Skip to content

You don’t have to be CEO to take climate action


In just a few days, the world will come together in Paris to sign a new global climate agreement and set us on an economic path that secures a healthy future for everyone. In this first article in our new series, our CEO Paul Polman outlines the case for ambitious climate action and shows why we all have a part to play.

Paul Polman

The two greatest challenges of our generation are ending poverty and averting runaway climate change. We cannot do one without the other. The World Bank recently estimated that climate change could push more than 100 million additional people back into poverty by 2030. And we can’t solve climate change without embracing the economic and social development aspirations of the developing and emerging world.

As we look ahead to implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, the COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris in December is our first test of the world’s ability to make the critical progress needed to support the goals. And the stakes are enormous - the outcome will decide if people are going to live or die. As simple as that.

But you don’t have to be part of negotiations to act on climate change. Investors, civil society and business have responsibility to help protect the one planet we all share. And they are increasingly taking action.

The business case is clear

What’s clear is that more and more in the business community are aware of the costs of climate change. In the last decade alone, some estimates have put the cost to the world economy of natural disasters at $2.7 trillion. In addition to political instability, these disasters are costing Unilever around €300 million a year.

The same is true for the majority of other companies. Yet, solutions are increasingly available and economically viable. For example, renewable energy continues to get cheaper: solar and wind energy are now cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many regions. But more than this, there is convincing evidence that it is “risky business” NOT to tackle climate. This is an issue for all businesses, not just Unilever.

The good news is, we are already heading in the right direction. Business is no longer standing on the side-lines. More than 4,000 global companies report their greenhouse gas emissions and over 75% of the world’s largest businesses have set clear sustainability targets. Organisations like The World Business Council for Sustainable Development are setting the pace in driving strong sectorial action. A number of business leaders have come together in the B Team to call for net zero emissions by 2050 and many are now calling for a price on carbon. We’re pleased to be part of these efforts.

Climate action is driving growth

At Unilever we have hardwired sustainability into the heart of everything we do. In our manufacturing operations we’ve achieved one million tonnes of carbon savings and zero waste to landfill in all of our factories. Carbon emission per tonne of production is now 65% below 1995 levels and much of our energy used in Europe and the US is green.

We are also encouraging others, for example, we're sharing our compressed deodorant technology with competitors to help the whole industry cut its aerosol carbon footprint by 25%. That's how strongly we feel about it. And, together with others in the industry, we’re working towards zero net deforestation, conversion to natural refrigerants for cabinets and addressing the scourge of food waste.

Most importantly, tackling climate change not only reduces risk, but presents astonishing opportunities for growth. As the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has indicated, the global market for low-carbon goods and services is worth more than $5.5 trillion and growing. Investment in energy efficiency measures available today could boost cumulative economic output by US$18 trillion by 2035 (IEA, 2014). At Unilever, eco-efficiency measures in our factories have saved us over €400m since 2008 and are creating new innovations.

Consumers are demanding action too – last year our most sustainable brands grew twice as fast as the rest of the business, while responsible consumption products are set to account for 70% of total grocery growth in the US and Europe over the next five years.

The world’s leading institutional investors are also beginning to see the opportunities, particularly since companies reporting on carbon footprint and taking measures accordingly are increasingly showing a better return. Investors are also starting to divest of high carbon exposure industries to mitigate risk and protect their portfolios. And institutions representing $24 trillion of invested capital are calling for a price on carbon and an ambitious global climate deal. When the financial sector catches on like this, that's good news.

We all have a part to play

But even in the best case scenario, the Paris agreement alone will not keep us under a 2 degree temperature rise. To limit the irreversible effects of climate change, we need everyone to step up – world leaders, investors, business and consumers too. Depending on governments alone will not solve the problem.

There are many ways businesses can commit, such as setting ambitious science-based carbon reduction targets and reporting on progress; joining the call for net zero emissions by 2050; setting a price on carbon in their internal operations; and ultimately joining RE100 to move to 100% renewable power.

In the run up to Paris, we also hope that business leaders will engage in the numerous Low Carbon Technology Partnership Initiatives, add their names to the Paris Pledge for Action, which will be unveiled during the negotiations and above all back up these pledges with tangible results.

And crucially, we cannot do it without the support of civil society. You don’t have to be a policymaker, a statesperson or a CEO to make a difference. It’s essential that we all hold world leaders, businesses and each other accountable for delivering on our commitments. We hope that consumers will inform themselves, become real advocates for the cause and reward those business who are bold and do the right thing.

The world desperately needs transformational change, working in partnership to deliver the greatest collective impact on climate.

That’s why I’m delighted that a number of our partners have lent their voices by participating in this content series, illustrating the different ways in which industries, coalitions and consumers must act to truly make a difference.

Paris represents a window of opportunity - but it’s the start rather than the end of the journey. Words must turn quickly to action with a clear view on 2016 and beyond.

We are all in this together. After all, as has been said before, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

Let’s make future generations proud of what we’ve achieved.

Back to top