Perspectives on the corporate sustainability challenge

Summit speakers

Speakers and panellists (clockwise from top left)

  • Dr. Márcia Balisciano, Chair, UN Global Compact Network UK and Global Head of Corporate Responsibility, RELX (MB)
  • Karen Basiye, Head of Sustainable Business and Social Impact, Safaricom (KB)
  • Steve Martineau, UNFCCC COP26 High Level Climate Action Champions Lead for Mobile and ICT (SM)
  • Ingrid Reumert, VP, Global Communications, Sustainability & Public Affairs, Velux (IR)
  • Anna Hamnö Wickman, Group Head of Sustainability, Bonava (AHW)

What has been the corporate sector’s biggest achievement in terms of action on climate change? 

MB: Fifteen years ago, the biggest achievement on climate change occurred when business began calculating its environmental impact in alignment with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol; ten years ago, it was putting that data in the public domain and reporting it through initiatives like CDP; five years ago, it was setting public targets.  

These all remain foundational, but the prize today includes ensuring carbon targets align with, and are approved by, the Science Based Targets initiative and realising the commitments inherent in the Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). The Paris Agreement was catalysing: companies increasingly understand they need to act, alongside states, for a world below 1.5°C by 2050.

KB: For me, the biggest achievements have been:

  • Integrating climate in business and sustainability strategies
  • Transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency production/usage
  • Developing products and services that help customers to be climate neutral or resilient

SM: The corporate sectors I know best – mobile and ICT – have demonstrated that growth can be achieved without corresponding increases in emissions. The International Energy Agency, for example, reports how internet traffic has grown to be 11 times what it was in 2010, and yet data centre electricity usage has increased only 3%. This is an amazing efficiency achievement and with the use of renewables these operations are being decarbonised.

IR: The biggest achievements are where corporates have engaged in ambitious and science-based CO2 reductions which not only include their own direct emissions but also their value chains (Scope 3 emissions). In addition, the ability of corporates to develop strong and compelling communication around their commitments and to gather across industries in common pledges which can set the example for others to follow. 

AHW: In general: increased transparency and focus on downstream impact, such as energy performance for the use of sold products.

What are the top three challenges in corporate sustainability right now?

MB: First, we need to deal with the immediate challenge of Covid-19, ensuring the well-being of our people, customers and communities and the commercial health of business while staying the course on our sustainability commitments. 

Second, we need to ‘build back better’ in pro-climate ways – we need to revitalise business in economies around the world using innovative approaches and renewable resources that don’t return us to an unsustainable ‘old normal’. 

Third, we need to put the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of business strategy – each business may have aspects of their products or services that align with the SDGs, but they should identify the SDGs where they can have the biggest positive impact and scale there.  

KB: Climate change and the risks and opportunities associated with climate; rapidly growing inequality – this could be between the executive and their staff, gender, poor and the rich; and the transition to green growth – caused by inconsistent policies, expensive technology etc.

SM: First, we have to invest in building a healthier, more resilient and more secure future that minimises and protects us from shocks like Covid-19 and the impacts of climate change. The Race To Zero and COP26 provide opportunities to recover in a way that sets us on this necessary pathway, however, in the run up to COP26, we have to ensure that we invest in the future, not just the easy solutions, in our COVID-19 recovery. 

Second, there is a need to look beyond our own back yard – everything is connected, and the corporate world must look at its whole value chain to make changes. 

Third, translating commitments into reality – excellent execution of strategy is always the toughest challenge.

IR: First, dare to set stretched 2030 targets within climate – but also link to other sustainability challenges like biodiversity, the circular economy etc. 

Second, aligning with a 1.5°C degree scenario in practice. A huge transformation is needed in our operations and not least our value chain (Scope 3 emissions).

Third, using our advocacy skills to get governments to outline ambitious targets – both for climate, biodiversity etc – and for specific sectors.

AHW: A general challenge is that policy and regulatory development is hard to predict. The challenges in the construction and home building industry, in particular, are: to manage and control complicated supply chains; to drastically improve efficiency in the production phase, both when it comes to climate impact and increased circularity; and to not overlook the climate effects of change of land-use.

How do you stay inspired/motivated to tackle climate change in your work?

MB: Because RELX is an information, data, analytics and events company, I have the great pleasure of working with many brilliant colleagues across our business that are furthering scientific knowledge on climate change, providing insight on climate risks, carbon markets, and environmental law, and convening climate leaders at shows such as our World Future Energy Summit. 

They inspire me, as do important networks like the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) which brings business and other stakeholders together around ten principles, including the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies. UNGC initiatives like Business Ambition for 1.5°C encourages business to step up and set science-based carbon targets.

SM: There are so many outstanding, motivated people working with us to achieve a resilient, net zero economy, I don’t have to look far to find inspiration and motivation from others.

