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Polman, who led Unilever from 2009 to 2019 and is now the co-founder of sustainability foundation IMAGINE, said COP26 is “the moment” for world leaders to bend the curve and keep the 1.5C goal alive; but that the pace of change across energy and transport is still “by no means enough”.

Speaking to edie within the Action Zone of COP26, Polman said: “This COP is all about ambition, action and accountability – so we need to focus on translating these commitments into action.

“We need to go seven times faster on wind or solar, and 20 times faster on electric vehicles. I don’t think we have fully communicated to the public at large – nor the business community – that this is just the first step in an acceleration that needs to take place.”

Paul Polman’s COP26 interview – Full transcript:

I think we’ve seen some great announcements so far. If you go back to before Covid only a year and a half ago, people were worried that the world wouldn’t align on 1.5C; that we would deprioritise climate change because of Covid, and that the business community would just shrink back to making profit and keeping their business alive short-term.

Fast-forward a year and a half: we’ve moved 20% of the Governments from net-zero to about 90% of the Government’s making net-zero commitments. We’ve had the India announcement [to reach net-zero emissions by 2070], China’s announcement [to reach net-zero emissions by 2060], Russia’s announcement [to be carbon-neutral by 2060], and Turkey [to be net-zero by 2053] – this is tremendous.

We’ve also seen the finance community now moving very fast as they discover the enormous opportunities that are in this transition. Over $130trn of money under management has now made a commitment to be net-zero, and we have seen in this summit that it’s not only about an energy transition but also that we need to get the nature-based solutions in there – 30% of the problem but also 30% of the solution can be done much faster, and we’ve seen some tremendous announcements there.

So, the top line is that for the first time we see a bending of the curve; we see an acceleration of the plans being implemented and we really have a real shot to get to 1.5C – this is really the moment.

What’s the flip side that we need to work on? I think there’s a high level of scepticism from the public at large about if we’re really going to do this – is this blah, blah blah or is it action, action, action.

This COP is all about ambition, action and accountability – so we need to focus on translating these commitments into action. That’s why I was very pleased that we got the launch of the sustainability standards board and that we’re looking at science-based targets for nature among other things.

The second thing is really managing expectations. Whilst we are doing quite a lot versus what we did before, it is by no means enough. We need to go seven times faster on wind or solar, 20 times faster on electric vehicles, and I don’t think we have fully communicated to the public at large – nor the business community – that this is the first step in an acceleration that needs to take place.

The good thing now is that smart businesses understand this. What Covid has shown us is that we don’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet, and that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet and anything you can’t do infinitely is by definition unsustainable.

Smart businesses have seen the enormous costs we have paid for Covid, for example, versus the lower and more efficient investments that need to be made to avoid these issues in the first place.

So, increasingly we can see that the forward-thinking companies are not only positioning themselves well but they’re also finding out that it’s actually good business in the first place and they are more profitable and more resilient as a result.

It’s not anymore too much time being spent on convincing people why to do it – the one’s that do I think are better positioned for a profitable future – the one’s that don’t are heading to the graveyard of the dinosaurs and that’s now very clear.

What we have seen on a macro level, looking at the value of companies, is that companies that more aggressively attack these negative externalities are now also being higher valued by the financial community, which means that some of these things that we’ve called ‘non-material’ are actually already material. 

And this is a very important data point, to show that we need to continue on this trajectory and the ones that lead are the ones that will do better and, frankly, we don’t have another choice.

Polman has just released a new book titled Net-Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More than they Take, which reveals key lessons from Unilever and other pioneering companies around the world about how you can profit by fixing the world’s problems instead of creating them. 


edie at COP26

Want more exclusive content from inside COP26? Hosted in association with our headline COP26 content partner O2, edie is running a daily podcast show, featuring exclusive interviews with some of sustainability’s leading lights. Check out the COP26 Covered podcast here.

We’re also providing regular, live updates of all the major announcements. From rousing speeches to official climate plans, our COP26 Live Blog gives you everything you need to know about each day at the Summit.

View all of edie’s COP26 content here.


edie staff

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Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    I have said it before, and I will say it again, "the only non carbon source of energy that is totally on demand and under our control" is nuclear.
    But it does need to be under strict control; which does not present insuperable difficulty. It cannot be a business dominated industry, strict control means just that.
    The enormous variation, totally outside our control, of wind and solar, does, in reality, relegate it to a minor role in energy generation.
    Harsh but true.
    The weeks ending 16.08.20 and 23.08.20 saw a variation out of wind of 13.6% to 41.9%.
    And it is not cheap.
    Richard Phillips

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