Can Successful Public Private Partnerships Help Achieve Climate Goals?

If you take a look around, the infrastructure you see outside is likely a result of a public private partnership. These collaborations can protect society from natural disasters, and help us meet our climate change goals by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Leveraging these alliances can be beneficial for adapting to climate change and becoming resilient. In the midst of the greatest fight for our future, these inherently collaborative partnerships are one effective tool society can utilize to protect people, ecosystems, infrastructure, and society. 

What is a public private partnership?

What is a public-private partnership image

A public-private partnership (also known as a PPP, P3, or 3P) is when the private and public sector work together to complete a project or provide a service to the population. You’ve probably seen P3 projects everywhere, as they are primarily used for infrastructure projects. These include building schools, hospitals, transportation lines, and water and sewage plants. You can also think of P3s as a public good being co-developed with the private sector. 

Traditionally speaking, the government used to provide all of our infrastructure needs. However if you’ve ever worked with the government, you know that their timelines can be long and tedious. They provide immeasurable services to society every single day—be it in the rain, snow, hurricane season, severe fires, during a flood, or in a drought. It’s tough work and I respect all government employees. But working with a government institution is often a slow process.

The private sector, on the other hand, has advanced technology and financial institutions that can fund massive capital infrastructure projects. It’s here that a public-private partnership is formed, and though they can be complex in nature, they’re prime for addressing our climate change goals.

Compounding of climate disasters

Satellite image of Hurricane Maria

2020 has seen a confluence of climate disasters. By late August, over 600 fires had ravaged California burning over 400 million acres. I often wonder if there’s anything left to burn in my home state! On the Gulf Coast, two tropical cyclones struck only days apart. This is some Amazon Prime-level delivery on behalf of Mother Nature if you ask me. 

This year marks only the second time in history where the official alphabetical list of hurricane names has been used up, meaning forecasters have had to move to the supplementary list of Greek letter names. For all we know, the Alpha Zeta Sorority may be hold the next hurricane name (probably not, but you never know). These extreme weather events not only wreak havoc on society, but also wipe out infrastructure as if it were made out of glass. 

Even worse, these cataclysmic disasters are being compounded. That means that these super storms, which average out to be category 4 and 5 level hurricanes, are not only becoming more deadly, but also striking the same location more frequently.

Let’s look back to 2017. I know it feels like a million years ago, but it is paramount that we remember and adapt accordingly. 

Street torn down by Hurricane Maria

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast unleashing a deluge of water nearly 4 feet high, and causing over $90 billion in damages. A few weeks later, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria bulls-eyed into Puerto Rico, turning what remaining infrastructure stood from the first two hurricanes into pebbles.

Thousands of lives were lost.

Billions of dollars in damages occured.

This is the future if we do not address climate change and adapt accordingly. 

Need a quick refresher of how climate change works? Greenhouse gas emissions, which are largely derived from burning fossil fuels, cause our atmosphere to insulate heat that would normally be released into space, hence the warming. As arctic permafrost melts across North America and Eurasia, carbon dioxide and methane (which is 85 times more potent than carbon dioxide) is released, increasing the rate of climate change. The melting of the earth’s permafrost is essentially a steroid for accelerating this problem. It’s a cyclical process that has delicate tipping points—but there are solutions.

It’s vital to keep the warming below two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, and to try to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. While nearly all climate change scientists plead for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation should also be equally considered. 

Public private partnerships and climate change goals

An unhealthy city compared to a healthy city

Climate resiliency means thinking years ahead to gather extensive resources and political will for often unpopular policies. Very little of this job can be done quickly. Adaptation should have begun in earnest decades ago.

-As the World Burns, Michael Oppenheimer

As helpful as governmental climate change policies are, they cannot solve this issue alone. This is where public private partnerships come into play.

Yes, P3s have their pitfalls due to the complexity of contracts and funds, but they also have the benefits of completing a project quickly and on budget, if managed correctly. It’s no secret that meeting our climate change goals entails working with many stakeholders, and cross-sector partnerships can be the catalyst for the changes we need—especially in areas that take the brunt of climate change. 

Why work together at all? 

Both the public and private sector face climate threats together, and both suffer when resilience actions are not implemented. The public and private sector need a strong, climate resilient community. The private sector needs communities to maintain business when climate disasters strike, and the public sector needs businesses to thrive to maintain and grow the economic health of those communities.

To strengthen resilience/sustainability strategies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a city level, we need the first part of the P3, the public sector. The public sector needs to take the leadership role and set high-priority, city-wide sustainability plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create incentives to retrofit infrastructure with sustainable options, and make environmental data and its impacts in neighborhoods more transparent. The public sector can also leverage existing relationships across departments, and convene a collaboration to demonstrate that business involvement is valued.

More than 60% of cities disclosing to CDP are already engaged in city-business collaboration, and we are seeing continued demand for partnerships across stakeholders.


The public sector is essential in accelerating momentum towards a net-zero carbon future, but can only go so far without the private sector. The private sector responds to the public sector’s leadership, and can help make the public sector’s ambitious goals a reality. Why? Because the private sector owns and operates much of the critical infrastructure that cities rely on. They also have different decision-making timelines, resiliency plans, data insights, and an overall different approach which is helpful for cities.

If we take a closer look, the private sector consists of investors, lenders, construction companies, tech companies, operational services, and more. Together, not only can the private sector’s advances help complete infrastructure projects on time, but the private sector can also provide innovative financing to promote collaboration. 

The value of collaboration

People supporting a healthy economy by spending money

The public sector and private sector have complementary strengths for building a climate resilient society quicker and with more inclusivity than ever. By collaborating, knowledge-sharing can be facilitated, more stakeholders can be involved in the process, and political support for the climate change effort can be increased.

Folks are also proud when their company works with a community to solve climate change issues, and citizens are more willing to work with the government if their voice is being valued. Public-private partnerships are inherently collaborative, and it’s going to take all of us to protect our future from the risk of climate change. 

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