For many advocates of sustainability like myself, the Business and Climate Leadership Forum hosted by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London on 10 May was a momentous point of the year. Not only was I able to meet four of the most important movers in this space. I was also able to witness what is the outcome of a silent revolution that has marked my generation.
At the start of this century, companies continued to reap the benefits of earth’s natural resources; no university formally taught the impacts of climate change and mitigation strategies as part of their curriculum (let alone in high schools). Equally, scientists across the globe fought tirelessly to no avail to emphasise the perils society faces if we continue business as usual.
At the Business and Climate Leadership Conference, we witnessed that at last scientists, educators, and business leaders all agree on the impetuous of climate change and are now working together towards driving societal change.
The conference was led by Dr Mirabelle Muuls who was recently recognised in this year’s President’s Awards for Excellence in Education and outstanding contributions in teaching, research and societal engagement. She started the Master’s in Climate Change, Management and Finance at Imperial College Business School and is leading the education revolution across the world.
Supporting her is Martin Siegert, who co-directs the Grantham Institute and leads important research programmes in Antarctica. His charismatic character and experience in both academia and business made him the perfect candidate to chair a panel discussion between none other than Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and Lord Nicholas Stern, an economist, author and former Senior Vice-President of the World Bank.
As Lord Stern confirmed during the discussion, the assumptions behind climate change are really strong and undeniable. The world’s urban population is set to double in the next 40 years and the risk of tipping over many of our planetary boundaries towards irreversible change is greater now than ever. The science is there, what is missing is action.
Paul Polman of Unilever – the world’s largest consumer goods company by revenue – fearlessly agrees with the sad reality of the current situation. He admits that it is businesses that have created most of today’s problems on climate change and it is hence their responsibility to lead this change.
He discussed that it does not just make sense from a science and societal perspective; any business that is unable to make a positive contribution towards society should be asking themselves why they are there in the first place. Albeit challenging, for any business leader like Paul whose company owns over 400 different brands, to admit this is commendable. It demonstrates that businesses are ready for change and my generation has an important role to play.
So now that we agree on the science, how can we mobilise the world’s money to face this problem?
The investment potential is enormous. Economics no longer makes sense for coal and oil (that is even without considering the cost of carbon). Paul suggests that we only need four per cent to five per cent of global GDP to resolve climate change. Companies need to start integrating science based targets within their business strategy: regardless of their size, a business can continue serving global consumers in a way that shareholders can also generate profit and enable our environment to flourish.
Scientists like Lord Stern and Martin Siegert have worked hard to prove to us that climate change is real. This change now needs every bit of help it can get, whether you are a passionate financier, engineer, architect or scientist. To reference Paul Polman, who quoted the Dalai Lama, ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’
Tarek Cheaib is a student on our MSc Climate Change, Management & Finance.