This year’s Climate Week NYC looked vastly different from previous years. Instead of gathering in person in a bustling city, we gathered virtually from our own homes and offices from around the world. And while we may have missed out on the usual impromptu colleague introductions and informal chats over coffee, this virtual format enabled a broader, more global discussion, welcoming more international representation all while cutting down on the carbon footprint of bringing everyone together. COVID-19 redefined this year’s format, just as it has catalyzed new ways of working and doing business.
It’s no surprise that the pandemic and other major events of 2020 played prominently into this year’s discussions, because leaders worldwide have learned valuable lessons about how they must respond to short-term emergency events and how they can apply what they’ve learned to long-term risk.
COVID-19 and the events of 2020—from social unrest to extreme weather events—have codified sustainability as a priority on the executive agenda.
And in a surprising but very welcome announcement at the UN General Assembly, China’s president Xi Jinping pledged that the country will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. As the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, this is a critical pledge for the planet.
As this year’s sponsor of the Hub Live, ENGIE Impact had the pleasure of hosting two executive roundtable sessions for participants in Asia and Europe and also the Americas. Over 30 senior executives from some of the world’s most influential brands and governments gathered to collaborate on how organizations can frame their sustainability initiatives, rethink strategies, and update their business case to ensure climate action stays at the top of executive agendas.
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The conversations throughout the week made one point abundantly clear: a sustainability agenda is a resilient agenda. Our own upcoming report—based on a survey of more than 200 executives—found that 75% of executives believe that successful execution of a sustainability strategy will provide a competitive advantage, but only 30% feel they are successfully doing so today. Now how do we continue to translate ambition into action? Here are a few of my key takeaways:
Sustainability success is not easy. This is a major transformation and requires a cultural shift within the organization. When ENGIE Impact examined why some organizations are more successful than others at implementing a sustainability strategy, we found that those companies were better at embracing the agenda at the C-level, building a business case, and engaging their suppliers.
Sustainability transformation must be rooted in the company culture. It must be driven, communicated, and championed from the executive level, but the entire company should feel a sense of ownership for it to succeed. Companies with early success have invested in tools to measure emissions and understand risks, engaged with stakeholders, enacted change across the organization, and are willing to take chances to innovate.
Most importantly, organizations must work to realign capital investments to Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) and bring CFOs and the greater finance organization to the table to deploy it the correct way. This year, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), an investor group managing more than $16 trillion, launched “The Net Zero Investment Framework,” to give investors practical guidance on how to decarbonize portfolios and boost investments in solutions to climate change.
We’ve heard this frequently over the last few months: employees, customers and the financial community are increasingly calling for companies to show action on sustainability. Expectations for companies to prioritize people, communities, and the environment are growing. A survey conducted earlier this year by Glassdoor found that 75% of employees ages 18-34 expect their employer to take a stand on important issues, including climate change – more than any other group.
A deliberate and accelerated sustainability strategy—championed by the C-level—empowers employees and connects them to their environment and communities in a meaningful way. Sustainability gives way to healthier, happier communities including job creation, improved air and water quality, and better health.
Over the next decade, organizations must work to reframe their KPIs to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In this way, businesses are working alongside governments and communities to achieve common targets, allowing for greater accountability and transparency while improving the overall health and prosperity of communities and the environment.
This year, we saw great momentum on commitments to carbon neutrality. However, to truly be successful in combating climate change and achieving our collective need to reach 1.5 degrees, we must transition from aiming for neutrality to regenerative. This is defined as a process that restores, renews, or revitalizes an organization’s own sources of energy or materials and integrates business needs with the integrity of nature. This is encouraging news that demonstrates how sustainability is becoming strategically integrated not only into a company’s operations but extending into its products and services in a way that benefits communities. And some early adopters have made great strides here.
To accelerate sustainability transformation to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, we need the businesses who are leading on climate action—with both solutions and capital—to be the “brain trust” for organizations who are further behind. This involves a different mindset because most organizations—especially businesses—are built to be more competitive rather than collaborative. But when it comes to climate action, we need to rethink this mindset and not work in ‘city’ or ‘business’ silos.
It’s time for cities and businesses and even internal departments to work together as a problem-solving group. Global partnerships and cross-dimensional groups can better predict and solve climate-related issues before they happen, getting us head of the next ‘big thing.’
Here are some examples of different collaborations and models happening in the market:
As we progress further into the Climate Decade, more partnerships and new operating standards will emerge, generating more pressure among peer organizations and across sectors that will accelerate sustainability transformation.
Climate Week NYC 2020 was once again an inspiring and encouraging event. In 2019, public and private leaders who gathered for the event agreed that we needed more deliberate and accelerated momentum from sustainability strategies to actions to respond to climate change. This year, the conversations instantly focused on sharing how hard the real work is of translating intentions into reality. It was evident, from the examples above and others, that organizations have been really working over the last 12 months on putting ambition into action. They came to the table this year with feedback engrained in real experience and will be critical to guiding organizations that are further behind through their challenges.
As His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales remarked in his opening address, “Without swift and immediate action, at an unprecedented pace and scale, we will miss the window of opportunity to reset for a green recovery and a more sustainable and inclusive future.”
COVID-19 has shown us that governments and businesses can respond quickly to a crisis. Now we have a great opportunity to redefine our planet’s future by setting more ambitious sustainability goals and shortening the timeframe in which we deliver on those commitments. Climate Week NYC 2020 was a moment to come together and reassess the current state of sustainability in the Climate Decade. And while the events of 2020 so far have been unarming and unexpected, it has only accelerated more the need for deliberate action against climate change.
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