The three days I spent in New York illustrated with striking clarity the need for the global business market to step forward and take even more of a role in creating a framework that will provide for global sustainability. As opposed to years before, Rio+20 will not be solely a time for world leader’s and governmental organizations to come together to make decisions, but rather an unprecedented opportunity for business leaders to have a strong and defining voice in the debates and discussions that will shape what the policies of today and the actions of tomorrow are.
From the first morning, when Yvo de Boer (Special Global Advisor, Climate Change & Sustainability, KPMG) and Michael Andrew (CEO and Chairman, KPMG) opened the conference, the message was clear. As the world faces unprecedented resource challenges - energy, materials, food, water and biodiversity – we, as global business leaders, need to take action and the time for that action is now. And the action we take cannot be done as individual entities but rather as collaborative partners with each other and with public and private entities around the world.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon took to the stage the need for this action continued to be reinforced. As he talked about the lack of food access for 1 billion and about the world being at a critical junction economically, ecologically and socially, he acknowledged the crises at hand but also the tremendous opportunity it affords. With a goal of sustainable energy and healthy lifestyles for all, the Secretary-General called on all of to play a significant role in moving the agenda forward and by doing so we would not just be helping the UN but we would also be helping ourselves and most importantly of all preserving the planet that is our home.
This goal was top of my mind as I sat on a panel entitled “Energy: Ensuring an Energy Secure Future”. Responding to the moderator’s question “What is energy? A universal right? A resource that should be managed closely to control environmental impact? Or, a resource that is available if you have the means?” - I answered “Energy is something all have a right to and when we help them get it, it helps us”. I shared with the audience my thoughts on energy being a fundamental and essential component of development and that as we explore what needs to be done the question that we ask must be what are we gaining rather than what are we losing. Citing an example of how 2/3 of schools currently have inefficient lightning, I explained how a change as simple as replacing lightbulbs has a domino effect of not only instilling efficient lighting but also creating a better learning environment which in turn results in a happier, healthier and better educated future. And while I acknowledged that it can be politically difficult to propose ambitious changes with regards to energy, I explained that what we have found is that when the public sector is engaged in the discussion and it is illustrated to them what can be done, they understand the benefits and are more willing to embrace. I concluded my remarks by explaining that a shift in the dialogue must occur. And that the dialogue must be one that focuses more on benefits and less on products. And that it must absolutely focus on creating a long term, sustainable quality of life for all. And the dialogue must not occur just between businesses but throughout all sectors and this can only be achieved through greater partnerships. In order to create these partnerships it is imperative for businesses to be a driving force. And they must help ensure that included in this dialogue must be the four key components that are essential to create momentum – technology, policy framework, financial mechanisms and communication.
Before introducing the members of the first panel of the afternoon, John Veihmeyer (Chairman/CEO KPMG LLP) shared some thoughts with the group based on what he had heard thus far. He said that as public awareness and an appetite for sustainability increases so do the opportunities for businesses. Along with the opportunities though come an increased demand for reporting and responsibility.
The next panel, entitled “Policy Imperatives: Driving Green Growth”, included Connie Hedegaard (European Commissioner for Climate Action), Philippe Joubert (Deputy CEO – Alstom), Andrew Ferrier (Managing Director, Canz Capital) and Rintaro Tamaki (Deputy Secretary-General, OECD). While the organizations the individuals represented were extremely diverse many of their thoughts were extremely similar. All three agreed that we need to change the pattern by how we do things. Commissioner Hedegaard took this a step further and recommended that we assess the job that needs to be done, put up long-term targets and set clear accountabilities across all entities including what needs to be done by both the business sector as well as the government. Andrew shared a number of learnings from his time as CEO of Frontera including echoing John Veihmeyer thoughts that businesses must be prepared to be very responsible if they want a cooperative relationship with the governmental sector. He advocated the importance of businesses being proactive in setting targets rather than waiting for them to be imposed. On the topic of subsidies both the Commissioner and Andrew agreed that they needed to be taken out of the picture and that all driving factors should be solely economic. Philippe echoed the thoughts of other regarding a need for partnership and shared with the audience about his creation of an organization that bridged the gap between the private and public sector and helped address misunderstandings the government had about what the Company was doing and wanted to do. Looking ahead Phillipe said that the most important things were having a long-term vision and stability and Andrew identified the need for a catalyst for people to understand the reality of what needs to be done – and not just in a nebulous sort of way. Building on that the Commissioner went on to say that people do not have to buy into the science, they just need to understand why things are being done and benefit – especially economic – it gives them.
