LE BOURGET, France — By 9:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, two dozen junior staff working for a group called We Mean Business were squeezed around folding tables in a meeting room a stone’s throw from U.N. climate negotiations.
Their laptops hummed, and a young crew who looked like they might be just as comfortable at a Facebook convention toggled between social media and the notes from their morning briefing.
The hours were speeding toward today’s flexible deadline for 196 nations to reach a deal aimed at halting the growth of carbon dioxide emissions and rebuilding the world economy around low-carbon energy.
Later that morning, the squad from We Mean Business — an umbrella group representing some of the world’s largest multinational corporations — would fan out across this sprawling tent city northeast of Paris. This was one of their last-ditch efforts to get international negotiators to include language in a final document that sets a long-term goal of decarbonizing the world economy.
"This is a three-dimensional puzzle we’re trying to solve," said Edward Cameron, managing director of We Mean Business. "On the one hand, we need to maximize ambition. On the other hand, we have to find a way to secure diplomatic agreement and send a signal to the real economy."
The United States, Europe and some island nations that face the greatest risks from rising sea levels are also pushing for an end goal that would transform the existing global economy, hoping to set in motion a transition to zero-carbon technology by around 2050. Standing opposite to them are the rich oil-producing countries in the Middle East and an eerily quiet India and China.
In the waning days of this climate conference, this "high-ambition coalition" is a potential lightning rod for India, which wants assurances from the United States that India’s rapidly growing economy — and its 300 million people without electricity — won’t be left holding the bag of a long-term goal it can’t meet.
Before signing an agreement, India wants guarantees that the trillions of dollars in public and private-sector spending that would go toward breaking from coal and oil in the United States, Europe and China also includes an estimated $800 billion and technology transfers for India.
For the first time ever, negotiators trying to solve this "three-dimensional puzzle" embedded in any deal to resolve the climate crisis are getting help from big business — corporations with political and financial pull that had sat on the sidelines of these conferences for decades.
"The concern is that business had never really said anything about shaping the policy environment," Cameron said. "Or even worse, they had been hostile toward the policy-enabling environment."
Shifting the climate discussion from sacrifice to opportunity
One thread of the multilayered business involvement in the Paris talks started at a dinner in the summer of 2013.
Nike’s Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation, and Steve Howard, sustainability director for Ikea, sat down with Cameron, a consultant for San Francisco-based BSR, and representatives from a handful of other organizations.
"They felt the climate change discussion has been too much about burden and sacrifice, and we actually need to initiate the conversation about the opportunity for business," Cameron said. "The best way to do that is to get a lot of pioneering businesses to act and then draw others into their orbit."
On Tuesday, as the talks started to ramp up, one of We Mean Business’ biggest allies, Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, took the stage for a hastily called press conference.
"As governments invest billions, business leaders are standing by," he said, "and they will invest trillions of dollars in private capital to scale existing technologies, to catalyze innovation and create millions of jobs."
He went on.
"I’m standing here as an airline owner — actually, the owner of three airlines — and I’m saying a carbon tax should be levied on airlines," Branson said. "It’s the only way to ultimately get the world where we need."
Pledges from business interests here have been dizzying.
At the Paris kickoff, the White House announced that 154 U.S. companies with combined annual revenues of $4 trillion had pledged support for a Paris accord that’s a "strong step forward." Then, the CEO of the British-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, Paul Polman, announced that a fresh crop of 79 chief executives would set emissions targets.
On Tuesday, 114 companies said they would set "ambitious science-based emissions reduction targets." And those targets would line up with the threshold of 2-degree-Celsius above preindustrial temperatures that has been the basis for Paris negotiations. Dell, General Mills, NRG Energy, Kellogg, Proctor & Gamble and Coco-Cola were among the large U.S.-based companies.
"As a global food company, we recognize the significant impacts climate change can have on our business if left unaddressed," said Ken Powell, the CEO of General Mills. "That’s why we are taking action across our value chain."
For its part, NRG, just days after former CEO David Crane had been let go as head of the independent power producer, said it would reduce "absolute emissions" 50 percent by 2030. By 2050, the company said, it would cut 90 percent of its emissions.
This morning, as a new text for a U.N. agreement came out and negotiators appeared to be getting closer to an agreement, big business weighed in.
"The U.S. business community has been looking for a catalytic signal from Paris, and [to] judge from this latest text, we’re close to getting it," said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a Boston-based network of institutional investors.
Corporations were officially brought into the process in 2014, when the United Nations initiated what it calls the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. The idea was to include corporations in a broad "subnational" category of actors in the world.
But as CEOs walked the corridors, a handful of nongovernmental organizations accused the U.N. process of letting corporations get too close to the dealmaking.
Tamar Lawrence-Samuel of Corporate Accountability International said, "It institutionalized corporate influence over U.N. institutions and multilateral negotiations.
"It undermines democratic global governance principles by equating corporate interests with policy mandates," she said.
She also said too many big carbon emitters were allowed to sign on without making concrete pledges, including oil companies Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Total SA.