A decade in review: Vote for the defining sustainability moment of the 2010s

As the 2010s draw to a close, edie has analysed the key moments and announcements that push sustainability and climate action from a niche activity to a global necessity. Cast your vote to decide which of the seven moments was most profound.

A decade in review: Vote for the defining sustainability moment of the 2010s

Vote using the function at the bottom of this piece to choose your defining moment of the 2010s

As decades go, the 2010s will be remembered as a global tipping point. Punctuated by continuous hottest years on records, numerous extreme weather events that left countries reeling and far too many cases of businesses neglecting their social licences to operate, the past 10 years have thrown indisputable evidence that climate change is happening now and that human and corporate actions have broken capitalism as we know it.

At a glance, this decade has been a tale of two halves. In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion allowed almost five million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 and the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 has seen the carmaker payout criminal charges in excess of £22bn.

These cases of businesses and sectors taking human and natural resources for granted were exacerbated by increased cases of ocean temperature rise, wildfires spreading across the world and record-breaking years for global temperature increase that is making extreme become the new norm.

But, as the planet hurtles towards a point of no return and near-irreversible ecological damage, a counter-narrative has emerged. It is one of acceptance; acceptance that we are running out of time to alleviate the worst impacts of climate change; acceptance that business as usual has contributed to the problems and must change to deliver the solutions; and acceptance that delivering two decades of unprecedented action to reduce emissions could still negate the worst. The past five years has sparked a reaction that has pushed us beyond a climate action tipping point.

Here, edie examines some of the defining moments that have seen sustainability become mainstream this decade. So, read them all and then vote for your most defining moment of the last 10 years.

1) The age of annual disclosure

Corporate sustainability was still largely a niche in the early 2010s, although the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices and CDP had been around for a decade at that point. However, externally, trust, or a lack of it, was beginning to impact the bottom-line. As the likes of California and the EU came out with ambitious new climate targets, some businesses began to realise that sustainability was becoming integral.

Companies that had, or were, embedding sustainability at the heart of their purpose and external frameworks were shaping the need to report on performances.  The UK Modern Slavery Act – combined with the 2014 EU Directive on non-financial reporting – attempted to pull back the curtains of business ethics, ensuring that transparency was now a pressing necessity. In response, more companies were creating annual sustainability reports that updated stakeholders on their corporate goals. By 2016, 92% of Fortune 500 companies responding to CDP’s surveys did so using the GHG Protocol. 

2) The Sustainable Development Goals

The first of two major announcements in 2015 was the rebrand of the eight Millennium Development Goals launched by the United Nations into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Global Goals gifted businesses and nations a blueprint to the future, and corporates, in particular, have used the 17 Goals and their 169 sub-targets to revamp existing sustainability strategies.

Three-quarters of British firms believe they have a role to play in furthering national and international progress against the SDGs, showing that the Global Goals have galvanised sustainability ambitions. However, recent research by KPMG found that companies are still struggling to achieve boardroom buy-in for action on the SDGs due to a lack of available metrics for tracking progress against their aims.

The SDGs are still viewed as a trillion-dollar opportunity for nations and the key to delivering them (each goal has a 2030 deadline at the latest) may be to harness the appetite and willingness of the corporate sector.

3) The Paris Agreement

It was also in 2015 that the emblematic Paris Climate Accord was signed, with governments and businesses alike pledging to limit global warming to 2C, at the very least. The global climate change deal washed out the bad taste of the Copenhagen climate summit six years prior and finally gave the global economy a threshold to work towards.

The global deal encapsulated and catapulted climate change into mainstream media, and many green groups felt that nations and businesses alike had been given an injection of ambition. The ripple effect of the global accord cannot be understated and it has paved the way for new business collectives (more on those shortly) that no longer set iterative targets. At long last, corporate sustainability was built on scientific and near-irrefutable data.

However, emissions levels in 2019 will be 4% higher than those in 2015, when the Paris agreement was signed. The latest round of global climate talks in Madrid failed to see nations agree to raise ambitions and have been labelled by many as a disaster, with the final texts from the summit failing to capture key levers to drive action.

The next iteration of the summit takes place in Glasgow in 2020 and the UK will need to use it’s own net-zero target to galvanise other nations to raise their own national ambitions and aim for the 1.5C pathway envisioned by the Paris Agreement.

4) Science-based targets, the IPCC and the net-zero movement

A plethora of business-based collaborations emerged this decade, but none have caught the attention of corporates quite like the rise of science-based targets.

The Paris Agreement may have been forged through policy, but the business appetite to assist in the low-carbon transition was nothing short of staggering. More than 730 companies have since committed to emissions reductions aligned to climate science through the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) – proof that the ambitions are now being turned into action.  

