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Climate breakdown or breakthrough: which do you choose?


Authored by Thomas Lingard

Two years to the day after the Paris Agreement was signed, Unilever’s Thomas Lingard argues that empathy and inclusion are the key to driving a climate breakthrough.

Climate demonstration outside the White House

About the author

Thomas Lingard, Global Climate Advocacy & Sustainability Strategy Director

Thomas Lingard

Global Climate and Environment Director at Unilever

Thomas leads Unilever’s global climate & environment agenda in support of our goal to improve the health of the planet.

Imagine a world with more droughts, more crop failures, higher food prices, more refugees. Imagine conflict, war and a breakdown of people’s normal ways of life following closely behind. It’s not a pretty picture, and yet it’s where we are headed if we don’t make some fundamental changes to how we live.

Fortunately, few now seriously challenge the need for urgent action. Investors are building climate risk into their portfolios, some pulling out of fossil fuel stocks altogether. Businesses are embracing the low-carbon revolution. National governments are committing to ever deeper carbon reductions. It’s not all a smooth ride, but momentum is carrying us over the bumps.

Climate action = growth

Some argue for self-restraint and a more sustainable form of consumption. But we’re all human. Even faced with the science, the threat still feels intangible. Most people in the global middle class aren’t up for radically changing the way they live unless there are clear benefits like health or financial advantages. Some studies even show that rising global inequality increases people’s desires for more material goods and more carbon-intensive lifestyles.

The good news is that transitioning to a low-carbon economy has never been more do-able. And for business it has never been more compelling. Estimates suggest that the Paris Agreement on climate change could unlock $13.5 trillion in growth opportunity by 2030.

Feature image - Turbine image for climate article
"Transitioning to a low-carbon economy has never been more do-able. Nor, for business, has it ever been more compelling". Thomas Lingard

But we need greater empathy and inclusion

But to capture the full benefits, it needs to happen at scale, and in an inclusive way. Even though the move to a zero-carbon economy is a win overall, the shift itself will see winners and losers as jobs grow in some industries and decline in others. It’s not surprising that where we see opposition to change, it’s often from those who stand to lose out.

We need more empathy here than we sometimes demonstrate. Not every coal miner in the world has the opportunity to choose an alternative occupation; not everyone can afford to invest in new (often more expensive) products produced to high ‘climate friendly’ standards. The notion of a socially just transition is therefore critical, ensuring that we plan fairly for the disruption to energy and industrial systems we want to bring about.

Get this right, and potentially many millions more people will see the benefit of climate action to their own lives. Becoming engaged citizens because they are included. Pushing their elected representatives – of all political persuasions – to make the right choices for the long term. People who, in their purchasing decisions, will favour companies trying to move to longer-term, lower-carbon business models.

Unilever’s role in climate action

At Unilever, along with other businesses, we are working hard to play our part in this system-level shift. Take the world’s forest cover. We have committed to achieving zero net deforestation associated with four commodities – palm oil, soy, paper and board, and beef – no later than 2020. We’re working with our competitors, customers and suppliers through industry forums to make this a truly collaborative effort.

We also aim to make our manufacturing operations ‘carbon positive’ by 2030. And through groups like RE100 we’re working with and encouraging others to do the same. Actions like these will, we hope, become the ‘new normal’ in the near future.

The conditions are right for a breakthrough

Becoming a climate activist, then, isn’t about being an environmentalist. It’s about being human. The relatively stable climate we have enjoyed to date has enabled an unprecedented flourishing of human civilisation and the development of a global economic system that has brought benefits to billions of people.

But that economic system, at least while powered by fossil fuels, can no longer guarantee a similar trajectory in future. In fact, the opposite is true. Climate change is the single greatest challenge facing us today.

Fortunately, the conditions are right for a breakthrough, as businesses, governments, cities and citizens come together to change the nature of our economy. And if we succeed, we will change the course of history for the better.

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