IR: Because all life on earth depends upon our actions within the next 10 to 20 years to reverse climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Plus, when setting the bar high for climate and nature action, it is fascinating to experience the overwhelming response from our own employees and from other companies, the media, influencers etc. It makes me believe we are truly making a difference.

AHW: It’s not difficult, so much is happening and climate awareness in general is rising rapidly.

What makes you optimistic about the corporate sector’s ability to help build back better? 

MB: Reversing climate change is no longer the interest of the few, it is the imperative of the many. Business joins governments, investors, employees, customers, scientists and other members of the academy, youth, NGOs and civil society representatives, among others, in recognising that redressing climate change is humankind’s greatest challenge. I’m optimistic about the collective will to build back better, capitalising on cultural change wrought by the pandemic – like deploying technology to connect more of us, more frequently, from farther afield.  

KB: We believe that business is the most formidable force in driving change and transformation in society – from finding business solutions to society’s most pressing challenges to creating economic opportunities through jobs. The corporate sector has adapted quickly to Covid-19 disruptions and embraced the changes that have come with it faster than any other entity in the society.

SM: The economics of renewable energy and the shift to zero emissions are so compelling, and there is so much willingness from consumers and employees to support brands that do the right thing. Investors understand the opportunities presented by decarbonisation, and the growing risks posed by climate change, and are increasingly putting money into those companies. But we need more, and faster.

IR: That more companies make ambitious sustainability commitments – even during the current Covid-19 crisis. At the same time, we can see citizens becoming increasingly aware of a number of sustainability issues, like climate change, waste, structural racism or sexism etc.

AHW: That the financial sector is now also driving the demand, both when it comes to transparency and ambitious targets.

What are your top recommendations for businesses looking to align with a net zero economy? 

MB: If businesses want to align with net zero, among the things they must do are: 

  • Set science-based targets
  • Report on progress publicly and disclose through indices like CDP and frameworks like TCFD (which encourages scenario planning to understand what our energy mix and carbon performance will look like under different future conditions)
  • Mobilise our sectors, working pre-competitively to raise our aggregate environmental performance
  • Intercede with government
  • Advocate in our local and global communities for all to do their part

KB: My recommendations are:

  • Measure your carbon footprint – to know your status
  • Set science-based targets 
  • Establish carbon reduction projects – clean and renewable energy, clean cities, clean transport
  • Focus and invest in long term sustainability gains balanced with current corporate needs – e.g. energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon offsets

SM: Get on board with #RaceToZero – set a net zero goal for the 2040s, make a plan, and stick to it. The alternative is to wait until you’re pushed by your customers, your investors, your employees, or government – and isn’t it better to lead than to be led?

IR: I recommend that businesses:

  • Set the bar high – all stakeholders in society should play their part towards a more sustainable future, and focus on Scope 3 emissions targets too. 
  • Take responsibility for historical carbon emissions as well, since we need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in order to become a carbon negative society after 2050. 
  • Base ambitions on science and accredited methods, so we are sure we are heading in the right direction and can follow track on progress.

AHW: To allocate time and resources to truly map where and how the business causes climate impact and how the business model, or parts of it, can improve in order to be able to set targets that really lead the way for the business to become part of the solution, instead of being one of the problems.

Is the current view of business and economic success compatible with a net zero future? 

MB: The rise of ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria in assessing and valuing the true performance and future potential of business by investors and other stakeholders bodes well for a net zero future. The ‘E’ has primacy alongside the ‘S’ and ‘G’. 

Financial analysts, among others, can see that a sustainable business – one that will be there for the long haul – is one that understands and minimises its environmental risks and capitalises on its environmental opportunities. So, the call for net zero will only grow louder – climate, importantly, is now mainstream.  

KB: Most businesses have already aligned their business ambitions and growth strategies with net zero targets. Some of the growth strategies adopted that support net zero include circular economy, which ensure that raw materials, components and products do not lose their value and that renewable energy sources are used, with systems thinking at the core of decision making.

SM: Climate action and ambition is growing every day, as is evident from the Race To Zero's speedy growth. But it needs to keep growing and accelerating in order to fully decarbonize the economy by 2050. 

Businesses and the economy can, and must, grow in a net zero future. We must invest in the projects and businesses that make the economy more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and those that enable decarbonisation. That is where the new jobs are, and how we protect our businesses and economies from today’s consequences and tomorrow’s risks from a warmer world. 

IR: We need a large green transformation across all sectors, so in the future we need to consume, travel, work etc. in a different way. I believe that human progress and creativity can go hand in hand with a net zero future.  

AHW: Yes, or at least it is starting to become obvious that there will not be much future business nor economic success that is compatible with a business as usual approach.

Carbon Trust Corporate Sustainability Summit 2020 overview