What’s top of mind for the most influential people in climate

Climate Economy

What’s top of mind for the most influential people in climate

Share on

Three ways sustainability professionals can take immediate action emerged as private and public sector leaders met at Climate Week NYC

A moment during one of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s circuit of Climate Week appearances captured the mood of many sustainability and climate professionals who chose to fill New York hotels and streets last month: Frustration with inaction.

Newsom, who spoke during the event’s opening ceremony, described the sorrow of visiting entire towns, including Paradise, California, that have been virtually wiped off the map by wildfires. He also described a conversation with his teenage daughter who told him she is filled with “dread and stress” about the eco-crisis unfolding around the world. “Her lack of optimism was incalculable,” he said.

Enough is enough

His comments came days after the state filed a sweeping lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies, including San Ramon, California-based Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute, demanding they fund damage caused by extreme weather events and wildfires exacerbated by climate change. 

Enough is enough, Newsom said, as he talked about the lawsuit and a first-in-the-nation disclosure bill that will require both public and private companies to report on emissions. 

“It’s the great implementation now,” Newsom said, referring to the work countries and companies need to do to meet their many net-zero pledges and sustainability commitments against which little progress has been made so far. “I am not inspired any more by anything you’re signing.”

A similar disillusionment was expressed by other long-time champions of climate action during the proceedings. “The world is at a crossroads, and we need a course correction,” said Jennifer Morgan, the former head of Greenpeace who is now special envoy for international climate action with the Foreign Office of Germany, during her remarks at the opening ceremony. “We need to switch from steps to leaps,” she said, calling for a commitment to a global phaseout of fossil fuels as an agenda item for the upcoming COP28.

“Sustainability is the business imperative of our time, and it can be a catalyst for growth.”

Many sustainability leaders called for bolder action in gatherings and meetings throughout the week. PepsiCo Executive Vice President and CSO Jim Andrew said the proliferation of ESG reporting standards can be a distraction. “Every dollar we spend disclosing is a dollar we can’t spend doing,” he said, and emphasized the need for more sustainability professionals to prioritize embedding short-term goals into everyday business metrics.

Alexandra Palt, chief corporate responsibility officer of L’Oréal and CEO of the L’Oréal Foundation, said: “I’m very much in favor of obligatory [emissions and climate risk] reporting, but it has to be a tool, not an aim itself.” She added: “People hide behind the data.”

While many sustainability professions are anxious about lack of progress, they are confident of the vital role they can play in C-suites. “Sustainability is the business imperative of our time, and it can be a catalyst for growth,” said Eunice Heath, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for materials company CRH.

Here are the three themes that were top-of-mind for private and public-sector climate leaders, as they met in New York to discuss the rapidly warming planet. 

The Sustainable Development Goals are central to broader strategy

It’s been seven years since businesses started integrating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their ESG strategies, and there are seven more years before the deadline to meet them. At this midpoint, however, only 15% of the goals for things such as “no poverty,” “zero hunger” and “climate action” are on track, according to research published in September by the UN Global Compact and Accenture. More than one-third have “gone into reverse,” the organizations reported.

What’s the sticking point? Aside from funding gaps, sustainability professionals lack clarity on how to report progress and a lack of government incentives to justify deeper adoption, the survey found. Nevertheless, 94% of the 2,800 business leaders see the SDGs as a unifying vision across industries, the data show.

“We are not giving up,” said Cargill CSO Pilar Cruz, when asked about the agricultural commodity company’s ongoing commitments, which center on core elements of the company’s business strategy, such as zero hunger, life below water and life on land.

There are demonstrable overlaps between climate goals such as cultivating healthier soil and social issues such as decent work and access to clean water and sanitation, she said. 

Science-based targets still matter

The SDGs are an important driver of social impact, but science-based targets are a necessary framework for the journey to net zero.

Guidance from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), particularly regarding how to set goals for reducing Scope 3 emissions and the role of carbon removals in a net-zero plan, has been evolving; Many companies are in the process of revalidating their targets, if they have not already done so. 

The SDGs are an important driver of social impact, but science-based targets are a necessary framework for the journey to net zero.

This work is proving more difficult than anticipated. In mid-August, much ado was made of Amazon’s public step-back earlier that month. The company cited its inability to submit “in a meaningful and accurate way” based on the organization’s submission requirements. It’s still engaged with SBTi on a potential solution, Amazon said.

Behind the scenes, corporate sustainability leaders reaffirmed their commitment to science-based targets for carbon reductions, although many expressed concern about how to manage Scope 3 — the carbon footprint attributable to production and sourcing activities throughout a supply chain, as well as customer usage of a product — using imprecise data.

Robert Metzke, global head of sustainability at healthcare equipment company Philips, said the company expects its own ESG priorities — including fair labor conditions and wages, energy efficiency, sustainable materials sourcing and the like — to cascade among its suppliers. This takes a lot of local focus and one-on-one relationships, he said. “You get out only what you ask for.”

The SBTi is reorganizing: It is spinning out the group that validates commitments and is hiring to keep up with an anticipated leap in submissions. SBTi expects to validate more than 10,000 corporate net-zero targets by the end of 2025, compared with the roughly 2,100 companies that had validated commitments at the end of 2022. 

During Climate Week the organization added to the industry frameworks it supports with new guidance for steel companies. Other high-emissions industries, including chemicals and the oil and gas sector, have yet to be addressed. 

Nature is a key part of corporate climate strategy 

Last December, 195 nations agreed to the Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework as part of a negotiating process akin to the one that created the Paris Agreement. It calls for nations to protect and restore at least 30% of land and water by 2030, and for $200 billion to be invested each year toward that goal. Now, many companies are grappling with how to reflect that vision in their own strategies. 

“When we take care of biodiversity, we take care of people.”

One step forward came last week with the release of reporting recommendations by the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures. The guidelines are a tool for discussing nature-related risks and “will go a long way in improving company disclosure on nature and will help enable investors to hold companies accountable for minimizing and managing their impacts on nature,” said Leslie Cordes, vice president of programs for the investor advocacy group Ceres, in a statement.

While many companies are starting to talk about nature risks, few are doing something about addressing nature and biodiversity in depth, according to new research by EY. L’Oréalis an exception: It has dedicated at least $53 million toward restoring at least 2.47 million acres of degraded ecosystems. But to treat this as a side project misses a critical point, L’Oréal’s Palt said: “When we take care of biodiversity, we take care of people.”

The idea that climate strategy can overlook issues such as nature loss, biodiversity or water is ludicrous, said Razan Al Mubarek, president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, during the Climate Week opening ceremony. “We are losing nature at a time when we need nature the most. Climate change is a consequence of our mismanagement of nature.”

This article originally appeared on GreenBiz.com as part of our partnership with GreenBiz Group, a media and events company that accelerates the just transition to a clean economy.

Featured photo: “California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses a question from David Gelles of The New York Times during Climate Week NYC.” Credit: Heather Clancy/GreenBiz 

Written by

Heather Clancy

Heather Clancy, GreenBiz editorial director, is an award-winning business journalist specializing in chronicling the role of technology in enabling corporate climate action and transitioning to a clean, inclusive and regenerative economy. She started her journalism career on the business desk of United Press International, and her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was the launch editor for the Fortune Data Sheet, the magazine's newsletter dedicated to the business of technology. She co-authored the Amazon best-seller for entrepreneurs, "Niche Down, How to Become Legendary By Being Different."