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What are business leaders doing to sustain our future?

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Globally, more than half of people think business is either doing more than its share or the right amount to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Image: Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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In a survey conducted earlier this year, we asked people in 28 countries whether they thought governments, businesses and individuals were doing enough to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development goals by 2030.

While the survey found that many people think governments are not doing enough, globally more than half of people thought business was either doing more than its share or the right amount to advance the goals.

High expectations on the private sector to lead sustainable changes. Image: World Economic Forum-Ipsos

With less than a decade left to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, the fully virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021, hosted alongside the United Nations General Assembly, brought together global business leaders this week from diverse sectors, disciplines and geographies to meet with governments, NGOs and civil society to address the urgent need for a systemic reboot.

As Al Gore suggested, the change required is nothing short of a revolution. Given the high expectations on the private sector to lead the change, here is an overview of what business leaders said.


‘Get emerging trade tech to SMEs’

Matthew Layton, Global Managing Partner, Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance's Global Managing Partner, Matthew Layton, stressed the need to get emerging tech to SMEs. He encourages cooperation between the public and private sector on trade, saying, "there is good work being done among businesses on reporting and transparency to get some standardization". Clifford Chance has partnered with the Forum on the launch of two new trade reports.

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‘A positive form of deglobalization’

Paul Donovan, Global Chief Economist, UBS Wealth Management

Paul Donovan spoke about the issue of globalization, saying that although we’re seeing a rise of economic nationalism, "there’s also a positive form of deglobalization - which is localization, where it becomes more efficient to produce locally."

He continued, "This is much more sustainable. But overall - as we see globalization decline, in parallel, we need to have a strategy to deal with the negative consequences."

‘We need a new earthquake model for climate’

John J. Haley, Chief Executive Officer, Willis Towers Watson


In A New Compact for Resilient Economies and Societies, John J. Haley, Chief Executive Officer, Willis Towers Watson used the example of the earthquake model that was developed in the 1990s and explained how it prefaced a total transformation in risk modelling practice. It's this kind of shift that is needed today, he said.

‘A better balance for quality of life needs affordable energy’

Vicki Hollub, President and Chief Executive Officer, Occidental Petroleum Corporation


Vicki Hollub said a better balance for quality of life needs affordable energy, but that puts pressure on the rest of us to develop the transition out of fossil fuels to prevent emissions from existing sources and remove CO2 from the air.

She said fossil fuels will help to generate low-cost power for some of those places that don’t have it today. "We need to collaborate to get there. Look at the incentives for solar, and electric vehicles to see a case study of how that can happen."

“CCUS (carbon capture and storage) has to happen and getting more companies involved will help us get there without mandates from governments. The companies committing to net-zero are the drivers”, she added.

‘Commit to net-zero now’

Rich Lesser, Global Chief Executive Officer, Boston Consulting Group

Rich Lesser said there is great progress but enormous challenges to decarbonizing. Many companies are realizing they have opportunity to go further than they think they can in economically viable ways. "To go to net-zero is really expensive, that last 20-40% of carbon is really hard to get out. But people are realizing they can go 40-70% faster than they thought."


It’s not enough though. To get the last part [of the emissions] out requires a collaboration across sectors. Most sectors have [Scope 3] emissions in their upstream partners, which requires operational skills to put the right measures in and incentives.

For many countries, this is not affordable – we need the developed world to step up more and better collaboration across country boundaries. We have to work together to make it a just transition across the macro and micro level, he said.

Adapt to climate change impacts’

Feike Sybesma, Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Royal Philips

Feike Sybesma said we need to learn to adapt to the flooding and fires resulting from climate change impacts, adding that we also “need to realize that 80% of all investments in the transition need to come from the private sector.”


‘Reduce emissions financing’

Alison Martin, Chief Executive Officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Bank Distribution, Zurich Insurance Group

Alison Martin said her organization is trying to address climate change by reducing its air travel, “though it’s far more important for the company to reduce its financing of emissions”, in terms of the companies it invests in, and those it insures.


