Letitia Webster, a top official with Greensboro-based VF Corp., came to the 21st UN climate summit in Paris with a message from corporate America to the world. She ended up delivering one to state legislators in Raleigh.
“I think what we’ve shown already in North Carolina is that when you provide the incentives – the investment tax credits for solar; when you have the renewable energy portfolio – it works,” said Webster, VF’s senior director of global corporate sustainability and responsibility, in an interview.
“It provides green jobs. Money comes into North Carolina. Jobs are created in North Carolina,” she said. “Renewable energy is fueling our economy. North Carolina is one of the best states in the country in renewables, but now we’re moving in the opposite direction.”
In 2014, N.C. residents and businesses claimed $126.7 million in the renewable-energy tax credit, generating $717.6 million in spending, according to the N.C. Department of Revenue. The state legislature voted this fall to end the subsidies by Dec. 31.
It is with a palpable sense of embarrassment that Webster shares such information with other top U.S. business leaders who, for the first time, have shown up in force at a UN climate summit. Each is pushing in Paris for an unprecedented global accord in which all 196 nations represented at the summit voluntarily reduce their carbon emissions to try to stave off the predicted worst effects of climate change by 2100.
VF is North Carolina’s fifth largest public company and one of the world’s largest apparel companies, with brands such as The North Face, Timberland, Vans, Wrangler and Lee. Annual sales top $12.2 billion. It has operations in 150 countries and more than 60,000 employees.
VF is among more than 150 companies, including IBM, Lenovo and Bank of America, that last month signed the Obama administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge. In doing so, VF announced a new commitment to power all its operations globally with 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2025.
“We buy 1 percent of the world’s cotton. Climate change matters to us,” Webster said in a recent panel discussion here at the U.S. Pavilion. “From the farm to the mountain top, we are seeing those impacts and need to see them stop. We at VF are very serious about getting strong policies on mitigation and adaptation to address these issues globally.”
VF plans to achieve its goals of reducing its carbon footprint in a variety of ways, including switching fully to energy-efficient lighting, reducing water use and making sure all new construction meets LEED standards for energy efficiency and sustainability. But mostly, the company plans to produce more of its own energy from solar panels it owns and to buy renewable energy from solar and wind generators wherever available.
Webster was joined on the panel by sustainability directors from Facebook, global candy maker Mars and the California State Teachers Retirement System, which has more than $220 billion in corporate investments under management.
Their message was consistent and clear: climate change in the form of drought, more frequent and erratic storms of greater intensity and rising sea levels is costing them millions, disrupting their supply chains and damaging their investments.
Mostly, though, they each stressed the economic opportunities lost in not transitioning more aggressively to renewable energy sources. While Facebook, for example, opened a data center in Forest City three years ago, Bill Weihl, Facebook’s sustainability chief said that the $12.4 billion social media giant likely would not expand in the state because of new legislative policies that back away from support for renewables.
“We are only considering states with strong policies and a determination to produce renewable energy,” Weihl said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. employs more than 3 million workers in green-energy jobs, including more than 3,100 in North Carolina. Yet business leaders in Paris argued that if the renewable energy received subsidies and tax breaks similar to those received by fossil fuel companies, millions more jobs would be created in industries of the future – building solar panels and wind turbines, which when operating produce no carbon emissions.
“I really don’t understand what the state is thinking,” Webster said. “We’ve shown that investing in renewables is an economic driver in our state – especially in low-income counties where farmers are being paid well so that their land can be used for solar and wind farms.”
Duke Energy’s role
Charlotte-based Duke Energy, one of the United States’ largest utilities with 7.2 million customers in six states, produces power mostly with nuclear, coal and natural gas, the last two sources of greenhouse gas pollutants. When asked if Duke is standing in the way of a shift to renewable energy in the state, Webster took a deep breath.
“Look, I can’t say what they are and are not doing,” she said, measuring her words carefully. “All I can say is that many, many businesses in North Carolina – Bank of America, SAS, Ingersoll-Rand, Wells Fargo – are driving and investing in renewable energy projects. We need Duke Energy to be on board and support us. We need Duke to listen to its customers’ needs.”
Duke Energy has long touted its green credentials. The company says it has invested $4 billion in wind energy and solar power since 2007 and will invest another $3 billion over the next five years, said spokesman Randy Wheeless.
Across the nation, Duke owns 16 wind facilities and is adding two more this year. In North Carolina, Duke owns two dozen solar farms – totaling about 300 megawatts, enough to power about 60,000 homes.
At the Paris summit, global leaders are negotiating what could become by week’s end the first accord ever where all nations agree to reduce their carbon footprint. Even so, the accord is expected to fall far short of the goal of keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Webster says U.S. representatives have worked hard to reach out to business to get its input.
“This is a hugely important change at these negotiations,” she said. “We feel engaged. We feel policy makers and delegates want to hear from us.”
To that end, she predicted, with some measure of brashness, that if a binding accord is approved, if all nations – especially top polluters such as China, the U.S., India and the European Union – make their promised carbon reductions, the global corporate community will do more to help close the so-called emissions gap by further reducing their own carbon footprint.
“I think we are in the renaissance,” Webster said. “Some people are still in the Dark Ages and change is hard. A lot of businesses out there are scared about how they are going to win in this new economy. They are a vocal minority, and their voices are heard too loudly in state governments.”
“But business is the engine that will solve this at the end of the day,” Webster added. “And policy leaders need to decide if they want to make it easy or if they want to make it hard. I hope the leaders can hear loud and clear that if they can give us a strong signal and put the policies and mechanisms in place, business will step up and deliver any of that (emissions) gap that countries don’t voluntarily meet. We’re going to make it happen.”
Staff writer John Murawski contributed.
Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His reporting in Paris is supported by the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest.