Action after Paris: going the extra mile in 2016

By Matthew Taylor

The Sustainable Innovation Forum.

The much-anticipated Paris COP21 UN conference on climate change concluded with an internationally recognised Paris Agreement. It’s ambitious but not binding. It’s not perfect but it’s something.

Proposals must now be secured to start achieving the agreement’s goals. Policymakers have done their part but we cannot rely on governments alone. It is the responsibility of all citizens to now do their part.

A report by Climate Action came out during the conference, claiming that the pledges made by each country will lead to a 2.7°C rise in global temperature. So there is a real need to act with urgency if the Paris Agreement’s target of 2.0°C is to be taken seriously.

Enthusiasm, simple though it sounds, is crucial for progress and action. Many of the speakers at the Sustainable Innovation Forum in Paris – the largest business lead event held alongside COP21 – lacked it.

“They’ve been saying everything and nothing”, one spectator commented, as I joined the tired sinking heads of the main conference room. I was volunteering for Climate Action; they hosted the Forum. Struggling to find any attention left in me, I drifted out the door. Someone asked me to head upstairs to help the Q&A sessions for Sustainable Innovation in Sport in the smaller conference room.

Sustainable Innovation in Sport and BT’s extra mile.

The forum was the first event to be hosted at the Stade de France since the Paris terror attacks; the sports based conference room had a completely different atmosphere. I did not have to search for concentration here. One of the most enthusiastic discussions was a debate that infused after a speech by Niall Dune, Chief Sustainability Officer at BT. “It’s a shame we are having this discussion now, with so few people”, one spectator commented.

Niall had spoken about the enormous potential of sport media to spur progressive behaviour change by engaging fans in sustainability. He used the example of a half time advertisement encouraging viewers to switch their energy provider to a renewable one, like Good Energy.

“Last year, 1.7m people watched Chelsea play Tottenham in a Premiere League football match. If just 10% of that audience asked to switch to renewable energy it would be the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road”, Dune informed us, his eyes alight with ardour. After Dune, Gretchen Blieler, 2X Olympic snowboarding champion, told us how she used her influential voice to mobilise the snowsports community against climate change through an organisation she founded, Protect Our Winters. And Neil Beecroft, UEFA’s Sustainability Manager, highlighted how Cristiano Ronaldo alone has nearly 40m followers on Twitter. If Ronaldo was to endorse a sustainability campaign…

The room was tense with attention; if BT and UEFA can influence energy system change then other large organisations can too. An organic debate unravelled. “Can a sports media campaign really bring about action?” someone asked. Running out of time and with arms rising everywhere, questions were rarely answered directly as I ran the microphone from one chair to another. This one, however, brought Dune to his feat again. Advertising can change consumer behaviour and even if it does not, these kinds of campaigns can at least make information available. Information is a prerequisite for action.

Going the extra mile: a shift in mindset or systemic change.

What is so vital about Dune’s suggestion is it goes beyond the common sustainability commitments of a company. The norm is lacklustre commitments, like “the bottle for our product will be fully recyclable by 2020”, which do not really address the real environmental impact of a company’s operations. Better are more insightful attempts to address the company’s entire supply chain and production process.

But going the extra mile means a real shift in mindset or a systemic change in how an organisation, economy or even society operates. The divestment movement is a good example. It encourages large investors to move their funds away from fossil fuel companies. While it is unlikely to directly or significantly reduce the amount of fossil fuels coming out the ground, it demonstrates a real commitment to becoming fully sustainable by addressing even the subtle, structural sustainability issues.

Dune’s ideas for BT represented a change in mindset from ‘what should I not do?’ to ‘what can I do to help, given my resources and influence?’ Environmental cost and benefit must be factored into all decisions, both positive and negative, like financial cost and benefit are. For this to happen, reliable environmental information is essential, which is what climate ThinkTank, CDP’s growing database provides. Going the extra mile, like this, can apply to all concerns of the common good but issues surrounding sustainability have a real urgency.

 As one of the leading media organisations, BT’s resources and influence are vast. But this does not mean people and organisations with less resources or influence cannot do anything to help. Think about how a change mind-set at your workplace and or in social life could foster further action. Just offering to cover the extra cost at a dinner party for food from a sustainable source might encourage people to treat environmental protection as something worth paying for alongside taste, texture, branding, health etc. At the very least, people can collectively pressure any powerful organisations that are not shifting their mind-set to do so.

People are starting to realise the importance of a healthy planet. To get there in time to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement we must be willing to go the extra mile, just like Naill Dune is advocating at BT.

What is your resolution for going the Extra Mile in 2016?

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