European business leaders ‘least optimistic’ about sustainable growth opportunities

Less than a quarter of business leaders across Europe are optimistic about turning sustainability challenges such as water scarcity and fossil fuel divestment into new business opportunities, according to a new report from UN Global Compact.

Working with DNV GL and Monday Morning Global Institute, UN Global Compact surveyed 6,000 business leaders and 200 experts around the world. The resulting Global Opportunity Report, released today (20 January), identifies and ranks 15 sustainability ‘opportunities’ according to interest level and expected impact.

But when it comes to realising these potential opportunities, just (23%) of European business leaders are confident in the benefits to society and benefits to business they would bring. This is far behind the most confident nation of China (48%) and emerging economies such as India (44%) and South America (37%).

UN Global Compact executive director Georg Kell says the report does, however, paint a positive picture globally; with a demonstrative increase in business confidence when it comes to tackling key sustainability challenges such as extreme weather, unsustainable urbanisation and lack of fresh water. 

“Businesses across the planet are not shying away from global risks such as climate change, and increasingly recognise the positive benefits of seizing the related opportunities,” said Kell. “The report confirms that there has been a turning point, where private sectors are now a critical driver of sustainable development with emerging economies in the front seat.”

Water scarcity

Leaders are most confident in their countries’ ability to seize opportunities to address water scarcity, with 37% seeing developments in water-efficient agriculture as being the most beneficial for society.

DNV GL group chief executive Henrik O. Madsen added: “I believe one of the clearest signals in the survey is the confidence we see in our ability to address water scarcity. This finding also makes me optimistic that we’ll meet a global development goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

Opportunities related to the movement from fossil fuels towards renewables are also seen as having the most potential benefits. Green consumer choices were voted the most-favoured opportunity in the survey, including innovations to change consumer behaviour, increased uptake of renewable energy in households and the growing selection of consumer products made with the use of renewables.

Public sector respondents are consistently less optimistic than the private sector on how they can pursue these opportunities, despite being expected to play an important role in realising many of the regulated ones.

Regulatory support

Monday Morning Global Institute founder Erik Rasmussen said: “The strong interest in pursuing sustainable business opportunities in the private sector is very positive. “Yet, the governmental sector seems to be more reluctant and not seeing the same opportunities.

“This is a pity. Governments can play an important role by issuing regulations that support both sustainability and business ventures. Business and governments must share visions and initiatives.”

One interesting conclusion drawn from the report is that the younger generation – business leaders under 30 – are generally more optimistic than the older; seeing regulated energy transition and smart water regulation as having the most potential out of the sustainability issues.

“I believe that one of the most interesting findings in the report is how young leaders under 30 years of age, people in emerging economies and also women embrace regulation as a strong tool for sustainable change,” added Madsen from DNV GL. “It is very likely that the decision-makers of tomorrow will be found in these groups, and it gives us hope that we can see a stronger collaboration between the private and the public sector in the future.”

Lucinda Dann

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