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Carbon market key to drive for sustainability

IBM -Start

As the IBM summit at START came to a close, Jonathon Porritt, founder and director of Forum for the Future, challenged business leaders to take a more active, vocal role in promoting sustainability.

He challenged businesses to take 1% of their marketing budget and use it to promote a positive vision of sustainability.

Much progress has been made in the last 20 years, he said, adding that businesses are making a significant and growing contribution to sustainability.

However, he dismissed as “fantastical” the idea that in a global survey of more than 1000 chief executives that 81% had declared that they had mainstreamed sustainability in their operations.

“Sustainability still has to struggle for any traction in today’s markets,” Porritt said, and part of that was due to the lack of movement in systemically internalising the cost of carbon, in other words, in creating a proper market for carbon.

He had little hope for movement on creating a carbon market at climate meetings in Mexico later this year. “Having a real cost of carbon across the world is as far away as it has been for a long time. We are moving at a glacial speed,” he said.

While committing to carbon reduction targets of 50%, governments also persisted in maintaining counterproductive subsidies for high-carbon hydrocarbon-based industries.

“Why are more business leaders not out there speaking to this failing on the part of governments today?” he asked, and added, “The role of business leaders today is to push a little bit further, even if you’re pushing against the grain of what governments make easy.”

He also urged businesses to go beyond “choice editing”, incentivising customers to make more sustainable choices. They should take unsuitable products off their shelves “so the customers just don’t find them there”.

Echoing one of the themes that ran through the nine-day summit, Porritt said businesses need to take a lead role in promoting sustainability because governments aren’t, and business is now often more powerful than nation-states. As Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks & Spencer, noted earlier in the day, of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, 63 are corporations.

Only 5 years ago, the Prince of Wales convened the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, which resulted in a “consensus view representing the first example of leading companies going to governments and saying ‘we need you to do a better job here’”.

Corporate leaders groups (CLG) are now launching around the world, and “at Copenhagen, more than 1000 companies signed that statement on behalf of the CLG exhorting governments to get their act together,” he said.

However, he worried that governments were growing numb to such pressure. “They’ve internalised the fact that some progressive companies will tell them off now and then,” he said.

Last week he shared the stage with a business leader of a company that Porritt said he would put in the top five of companies in terms of its sustainability efforts and a scientist, who had built his reputation on taking a “deeply contrarian view on climate change”.

Rather than challenging the climate sceptic, “all of that was allowed to pass as if it was the received wisdom of business leaders today,” Porritt said, leaving him to wonder what the audience took away from the event.”What did they think about the involvement of business leaders in these issues?”

“I have a feeling business prefers to be a bystander to this, rather than taking an active role,” he said.

Very few people in the world have the knowledge and agency that business leaders have to make an impact in terms of climate change, he said.

Business leaders should take a more dynamic role, he said, adding: “We’re in difficult times here. We’ve been avoiding apocalyptic images, but you know what the future looks like if we spend the next 20 years dickering around.”

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