As the morning session opened Herman Dijkhulzen (Partner, KPMG) and Yvo de Boer (Special Global Advisor, Climate Change and Sustainability, KPMG LLP) took to the stage to share reflections on the previous day. They discussed how the business case for sustainable development is very strong and that many businesses see it as an opportunity and understand that their stakeholders want it. However, they went on to say, a much stronger partnership between the private and public sectors must exist because businesses can only take it so far. Once again the opportunity for businesses to change and shape the agenda of Rio+20 was brought to everyone’s attention but with it came a call for action. Businesses, they said, must work with regulators to ensure that the sustainability agenda is one that allows businesses to succeed.
And while its unavoidable that any framework will be partially about money, the primary driving force must be stability and tantamount to success is the necessity for businesses to be trustworthy in the process and the willingness to take risks and make mistakes.
Throughout the first day and a half virtually every speaker identified the importance of strong partnerships between the public and private sectors. After lunch Mayor Bloomberg took the stage and illustrated to the group just how important these partnerships are and what can be achieved when they exist. PlaNYC is New York City’s bold agenda to build a greener and greater city. The agenda, the Mayor explained, is absolutely business friendly because it needs to be in order to achieve sustainability in a growing market. Citing the successful relationship between the city and many of it’s real estate developers the Mayor talked about how renovations were being done that will result in cutting costs and making NYC a more energy efficient city helping to create a more sustainable environment. He encouraged all companies to work closely with the cities where they do business saying that it will lead to greater sustainability and illustrated this point with the fact that in NYC, because of efforts to combat pollutants and enhance the quality of life, the life expectancy rate in NYC is now 3 years greater than in US as a whole.
Following the Mayor was a panel entitled “Driving Sustainable Value Creation: Grasping the Opportunities” on which our own Greg Sebasky, Chairman, of Philips North America, was a speaker.
Greg opened his remarks by talking about Philips perspective on the issue as one of the most global of companies but then brought his focus to the local level explaining how the Company sets up local companies that focus on the issues of importance to the particular community. A key part of this work, he explained, is creating partnerships with universities, governments and other organizations. When posed the question about how efforts to create these partnerships had gone, Greg talked about the need to engage policy makers on the topics that are of importance to them and then help to find solutions to address them. He went on to say that when the conversation with policy makers was changed from global warming to sustainability & improving lives, a real shift in the reactions was seen. Another result of these efforts that Greg said he was excited about was that it provides Philips the opportunity to work with young, start-up companies that bring innovative and unique solutions to the table.
The goal must be, Greg said, to find solutions for people, regardless of economics, to live better and healthier lives. There are opportunities for new product development which are tremendous but that require innovation within the manufacturing process. And when the products are developed businesses must be transparent and focus on educating the consumer about the impact. One way to do this, Greg explained, is through working with the retail trade to provide information at point-of-sale. This is a major focus of Philips and as a result there has been a complete transformation in terms of information available.
With regards to what the role of a company should be once the products are created and the consumer is educated, essentially businesses need to step back and respect their consumers by allowing them to make the choice of what steps they want to take. And while it may take longer to achieve change through consumer driven grassroots efforts, it is a much better and will be more effective solution over the long-term versus trying to make it happen through mandated policies and regulations.
As the panel came to a close the moderator asked each of the participants what their hope for Rio+20 would be. Greg said that he hoped for discussions that focused on transparency and accountability and for the creation of policy frameworks.
If you have any questions, thoughts, opinions - please feel free to leave me a comment below.