‘No avoiding the carbon neutral game’

Stefan Schaible, Senior Partner, Global Managing Partner, Roland Berger Holding

Stefan Schaible said the US presidential election last year eliminated the last remaining hope among some companies that they could avoid the “carbon-neutral game.”

He said all companies now understand carbon-neutrality is a long-term trend “where you have to go.” Schaible also noted the German elections and said whatever the makeup of the new government it will be necessary to provide the right help and guidance for companies trying to transition to greater sustainability.

For example, he said, as electricity demand is predicted to spike, related permitting processes should be sped up.

‘One technology is not enough’

Judith Hartman, Executive Vice-President and CFO, ENGIE Group


Judith Hartman talked about the pain points of the energy transition. One pain point, she said, is that you have to have long-term thinking and a balance. People sometimes talk about just wind and solar, but the system at the end has to work – and one technology is not enough.

Gas has to stay to deal with the intermittency of the renewables. It’s important to work on the greening of gas. France believes by 2050 our gas will be renewable.

"There are so many technologies available. We shouldn’t bet our planet on one." She continued, "The good news is there is a lot of money flowing, and if we get the right regulatory conditions, it can happen."

‘There are 17 SDGs - not just the one relating to climate change’

Majid Jafar, Chief Executive Officer, Crescent Petroleum

Crescent Petroleum's, Majid Jafar, reminded developed countries that “there are 17 SDGs - not just the one relating to climate change”. He explained that rich countries are not affected by most of the SDGs. In his region, many of the other sustainable development goals are far more pressing. “With all respect, if you tell a refugee in a camp who’s just escaping war that the biggest security risk for him is climate change 30 years from now, it won’t resonate.”


‘Not only financial commitments’

Hans Vestberg, CEO Verizon


The launch of the Edison Alliance's 1 Billion Lives initiative provided context for a discussion on the challenge of addressing the fact that 47% of people worldwide are not using the internet and the cost of available broadband exceeds affordability targets in 50% of developed countries.

Verizon's Hans Vestberg spoke of his company's commitment to make financial investments, but he said this must go hand in hand with advocacy, skills, partnerships and training.

Ecocide? ‘We shouldn’t wait for the law’

Veronica Scotti, Chairperson, Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re Management

Veronica Scotti believes if and when ecocide law passes, it won't change how the insurance industry works. She said the industry is constantly evolving and adapting, and so we should be above the bar of any law.


"Our commitment is to be around for hundreds of years, so we need to understand systemic risks, like climate change and biodiversity. We shouldn't wait for a law, we all have to act and make choices", she argued.

"I place ecocide under the umbrella of what doing sustainable business means. We leave a footprint with everything we do, and we all have to raise the collective consciousness of our actions. We shouldn't stop with ecocide either, we have to go further and place a higher value on nature", she said.

‘Multiple datasets, multiple stakeholders to the benefit of multiple parties’

JoAnn Stonier, Chief Data Officer, Mastercard

JoAnn Stonier explained how organizations tend to use data to solve problems – but they often do it as a one-off. "We need to find ways to combine data sets while still protecting privacy. This is where an ecosystem comes in: multiple datasets, multiple stakeholders to the benefit of multiple parties at the same time. That's the larger challenge."


She used the example of the need to access pandemic information over the past year. Now as economies shift to opening up - imagine if we take multiple datasets and combine them so we understand at a much more granular level - issues like employment, economic information, transportation, small business owners... so that all of these players could plan systematically for changing policy and behaviour.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalSustainable DevelopmentBusinessStakeholder Capitalism
‘Get emerging trade tech to SMEs’‘A positive form of deglobalization’‘We need a new earthquake model for climate’‘A better balance for quality of life needs affordable energy’‘Commit to net-zero now’Adapt to climate change impacts’‘Reduce emissions financing’‘No avoiding the carbon neutral game’‘One technology is not enough’‘There are 17 SDGs - not just the one relating to climate change’‘Not only financial commitments’Ecocide? ‘We shouldn’t wait for the law’‘Multiple datasets, multiple stakeholders to the benefit of multiple parties’

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