Jonathan Shopley spends an eventful week in New York City. The Pope comes to town; the 7th Climate Week convenes, Premier Xi Jinping commits China to a nation-wide cap & trade scheme; and, the United Nations adopts a new set of Sustainable Development goals. He asks “are we making progress towards a sustainable world – does all this change anything?”

A week in New York City: Does this change anything?

From the 23rd to the 28th of September, in glorious early autumn weather, I was in New York City for Climate Week and the UN’s Private Sector Summit for the launch of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).   As long-suffering NYC residents endured the closure of roads and precincts the Pope, country premiers, celebrities and CEOs descended on innumerable gatherings to speak of the need for action on climate, and to endorse the new 17 SDGs for 2030.  The week was also an impressive last push to rally the troops before December’s Climate Summit in Paris when the UN hopes to strike a new and revitalised treaty to replace its severely wounded incumbent, the Kyoto Protocol, when it limps to the finish in 2020. 

A year ago after last year’s Climate Week, I wrote how it fell to Graça Machel, wife to Nelson Mandela, representing the wiser, more seasoned minority of hardened realists to summarise proceedings with the aphorism:“… there is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response which we heard here today.”  This year was different.

From commitment to action

Threaded throughout the week were a number of meetings at which progress on last year’s feel-good promises and commitments was reported.  Momentum is clearly building, especially amongst coalitions in which business and a new breed of campaigning NGOs, and even the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself, are leading on action to capitalise on the opportunities that lie at the heart of a transformation to a low-carbon, clean economy and more equitable world. 

The week kicked off with the UNFCCC’s launch of Climate Neutral Now – an expansive and inclusive invitation to individuals, organisations, cities, states and nations to get to net zero emissions by retiring carbon credits as offsets.  UNFCCC head, Christiana Figueres, explained how the UNFCCC is promoting climate neutral thinking and strategies as an urgent response to the expected Paris outcome.  

Microsoft’s Rob Bernard and Marks & Spencer’s Mike Barry shared how they use the simple measure, reduce and offset approach to reflect their commitments to meeting their carbon neutral commitments.  Rob profiled how Microsoft’s carbon fee  has underpinned its net zero programme, and opened up opportunities in  the management of complex environmental and sustainability issues – such as its CityNext initiative.  Mike spoke of how Marks & Spencer’s portfolio of offsets includes those from projects that deliver specific co-benefits (e.g. health benefits from clean cook-stoves or climate adaptation from community forest projects) which are strongly aligned with the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals.  They are selected because they reinforce Marks & Spencers’ ‘Plan A’ – its wider sustainability programme. 

There was a moment of wry humour during proceedings when Christiana Figueres rounded on UN deputy Secretary Jan Eliasson after he made a rather vague commitment to take all of the UN climate neutral by 2020, cajoling him to follow the lead of Microsoft and Marks & Spencer by doing so now.  

UNFCCC’s soft power and quiet confidence pays off

In fact, a marked feature of Christiana Figueres’s various speeches over the week was her relaxed, infectious optimism about progress being made towards a Paris agreement.  Under her ‘soft-power’ leadership of the UNFCCC, it has engaged and received tremendous support and encouragement from the private sector.  With governments, a bottom-up approach by which each member nation has been invited to submit an INDC – Indicative Nationally Determined Contribution – is proving highly effective in soliciting action plans rather than resistance and debate. 

The cautiously ambitious INDCs already submitted by China and the US have the two major economies that didn’t have targets under the Kyoto Protocol back in the tent, and together that means one third of global emissions are now subject to committed reduction targets.  By the end of Climate Week and the UN Development Summit, 125 INDC’s had been submitted representing two-thirds of all countries party to the UNFCCC and +75% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Not exactly ‘job done’, as knitting all those disparate plans together into a coherent whole will be a herculean task.  However, for the first time all the building blocks for a global agreement are coming together.  

Corporate early movers building momentum

For most businesses attending the Summit, the direction of travel is clear and few are waiting for a final policy response before taking action.  There were a couple of notable events at which progress against a variety of commitments was reported, and it was clear that early-movers are setting a cracking pace.

At the 2014 Summit, 180 governments, companies, indigenous community networks and civic society organisations signed up to the New York Declaration on Forests – to halve natural forest loss by 2020 and end it by 2050.  Forest Trends’ “Firm Commitments: Tracking Company Endorsers of the New York Declaration on Forests ” assessed progress one year on, and reported that over $0.5bn of new public and private sector finance for forest climate action had been committed and corporate endorsers were moving from mapping supply chains to firming up commitments to zero deforestation.

At a gathering of RE100 supporters -- a programme convened by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP to engage influential companies committed to using 100% renewable power – the initiative reported 35+ (and growing) signed-up partners including H&M, Marks & Spencer and UBS.  These companies are using a variety of approaches – from building, owning and operating their own renewable energy assets, to long-term power purchase agreements, through to the purchase and retirement of Renewable Energy Certificates and Guarantees of Origin.  Corporates with a few large installations favour the former approach, and those with many small operations in disparate markets favour the latter.  For example, we supported H&M in using renewable energy instruments to meet its goal of increasing  renewable power from 14% in 2014 to 80 to 100% in 2015 across its international operations - 3,600 stores in 60 markets. 

The Science Based Targets Initiative – a partnership of CDP, UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and WWF – show-cased its work to inspire business to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with climate science.  It encourages companies to devise long-terms plans to reduce emissions by an average of 3-4% per year, or 70-80% by mid-century, through business model innovation, energy efficiency, and a transition to renewable energy.  It announced its first sign-ups including General Mills and Siemens, and a beta-stage tool  to help corporates benchmark to their sectors, and set long-term targets.

The SDGs – All for one, and one for all

At the UN Private Sector Forum on Saturday, the day after the UN General Assembly had hailed the adoption of the SDGs and received a thoughtful discourse from the Pope, the new Goals gave the assembled speakers -- including Unilever’s Paul Polman, Ban Ki Moon, Angela Merkel, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and U2’s Bono -- every opportunity to pick and amplify their favourite theme.  However, it was obviously the case that every SDG depends on progress across all of the others as the world shifts its focus from being less bad across a range of issues, to respecting, re-building and enhancing both human and natural capital.  To navigate this more complex landscape, the UN Global Compact has launched its "SDG Compass: The guide for business action on the SDGs"

Our journey from CarbonNeutral to Natural Capital Partners

Summits rarely in and of themselves change anything.  However, this one did provide an opportunity to observe the almost palpable crackling of synapses as disparate initiatives unite to translate concern into action -- action that in large part is fueled by private sector conviction, capital, innovation and leadership.  So, while the climactic week in NYC didn’t actually change anything, it did show just how much everything is changing.   Generally -- in a good way.

And we have been changing too – in the week after Climate Week, we announced our new identity to reflect our client-led evolution from Future Forests (1997), to The CarbonNeutral Company (2006) to Natural Capital Partners (2015).  Our work over the past 18 years has focused on helping clients deal with their directly managed impacts on climate, water, biodiversity.  This next phase continues with that focus while also enabling us to move into new territory – as clients expand their focus from their impacts on the environment to their effects on natural capital assets. Exciting times ahead…