Sustainability 2.0: Welcome to a decade of deliverance
The 2010s laid bare the severe climate issues facing the world and the shrinking timeframes to fix them. Combatting climate change is a daunting task, but corporate ambitions and societal expectations have created a platform to ignite a decade of deliverance towards a decarbonised, closed-loop planet.
Punctuated by continuous hottest years on records, numerous extreme weather events and uncontrollable wildfires, the last few years have delivered indisputable evidence that climate change is happening and that human and corporate actions have broken capitalism as we know it. From BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion to the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, the decade was littered with cases of businesses and sectors taking human and natural resources for granted.
But, as the planet hurtles towards a point of no return and near-irreversible ecological damage, a counter-narrative has emerged. In 2019 alone, Greta Thunberg’s solo school strikes evolved into an unstoppable movement of climate strikes; the likes of David Attenborough, Mark Carney and Leonardo DiCaprio have morphed into unofficial spokespeople for the planet; cities and nations alike have declared climate emergencies and introduced net-zero targets, and Extinction Rebellion has disrupted cities to hammer home the importance that change is a necessity.
The messages are clear, and the end goals have been spelt out. In order to reach the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, global emissions need to be halved by 2030, with annual emission reductions of 7.6% needed every year to reach the 1.5C target. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also have a 2030 timeframe, giving nations 10 years to transform entire economies to capture benefits and prosperity for citizens everywhere.
It is a decade of deliverance, and one where the future society will look back at humanity today and either hail us as the heroes or label us the antagonists of a wounded and irreparable planet. It’s an unnerving thought, but there are many reasons to be cheerful.
Welcome to peak meat
When people form long queues outside of a high-street shop, it’s usually for the launch of the latest smartphone, but the people queuing late last night outside of Greggs in Newcastle were waiting for something a bit more planet considerate.
Greggs has this week launched its Vegan Steak Bake (much to the chagrin of Piers Morgan) to follow on from the roaring success of its Vegan Sausage Roll last year. The baker is amongst the many businesses attempting to gain a meat-free slice of the economic windfall by switching to plant-based alternatives.
According to The Vegan Society, the number of people identifying as vegan in the UK has increased by 350% since 2008. This shift in demand for plant-based food has led to a boom in the alternative proteins market, with Coller Capital’s FAIRR Initiative estimating that the global market for alternative plant-based proteins could expand at an annual rate of 8.29% in the next three years and reach $5.2bn by 2020.
Oxford University has dubbed veganism as the “single biggest way” for a person to reduce their negative impact on the planet. GHG emissions from the livestock sector is estimated to account for 15% of the global total. This figure is set to account for 80% of the planet’s carbon budget by 2050 as the global population grows to reach 10 billion people.
Moreover, producing meat and dairy products is an extremely water-intense process. The IME claims that producing 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, compared to around 500-4,000 litres of water for 1kg of wheat.
Personal lifestyles and societal norms are considered one of the hardest things to change, especially from a business perspective, yet the economy is already shaping up to reduce the amount of meat and dairy in diets.
Welcome to flygskam
The International Air Transport Association (Iata), recently warned that “flight-shaming” could limit industry growth. Renowned public figures including Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough have led the growing calls that individuals and businesses need to limit flights to combat climate change. Known as “flygskam” in Swedish, the idea is still at a grassroots level across Europe, but is beginning to gain momentum. In fact, a survey from UBS has found that 20% of the public has reduced the number of flights they take because of climate impacts.
It is another example of public demands shaping corporate strategies. EasyJet was the latest airline to turn to offsets to deliver net-zero flights. Australian airline group Qantas will invest $50m in sustainable fuel over the next decade and offset growth in emissions from international and domestic flights in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of British Airways (BA), became the first airline group to commit to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as BA also announced plans to offset all domestic passenger flight emissions this year.
The fact that public demand can lead to such ambitious sustainability strategies in a sector that is notoriously difficult to decarbonise will be a boost for sustainability professionals across all sectors, who can wield public opinions as a way for a business to act much more seriously on net-zero carbon strategies.
Welcome to the storytellers
With plastics and net-zero both acting as zeitgeists last year, corporates have had to respond to consumer questions about sustainability approaches. In the social media era, where questions can be asked at the touch of a button and answered instantaneously, corporates have the opportunity to redefine “sex sells” into “green sells”.
Ikea and Unilever are just two companies that have reaped huge economic windfalls by prioritising sustainability, and both have strong communications, marketing and vocal board-level advocates that champion sustainability to combat climate change.
While an increased interest in corporate sustainability will inevitably lead to increased greenwash, the true sustainability leaders will be those that can articulate their business impact on supply chain workers, local communities and environmental regeneration through compelling stories and disclosed data that showcase how corporates are evolving beyond doing “less bad”.
Welcome to coal-free countries and corporates
Britain’s record for coal-free electricity generation was broken numerous times throughout the course of the year. Almost 92 consecutive hours of coal-free generation were recorded over the long Easter weekend in April. Then, on 8 May, National Grid announced that the UK had completed its first week of coal-free generation since before the industrial revolution. That record was broken again in later May with almost two weeks without coal generation recorded.
In total, there were 600 hours of coal-free generation in Britain during May. During the course of 2019, 48.5% of electricity consumed in Britain was generated through zero-carbon methods such as wind, solar and nuclear - compared to 43% for fossil fuels.
The UK is charging ahead with a plan to phase-out coal-fired power plants by 2025 and in turn, has helped spur the renewables market. As countries and nations alike continue to actively request renewable energy, the cost barriers once associated with the technology will continue to fall at a record pace – making the sustainability professionals quest for boardroom buy-in that much easier.
The Climate Group has received more than double the number of corporate signatories first expected to its RE100 scheme, with the average target date for 100% renewables now standing at 2028, meaning that leading businesses could be fossil-fuel-free before the curtain comes down on the 2020s.
Welcome to new capitalism
The World Economic Forum is using its Davos event this month to discuss stakeholder capitalism and is planning on releasing a new manifesto outlining how companies should pay fair taxes, implement a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and uphold human rights. In short, the business license to operate will change over the next decade.
While sustainability professionals may struggle articulating what this could mean to current business practices, they can use the confirmation that the Bank of England plans to introduce a mandatory and uniform climate risk test for major banks and insurers in 2021 as a reason for businesses to bulk up sustainability strategies.
Leading experts believe that it is "highly likely" that disclosing climate-related data to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD's) will become mandatory and have called on business professionals to start collecting and mapping data now.
Efforts to disclose climate-related data aligned to the TCFD's recommendations have increased by more than 50%, but concerns remain that companies aren't providing enough information to inform the investor community.
By aligning data disclosure with investor needs, businesses can create a new model of capitalism, one that focuses less on consumerism and more on servitisation and closing the loop while decarbonising across the globe.
So, with a decade to reach the SDGs and halve peak emissions sustainability professionals should feel invigorated that most markets are transforming and transitioning to a low-carbon future. Now is the time to deliver this transformation.Matt Mace