This may be a drop in the ocean, but initiatives like the SBTI and indeed the RE100 (which has created more than 146TWh of demand for renewable electricity annually, similar to the electricity consumption of Poland) are very welcome and very necessary.

The SBTi has undergone a softer revamp itself. In 2018, The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) celebrated its 30th birthday by releasing a Special Report warning that the world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels and that an increase to 2C would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The report predicts that if the world can become carbon-neutral by 2047, we will have a 66% chance of meeting the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement pledge.

Using the two pathways of the Paris Agreement as its differentiators, the report finally hit home the notion that limiting global warming to 2C would still lead to irreversible damage and the nations and businesses alike needed to increase their own decarbonisation ambitions.

The result was profound. The SBTi unveiled new measures designed to help more businesses align their emissions targets with the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious trajectory, 1.5C, while a major report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) instructed the Government to “set and vigorously pursue” a bold new climate change target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net-zero’ levels by 2050 – effectively meeting the UK’s global climate commitment – and replacing the current target of an 80% reduction against 1990 levels. This target has since been enshrined into law.

According to the SBTi, 76 firms are targeting emissions reductions in line with the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement – up from just four more than 18 months ago and net-zero emissions, and the controversial role of offsetting in reaching this corporate targets, is now very much the zeitgeist.

5) The rise of Greta Thunberg

From passionate speeches at major political summits to zero-carbon, multi-week voyages across the globe, Greta Thunberg has sparked an unprecedented level of demands, concerns and indeed a global movement on climate change.

What started off as a solo school climate strike in the summer of 2018 has blossomed into a global movement that had led to widescale calls for policy change that has not only informed the wider public of the climate emergency, but also pressured policymakers and businesses alike to respond through new legislation – namely net-zero in the UK – and commitments.

Also dubbed Fridays4Future, the movement was started by teenage activist Greta Thunberg and has garnered the support of millions of children and young people across the world, as well as high-level politicians and business leaders.

Thunberg has done what so many others have struggled to do – make climate change personal. We are now entering an era where future workforces, business leaders and consumers all actively demand change on climate action, giving businesses an impetus to deliver.

6) Electric vehicles go mainstream

In 2010, disruptive start-up Tesla’s initial public offering raised $226m, giving the firm the impetus to kickstart a transformation in a sector that was funnelling highly polluting vehicles into a notoriously hard to decarbonise sector. The year also saw traditional carmaker Nissan launch the world’s first mass-market EV, the Nissan LEAF.

In 2012 Tesla stopped production of its Roadster to concentrate on a new sedan named the Model S. The electric vehicle (EV) offered a drive range of up to 300 miles and began to dispel some myths and concerns over “range anxiety”.

In the years since, Tesla has expanded its scope to account for solar technology, while the Nissan LEAF became the first EV to surpass 400,000 sales. The two firms have ignited a transformation that has seen pretty much every major car developer turn to EVs, with some forging new partnerships with energy firms to harness the popularity of renewables. While more work needs to be done to overcome cost and charging barriers, this decade was the beginning of the end for polluting diesel and petrol vehicles with many countries since announcing policies to eventually ban new sales of the vehicles.

7) The Blue Planet effect

It would be impossible to look back at a decade of action without focusing in on plastics in the same way consumers have.

The aftermath of BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series sparked an unprecedented public outcry against single-use plastics, where businesses were firmly in the crosshairs.  A so-called “Attenborough effect” following the distressing imagery of birds and whales alike swallowing plastic has led to a 53% decline in single-use plastic use amongst consumers in 12 months.

In the private sector, hundreds of companies have signed up to public pledges coordinated by the likes of WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics for good.

The movement has been largely delivered through public outcry, with consumers claiming they will refuse to purchase from companies that aren’t taking action on plastics; this awareness is no starting to trickle into other issues such as palm oil and deforestation-free products.

As this article proves, this was a decade filled to the brim with noteworthy sustainability movements, and that’s without mentioning the likes of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, energy storage innovations and the nations that have successfully decoupled emissions from economic growth.

But what was your defining sustainability moment of the last decade? Cast your vote below.



Kickstart a new decade of action at the Sustainability Leaders Forum

During the two-day Sustainability Leaders Forum at London’s Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February 2020, some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability will gather to discuss how businesses can deliver an emergency response to issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO, plus directors and senior managers from Pret-A-Manger, Interface, Vattenfall, Aviva, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/

Matt Mace

Comments (1)

  1. Jacqueline Brown says:

    I think the incredible impact of Greta Thunberg’s dedication to educating the world on the climate crisis and the student strikes has really started to wake the world up to the dire situation we are already in.

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