In December last year – a little over three years since world leaders unanimously approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate action – the UN’s latest Climate Change Conference (COP24) came to an end. The usual handshake photo call declared the gathering a success, after negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed the rules to put what was agreed in Paris into action.
Wait a minute! Did I miss something here? Or have we really taken three years to decide how we will prove what we’re doing to cut carbon emissions? And announced it just two years before countries must show they have met their emissions targets, and sign up to new, even tougher goals.
Sadly, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, despite continued and strengthening warnings about what will happen to our planet – and to us – if we don’t take action on climate change now. Scientists say we have until 2030 to stem global warming, or face dire consequences.
As Sir David Attenborough put it: “The collapse of our civilizations is on the horizon”. Yet at November’s G20 summit, the issue was more or less shelved as leaders focused on trade and other hot-button disputes.
We’re already seeing the results of our actions (and inaction): catastrophic storms, forest fires and other outbreaks of extreme weather; oxygen-free dead zones in our oceans; an atmosphere in which 9 out of 10 people worldwide are breathing unsafe air; and unprecedented levels of plastic pollution.
The lack of international coordination is blatantly visible in countries like India and China, where air pollution in large cities is up to five times the safe limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
But the challenge actually goes way beyond climate change. What the 2030 Agenda set out was an ambitious plan to achieve peace, prosperity and environmental sustainability through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet despite many achievements, the bar that was set so high in 2015 has yet to be reached.
Along with our fast-changing climate, conflicts, inequality, persistent pockets of poverty and hunger, and rapid urbanization are challenging efforts to achieve the SDGs, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018.
In short, we have created a world in which our children, and our children’s children, are going to suffer – if they are not already affected. There’s no doubt about it. But when I look around, what I see is a sort of torpor, or inability to take collective responsibility for the future of our planet. It’s like there’s an invisible barrier preventing us from truly connecting the dots.
Why is that? Are we really willing to sleepwalk our way to disaster? Or can we turn the tide if we take action now?
I believe we can, but only by taking a new approach to completing our planet’s most important to-do list. It’s time for a worldwide wake-up call, and broader collaboration across all aspects of our society.
1. Individual ownership – by everyone
We need to smash the invisible barrier and help people to join the dots between how they live and the impact that their everyday actions – like choosing a plastic bottle over a glass one, or burning coal rather than timber in their stove – will have, both in the short-term and further down the line.
Maybe we’re like rabbits caught in the headlights: we see the problem but don’t know which way to run first. And so clear instructions about practical ways we can all make an impact, perhaps along with some incentives to do the right thing, could go a long way.
We must also tackle the disconnect that exists in the corporate world. Granted, several global organizations have high-profile sustainability strategies – but too many of them continue to inflict great damage on the environment, public health, public finances and so on, at the same time. They appear unable or unwilling to fundamentally shift their business models for fear of negative financial impact.
2. True collaboration
On 31 October, 11 Nordic CEOs took the unprecedented step of signing a joint declaration of commitment to the SDGs, stating that they “have joined hands in a common commitment” to embed the goals in their respective business strategies, and create a forum for shared initiatives and exchanging experiences.
This isn’t before time: 20,000 scientists have now signed the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity paper, which presents the argument that we need to switch focus from encouraging growth to conserving the planet. It will only be through new levels of collaboration, particularly between the public and private sectors, that this will be possible, and I call upon the CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies to follow this example.
3. Next-generation consumerism
A recent A.T. Kearney study of global consumer trends has demonstrated that young consumers – the buyers of tomorrow – do not trust large corporations or established brands. In fact, they would be willing to pay more for products and services if their suppliers were “doing the right thing”.
These views are not presently accounted for in the strategies of major corporations. Failure to tackle the issue will come at great cost, as consumers will simply abandon companies whose ethics are either questionable, or inconsistent. The misalignment of priorities and values between our older and younger generations needs to be managed via better dialogue, if businesses are to succeed in meeting the expectations of their future customers.
4. Sustainability as an investment proposition
David Blood and Al Gore effectively pioneered the notion of sustainability as a serious investment proposition, based on the conviction that it would be impossible for governments and companies alone to resolve our sustainability issues, and that institutional investment would also be needed.
The performance of their own fund, Generation Investment Management, which has experienced rapid growth and out-performed most other private equity funds, certainly bears witness to this philosophy. While we are still in the early stages, sustainable investing looks set to join the mainstream and change the role of the private sector as we attempt to solve the world’s biggest problems.
5. Value creation for all
Multiple studies have demonstrated that embedding sustainability in company agendas has a strong correlation with shareholder value creation. In fact, the Dow Jones Global Sustainability Index (DJSI) has closely tracked and slightly over-performed Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) in recent years.
This lays waste to the conviction that there has to be a trade-off between shareholder value and stakeholder value. Indeed, it’s becoming an increasingly false dilemma.
Using different terms, if your company is not delivering superior consumer (and now also societal) benefits in an efficient way, the chances are that, over time, it will not be generating superior shareholder returns either.
How do we move the needle? There is obviously no silver bullet here. I am nevertheless convinced that achieving the UN’s SDGs will require stronger determination, more ambitious objectives and a broad, forceful coalition.
With that in mind, and with the aim of making my own meaningful contribution, I am working now to create a broader platform for stakeholders – including the CEOs of major corporations, younger leaders, politicians, institutional leaders, investors, academics and the media – to join together, broadcast the wake-up call, and accelerate the SDG agenda.