouhou, who started her career at Citibank and has worked at development banks in Latin America and Africa. She is a career technocrat.

Her technical background will be crucial in getting the Green Climate Fund up and running. Rarely has an institution been given so much money, so quickly, with so little precedent to look to. Established in 2009, the GCF currently has $10 billion in commitments from donor nations and will have to set standards that determine which projects will be funded and on what terms.

There has been plenty of controversy thus far. In March, for instance, environmentalists howled when the fund left open the possibility of supporting coal-fired power plants. Cheikhrouhou also faces the daunting task of convincing China that it should channel its support for green initiatives through the GCF, rather than make side deals with developing countries. Hela Cheikhrouhou controls billions of dollars, but can she control the world’s sometimes stubborn, always self-interested leaders?

Leonardo DiCaprio

Photo: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

Since 2010, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has awarded more than $30 million to projects in over 40 countries to protect wildlife, preserve marine ecosystems, restore wetlands, and empower communities to defend their lands and livelihoods against anything from oil development to deforestation to overfishing.

But for DiCaprio, it’s not just about where he sends money—it matters where the money comes from, too. That’s why the actor (and NRDC trustee) and his foundation have joined the divestment movement, promising to no longer profit from fossil fuel companies. So far, more than 400 institutions and 2,000 people have pledged to rid their financial portfolios of any investments supporting industries that contribute significantly to climate change. As of September, those divestments amounted to $2.6 trillion in assets. That’s sounds like a lot of “fun coupons,” but Leonardo DiCaprio hopes more of us will join in and show leaders that we are doing our part, so it’s time for them to do theirs.

Al Gore

Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Soon after An Inconvenient Truth hit theaters in 2006, Al Gore’s name became practically synonymous with the climate movement. In the Oscar-winning documentary, Gore is adamant that the moral obligations to curb climate change are not at odds with economic prosperity. “If we do the ‘right’ thing, then we’re going to create a lot of wealth,” he says. “Because doing the right thing moves us forward.”

The former vice president backs that idea up with his current venture, Generation Investment Management. With former Goldman Sachs Asset Management CEO David Blood, Gore cofounded the investment firm with the goal of integrating long-term sustainability into the investment process. The Atlantic calls the approach a “new version of capitalism,” one that makes more money by treating socially and environmentally responsible business plans as the rule, not the exception.

So far, Blood and Gore’s brand of eco-capitalism is paying off. The firm currently manages $12 billion in assets, and according to data from the U.K.-based consulting firm Mercer, Generation’s 10-year returns rank second out of more than 200 global equity managers. And those are just the monetary returns…

Steve Howard

Photo: Stuart Isett

Formerly the CEO of The Climate Group, a nonprofit that works with governments and businesses to shrink their carbon footprints, this Englishman has been the chief sustainability officer for the Swedish furniture giant IKEA since 2011. For years, wind turbines and solar panels have adorned the rooftops of IKEA stores, but now the company is stepping it up. The multinational is recycling more wood, making sure the forests that supply it (largely in Russia, China, and Poland) are managed responsibly, and packing more products onto each one of its trucks and boats to lower shipping emissions.

What’s more, IKEA has pledged $1 billion for renewable energy and climate adaptation projects. That’s more than some nations have given to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund (Germany contributed around $800 million). Steve Howard is on a mission to encourage other companies to put sustainability “into the heart of [their] business model[s]” in order to “make sustainability affordable for the many people, not a luxury for the few.” It’s kind of the BESTÅ.

Lisa P. Jackson

This former chemical engineer was tough on carbon pollution when she ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2013. Under her watch, the agency classified greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to public health, which gave the EPA more power to regulate them. Moving from the public to the private sector in 2013, Jackson became the vice president of environmental initiatives for Apple. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Jackson said she believes the $733 billion company “owes something back” and should apply its knack for innovative technologies to the field of clean energy.

Renewable energy currently powers all of Apple's U.S. buildings and data centers and 87 percent of its international operations. Apple products—many of which are designed for obsolescence—could be made more sustainably, but in recent years the company has taken steps to green its supply chain. For instance, changes to how the aluminum is manufactured for the latest generation of iPhones have cut the devices’ carbon footprint by up to 16 percent. In July, Apple signed President Obama’s Businesses Act on Climate pledge, making it known that the tech giant wants to see big action in Paris. We’re hoping to see Lisa Jackson there.

He Jiankun

Photo: Getty Images

There is no U.S. equivalent to He Jiankun, director of Tsinghua University’s Low Carbon Economy Lab and deputy director of China’s Expert Committee on Climate Change. Part scientist, part economist, part policy guru, He is so influential in China’s carbon emissions planning that reporters often mistake his statements for official government decisions. Last year, Reuters quoted him stating that China would control carbon emissions in the upcoming five-year plan, using both intensity limits and an absolute cap. Since He supposedly said it, the news spread quickly. The Guardian and USA Today ran with the Chinese carbon cap story, forcing the professor to remind reporters that he is an adviser, not a government official; his ideas are merely suggestions.

He was being too modest. The Expert Committee on Climate Change provides the scientific basis for China’s climate change planning. It also forms partnerships abroad to produce risk assessments and supports international research on climate change mitigation. He Jiankun is the dynamic center of those efforts. When he talks climate change, Chinese officials listen. So should you.

Paul Polman

Photo: Getty Images

Trashing multinational corporations is de rigueur among many political factions, but global businesses have a unique and valuable perspective on climate change. Netherlands- and U.K.-based Unilever, for example, has operations in more than 100 countries. According to the company’s chief executive, Paul Polman, this broad wingspan means “companies are the first to see the cost of climate change.” When extreme weather strikes, their supply chains collapse and their customers stop buying. Polman believes that climate change already costs Unilever more than $325 million annually.

The Dutchman is not prepared to tolerate that much red ink. Along with Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and Ratan Tata of Tata International, he helped bring together 12 CEOs and policy makers last February to demand a zero balance of greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Frustrated by government inaction, Polman believes the responsibility to save the world from climate change now falls to his fellow businesspeople. He suggested earlier this year that the international carbon pledges coming in would likely achieve only 40 percent of the emissions reductions necessary to avert a disaster. Paul Polman says the private sector must close that gap. He’ll be working his Rolodex hard in the next few weeks.

Nigel Topping

Businesses hate uncertainty, and climate change is, at its core, a massive collection of uncertainties. If carbon emission levels continue to grow unabated, we don’t know where coastlines will be in a century, how hot it will get, where extreme weather may hit, how much food will grow—the list is endless. This is the pitch that Nigel Topping makes to business leaders through his We Mean Business Coalition. The Brit, a former automotive executive, has collected an impressive panel of supporters, with representatives from IKEA, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Nike, Unilever, Starbucks, and many other major companies working together to push national governments to take action on climate change.

A 2013 analysis showed that 90 companies were responsible for two-thirds of our cumulative carbon emissions. Topping’s movement recognizes that businesses can quell humanity’s fossil fuel addiction even if governments cannot or will not act. We Mean Business puts peer pressure on large corporations. Topping’s partner companies voluntarily set carbon emissions targets, report their emissions, and invest in low-carbon technologies.

If you want to solve climate change, you’ll have to vote with your wallet as much as your ballot. Nigel Topping is giving you that opportunity.

Clara Chaisson, Chelsey B. Coombs, Melissa Mahony, and Brian Palmer contributed reporting to this article.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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