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Sustainability consultants asking for change from business leaders

UN says climate change commitments need to increase five-fold. Time to build sustainability into your business strategy

Earlier this month, BP announced that it is reinventing itself as a low-carbon energy company, backed up by a pledge to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Such an announcement from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers raised eyebrows as much as it raised hopes. Cynical PR stunt or genuine about-turn? Time will tell.

But amid the many positive sentiments expressed in CEO Bernard Looney’s statement, one line stood out for me: Looney described BP’s transformation as “the right thing for the world and… a tremendous business opportunity for BP.”

Businesses need to recognise that committing to cut their emissions is not just an obligation driven by concern for the planet, it is a strategic decision that has the potential to yield significant commercial benefits. And it’s a decision that has to be taken now.

Why the urgency?

If the world was sitting its GCSEs this summer, the prognosis would not be good. In the core subjects of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Climate Change, we are falling short of our target grades by some margin.

The latest reports from the UN have revealed that not one country is on course to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and we are nowhere near meeting the emissions reductions required to limit global warming to 1.5˚C.

The price of failure in both these subjects will be measured in catastrophic terms: poverty, famine, fire, floods, melting ice caps, crop failure etc. But it’s not too late. According to the science, with some concerted cramming we can catch up.

Why the 1.5˚C target?

The world has warmed by approximately 1˚C on average since the start of the Industrial Revolution. This is almost entirely down to human activity, which is currently adding about 0.2˚C to the average global temperature every decade.

A rise of 1˚C in temperature may not sound severe – a 30˚C summer’s day is very similar to a 29˚C one. But this figure is the global average; some parts of the planet (notably the northern latitudes) are experiencing a temperature rise two to three times higher than that.

Following the Paris Agreement, when 195 countries agreed to set a target of limiting global warming to “well below 2˚C” this century, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set a firmer target of 1.5˚C by 2050. The difference between the 2˚C originally ratified in the Cancun Agreements in 2010 and the 1.5˚C IPCC recommendation is based on scientific research, which shows that risk factors like the death of warm water corals, loss of Arctic sea ice and coastal flooding increase from high to very high between 1.5˚C and 2˚C; and factors such as terrestrial ecosystems, fluvial flooding, crop yields and heat-related mortality move into the high risk category.

What is required to meet the 1.5˚C limit?

The 2019 Emission Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme maintains that in order to limit average global warming to 1.5˚C with no or limited overshoot (ie rising gradually to 1.5˚C, not rising above it and then coming back down), net global emissions need to fall by 7.6% every year. And that means a five-fold increase in collective current commitments.

The good news is that this is still possible – provided we act now. Leave it until 2025 and the annual cut in emissions would have to be 15.5% – making the 1.5˚C target practically impossible.

It’s now or never – and it’s private enterprise that needs to take the initiative.

Are you ready to build sustainability into your business plan?