Speaking at BusinessGreen's Net Zero Festival, the former Unilever CEO emphasised business community's increasingly important role in pushing policymakers towards more ambitious climate action
In an unsteady political landscape businesses have an increasingly important advocacy role to push policymakers towards more ambitious climate action, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman said yesterday as he brought the first day of the world's first Net Zero Festival to a close.
Polman, whose appearance at the inaugural event came just hours after the first Presidential debate of the 2020 US election, lamented a dearth of global governance and politcal leadership on ambitious climate action, and argued it was therefore increasingly up to businesse to "de-risk the political process" in order to spur progress towards net zero.
"Advocacy is being dialled up in the private sector," said Polman, a leading figure in business sustainability who since leaving the consumer goods giant has co-founded the corporate responsibilty collective Imagine. "You've seen that in many different instances just since Covid, and that will continue. I hope that, with a collective effort from the other interested parties that can start to de-risk the political process."
Yet the Dutch businessman, who is credited with steering Unilever industry-leading sustainability approach, offered a broadly optimistic view of the future in a rousing conversation that capped off a jam packed day of events focused on the topic of net zero leadership. Speaking to Festival anchor Gavin Esler from Athens. Polman mused that technological innovation and financial markets increasingly sensitive to climate risk were set to combine with growing numbers of citizens and CEOs clamouring for climate action to push governments towards embracing net zero and sustainability.
"Business is starting to move," he said, before directly referencing Tuesday's US Presidential debate between Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden. "The real challenge is the lack of global governance and the abysmal local governance and abdication of responsibilities when it comes to attacking these major issues that we face. The debate we saw on television yesterday is a sad symbol of that."
Policymakers have stalled for so long to address climate issues that the economics are now tilted in favour of climate action, he said, estimating that climate change costs the world over $5tn a year.
Even so, he argued that given the scale of the challenge and opportunities for green businesses ahead it was "too late to be a pessimist".
Polman, who last year co-founded Imagine - which works to mobilise business to act on climate change and inequality - said he was encouraged by the flurry of calls for a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis in recent months, estimating that companies representing $25tn of the global economy had now backed climate action.
"The private sector, civil society, financial markets will increasingly speak out louder, and the myth you can't have economic growth if you also attack climate change has been turned upside down," he said. "If you want economic growth, you have to attack climate change."
As governments look to revitalise their economies in the wake of the crisis, it is critical that governments do not follow the same path as they did after the financial crisis of 2008, Polman emphasised, when a mere two per cent of allocated stimulus was green. "It is clear that we missed a huge opportunity," he said. "Governments spent a lot of money, but they spent it on banks. They felt banks were too big to fail, but people were too small to matter."
Policymakers this time around need to step up their efforts and prepare to unlock significantly more investment in green initiatives, Polman said, while also demonstrating commitment to climate by submitting updated climate targets - or Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) in UN jargon - on schedule before the end of the year.
"If the major countries, like the US, Brazil, Turkey, Russia and China - which has now made a commitment to 200 - if they don't set a higher ambitions, then it becomes a challenge," he emphasised. "Businesses need a framework, businesses need policies that are right."
And, echoing a sentiment echoed by earlier attendees to the Net Zero Festival, including Green Party MP Carline Lucas, Polman said steering a net zero transition required a reappraisal of GDP as the standard measure of wellbeing of a country. The concept of capital must be expanded to include social and environmental metrics, he said: "If we measure what we treasure, then capitalism is fine."
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