Insurance and Climate Change column

Zurich NA Sustainability Head: Pandemic is a Roadmap for Climate Change Battle

By | July 16, 2020

Ben Harper picked an interesting time to start his new job as head of corporate sustainability for Zurich North America.

Harper stepped into the role in January. Harper had been with Zurich for nearly 20 years, previously serving as global environmental subject matter expert in technical underwriting and as head of the pollution team responsible for providing underwriting guidance in support of environmental coverages. He had also served as part of the Zurich Group climate office from 2009 to 2013, where his team developed products to address concerns like renewable energy sources and carbon emissions.

As he took on the new role and began work to get the company and its customers more focused on sustainability and the climate, the COVID-19 pandemic was growing into a threat to the health and economic welfare of the world, and it was commanding everyone’s attention.

It was a challenge to draw people’s attention back to climate change and sustainability for a period of a roughly a month-and-a-half, he estimates.

“I would have to say it was just really a blip on the radar,” Harper said.

Ben Harper, head of corporate sustainability for Zurich North America.

During that time people within the company above him and below him continued working on Zurich’s myriad sustainability and climate initiatives, and its customers continued to press for more insurance products to help them adapt and prepare for a changing world, according to him.

“We haven’t seen any downturn in customer requests for sustainable products,” Harper said.

The company has nearly two dozen green products, including green construction practice products, electric car insurance, solar products, and carbon capture and sequestration.

Products related to carbon capture, and those relevant or in reaction to the push by climate activists and some governments to get away from coal and other fossil fuels and into clean energy, are particularly popular, he said.

“We’re getting requests from some of the largest emitters, such as the energy space, we’re hearing demand every day to develop more products to help with the transition to a low-carbon society,” he said.

In fact, Harper sees opportunity arising from the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn due to the event and business closures, such as an infrastructure package to spur economic activity, which also could make things more green. House Democrats have proposed a $1.5 trillion green infrastructure plan with much of it focused on green initiatives, resiliency, and reducing the emissions of the transportation sector. It also allots $300 billion to fixing and building bridges and roads.

He believes such a push could spur more companies to inquire about green insurance products.

“We are expecting an uptick in interest,” he said.

The California Department of Insurance saw enough interest in green insurance products to launch a database this week. The Climate Smart Insurance Products Database was designed to help the public understand and access these products and encourage further insurance policy innovation in commercial, homeowners, and auto lines, among other lines, according to the CDI.

Harper also believes that the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons learned from it can help the insurer and other insurers meet a pledge to limit global warming.

In 2019, Zurich signed up as the first insurer to the Business Ambition for 1.5°C Pledge, a program aimed at limiting average global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030.

“The COVID crisis has presented somewhat of a roadmap on how we can stay on our path to a 1.5 degree Celsius commitment,” he said.

More people are staying at home, they are reducing paper usage by communicating more electronically, they are reducing car usage, there are no single-use plastics being used in offices, which are currently unoccupied, and travel has all but been halted.

“And we’ve learned that we can still be efficient working remotely,” he added.

Carbon emissions have gone down across the world by all accounts as fewer people commute to work and travel.

But beyond carbon emissions, COVID-19 is resulting in changes in individual behavior and social attitudes, and in responses by governments that will have impacts on the environment and the ability to combat climate change, according to a recent report from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which offers both the positive and negative impacts on climate change.

Countries beside the U.S. are using the pandemic as an opportunity to make their societies more resilient to climate change. Germany’s $145 billion stimulus plan devotes about one-third of the funding to public transportation, electric vehicles and renewable energy, with no money provided for combustion engine vehicles, according to the report.

France is investing $8.8 billion to help its car industry become a main producer of electric vehicles in Europe, a plan that includes incentives to encourage people to exchange old cars for lower-emissions vehicles, while South Korea introduced its own Green New Deal to make it the first East Asian country to commit to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the report notes.

Simpler living, more biking and walking, less international travel, renewed faith in science – those are a few of the other positive effects authors of the report believe the pandemic may have on climate change.

For Zurich’s part, Harper said the company will continue to work on reducing its carbon footprint –moving toward 100% renewables at facilities within the next few years, reducing use of paper by 80%, eliminating single-use plastics at offices, as well as continue developing green products and services. The company has also made good on its investment strategy goals of $4.6 billion spending on green bonds and other social impact spending,

In a recent paper on the pandemic and climate change authored by Harper, he noted that for many, “sustainability” is the catchphrase word of our time.

“For Zurich, the time is now to stand behind the promises we’ve made to support a sustainable future for our business, our customers and our communities,” he wrote.

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