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Monday August 24 General

Keep the Sustainability Agenda Progressing in Times of Uncertainty

By Mathias Lelievre, CEO of ENGIE Impact

Nearly a year ago at Climate Week NYC 2019, the most memorable call to action was from Helen Clarkson, CEO at the Climate Group. Helen proclaimed the 2020s “The Climate Decade,” in which organizations, cities and governments around the world should pledge to turn discussion into real action, and accelerate progress toward the commitments of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, to stay on course, we need to see the carbon emissions curve flatten and begin to decrease by the end of the decade.

We entered 2020 with undeniable positive momentum. Influential companies like Microsoft and Delta made bold carbon reduction commitments. And mammoth finance influencer Blackrock announced to its portfolio companies that sustainability would be more integral to the way the company “manages risk, constructs portfolios, designs products, and engages with companies.”

Then, the unexpected happened. Over the course of a few months, the world as we knew it transformed. From a global pandemic shutting down economies to social unrest and discontentment, the world’s momentum seemed to stall. Now, businesses, governments and communities are grappling with what this ‘new normal’ means, even as the great threat of climate change still looms ahead.

Although 2020 has been challenging so far, events have also revealed the following key lessons which can and must be applied to tackling the next nine years of “The Decade to Deliver.”

The pandemic has changed corporate agendas, but for many it has reconfirmed or even accelerated their sustainability strategies.

Lockdowns across cities and countries worldwide have shifted priorities from the economy to the health and safety of people. It has come with a price, however. Estimates so far indicate the virus could trim global economic growth by up to 6% this year. And if we had faced a similar situation several years ago, it’s reasonable to assume that corporations would have relegated climate action to the back burner. However, we have continued to hear about leading companies’ bold sustainability announcements and actions. Even in the midst of COVID-19, Intel, Barclays, Chanel,Nordstrom, Hello Fresh and General Mills all announced bold sustainability commitments to achieve over the coming years.  

These companies know that by announcing their goals, they will be held accountable – stakeholders will expect real action. I’m also struck by how these commitments have changed from just a few years ago;

  • The volume of corporations reporting carbon reduction targets is increasing
  • The intensity of those commitments is rising
  • The time horizon of commitments is shrinking
  • The scope of these targets is expanding

To confirm this momentum, ENGIE Impact recently hosted a virtual panel of over 100 global sustainability leaders from Danone, STMicroelectronics and Atlassian, who confirmed that sustainability commitments are progressing in spite of COVID-19. And beyond confirming its progression, the majority of leaders stated that these commitments are more imperative than ever. At ENGIE Impact, I’m proud to share that we’ve also recently announced our sustainability goals. Over the next three years, we’re committing to be carbon negative, balance our water use internationally, and achieve zero waste. We will also share our approach and our progress with our stakeholders, as this is an ongoing journey.  

COVID-19 revealed some weaknesses in our resilience, and we must leverage partnerships to rebuild stronger.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed tremendous systemic weaknesses, but clear solutions have also emerged. Successful companies and governments used science and technology to model and test the spread of the virus. Those insights were then used to quickly shift operations, and form coalitions to implement necessary measures. These are the same levers that must be employed to better plan and execute on measures that build climate resilience.

Already we’re seeing positive indicators that the world will rally through broad coalitions to recover sustainably and strengthen its resilience against future climate crises.

  • In July, nine major multinational corporates, including Danone, Microsoft, Unilever and others, announced Transform to Net-Zero.
  • Amazon and We Mean Business recently announced a partnership to establish the world’s most comprehensive effort to drive companies to adopt more ambitious carbon emission reduction goals. 
  • The European Green Deal was introduced in December 2019 as a roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050.

The pandemic has proved that businesses can develop partnerships and coordinate action between countries, companies and sectors that accelerate broad-scale change. We’re now seeing this tactic applied to climate change; companies are increasingly acknowledging the necessity of working together in order to make a real impact on the environment.

Stakeholders will demand more from corporations.

Whether its tackling climate change or working toward creating a more equitable society, stakeholders expect brands to act authentically in ways we’ve not seen before. The effects of COVID-19 mirror what we might expect to see as a consequence of climate change, giving us a real demonstration of how global cataclysmic events pose a threat to our health, economy, way of life and even our survival.

This pandemic has revealed a significant shift in consumer expectations. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, consumers overwhelmingly have expected brands to shift products they produce, protect their employees, partner with government and keep the public informed.

There quickly emerged a correlation between brands with corporate responsibility programs and their resilience to COVID-19. Microsoft – with a long track record of deep carbon pricing – was the first major U.S.-based company to move their employees remote, shifting nearly 90 percent of their workforce to work from home in just one week and paying hourly workers full wages for reduced hours. 

Leaders must capitalize on pivotal moments to implement transformative changes that build resilience and satisfy stakeholders.

Stringent stakeholder expectations present companies with a unique opportunity to fulfill their brand promise. Corporate leaders should take this moment to think deeply about their purpose and legacy in order to build a plan that supports the communities they serve.

We must challenge ourselves and each other this Climate Week NYC.

Although the 2020s have got off to a rough start, the imperative to flatten the carbon curve this decade has not changed. As we see governments, businesses and institutions continue to commit to short term action, let’s appreciate that the COVID-19 crisis is also an early warning of the looming global climate crisis. The consequences will be much more severe. However, the tools to help us with both economic recovery and climate action are already available, such as renewable energy, electric mobility, energy efficiency, and others. We should focus on these investments that will enable significant economic and environmental benefits over the long term.

Climate Week NYC presents a significant opportunity in this tough year to bring together sustainability leaders from around the world to take collective action and reinforce their commitments to tackle the world’s most imminent challenge.

This event cannot be contained to words alone. I encourage leaders to come prepared to walk away after the event with focused, deliberate, and near-term actions. We must challenge one another to present actionable ideas on how we can deliver on the Climate Decade.

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