Lord Deben on how sustainability leaders can balance ‘optimism and apocalypse’

EXCLUSIVE: After collecting the Lifetime Achievement Award at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards 2022, Lord Deben issued a rallying cry for all in the sustainability space to avoid misery and embrace optimism, in a speech now made publicly available for the first time.

Deben was presented with the Award at a glittering ceremony in London on 30 March, in which edie presented two dozen awards to celebrate the people, projects and partnerships that are transforming business, for good.

The Lifetime Achievement Award recognises the fundamental role Deben has played in shaping the UK’s sustainability space for more than three decades. Deben was appointed Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in July 1989 and continued to hold Cabinet positions relating to the environment until June 1997. He remains the UK’s longest-serving Secretary of State for the Environment. During Deben’s tenure, the UK made a string of major changes to green policy, including the introduction and subsequent update of the Environmental Protection Act.

After leaving his Ministerial posts, Deben helped to set up London-based sustainability consultancy Sancroft, where he remains in his position as chair. He subsequently stood down as an MP in 2010 and was appointed to the House of Lords. In addition to his role at Sancroft, Deben is widely known as the chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC). Per CCC rules, he will be stepping down from that post later this year.

In taking home edie’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Deben joins three previous winners – former Unilever chief executive Paul Polman; Forum for the Future Founder Jonathon Porritt and Dame Polly Courtice, the former director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

Addressing the audience at edie’s Awards ceremony, Deben said: “May I say that I’m hugely honoured because I do think that the one way we can all be optimistic is just to look back at where we started. When I started, I was thought to be a bit peculiar. I remember how one’s colleagues always used to say, ‘well, John’s always [going] on about [sustainability]. It’s awfully difficult, but we ought to let him have that.’

“And then, gradually, you become mainstream…. That’s the change we’ve had, and it’s a hugely important change. I do believe that the way in which this evening has been introduced is exactly right – we need to be optimistic, but not complacent.

“We do need to be optimistic to let people understand that the battle for sustainability and the battle against climate change is, actually, not a pessimistic thing at all. It is to create a better world. It will be a cleaner, greener and kinder world – not just a world that has rid itself of the terrible threat that climate change presents.

“I think this is hugely important. If we don’t give people the optimism, they’ll give up.

“I don’t want misery. I want people to have two words in their minds constantly: Optimism because we can win, and apocalypse, because that’s what happens if we don’t win.  We need to keep those two together.”

“Let us all be excited that what we’re doing is not miserable, but an opportunity to make a better world… not just for our children and grandchildren, but for ourselves.”

Deben also provided his views on the growing net-zero movement, admitting frustration that many influential people in policy and business don’t prioritise the “zero” – the need for deep emissions reductions – as they are stuck in short-term mindsets. He also spoke of the need to reach the “net” in net-zero by “recovering the balance of nature”.

You can watch Deben’s full speech above, and access a full list of 2022 Sustainability Leaders Award winners here.

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