How the pandemic is changing the way leaders approach climate action goals

The pandemic has forced companies and governments to work harder to get back on track to meet their climate action targets, said sustainability veteran Aida Greenbury. In a discussion with James Yi, managing director of APCO Worldwide, she explains why circular bio-based economies and inclusive growth are the way of the future.

mossy forest indonesia
Many of the world's biggest fast moving consumer goods companies are lagging in the execution of their no-deforestation commitments. Image: Paul Keller via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The pandemic has provided a wake-up call for companies and governments that were set to miss their 2020 sustainability targets, believes sustainability and risk management veteran Aida Greenbury.

It has forced them to speed up measures to address biodiversity loss, escalating emissions and other underlying causes of crises, said Greenbury. “When humans do not act, nature will,” she said. “Covid-19 has forced us to work harder to get back on track.”

Greenbury was recently appointed to global communications firm APCO Worldwide’s international advisory council, a group of more than 100 distinguished leaders around the world who provide counsel to businesses and governments. She previously served as managing director of sustainability at Asia Pulp & Paper Group for 13 years and led the global company’s efforts to shift to a new, responsible business model based on zero-deforestation.

In a wide-ranging conversation with James Yi, managing director of APCO Southeast Asia and Korea, Greenbury spoke about how countries and corporations can adopt circular bio-based economies and pursue inclusive growth.

You’re one of our newest members to the APCO international advisory council for Asia—a group comprised of more than 100 global leaders. Tell us what it’s been like.

Aida Greenbury

Aida Greenbury, international advisory council member of APCO Worldwide. Image: Aida Greenbury

My background is in forestry and wood science, so knowledge about forests, biodiversity, climate change, social issues and natural resource industries has been drilled into me by my father, who was a forestry professor, and by many great leaders in my professional life. I’ve also been lucky enough to have held several interesting positions which addressed many major crises in this space throughout my career.

Today more than ever, the way that sustainability is perceived as a hot media topic has also pushed me to understand public relations and stakeholder engagement strategies. One should never forget that a solid sustainability strategy is the result of engaging with, digesting and incorporating input from different stakeholders. In that regard, public relations and communications is central to any good sustainability strategy.

In joining the APCO international advisory board a year ago, I thought that this would be an excellent way to pair my skills and knowledge to help other organisations. A good strategy that requires a big change can be scary. I told a journalist some years ago that sometimes it feels like jumping off a cliff and trusting your wings to grow on the way down. Terrifying, yes, but then you will be able to fly high with a bird’s eye view.

James Yi APCO

James Yi, managing director of APCO Southeast Asia and Korea. Image: APCO Worldwide

Do you think we have lost ground on any of our Agenda 2030 climate action goals as a result of Covid-19? If so, how do we get back on track?

I do not think Covid-19 had made us lose ground on our climate action goals at all; in fact, I think it has forced us to face them.

It has already been reported that most of the carbon emission reduction pledges for 2030, made by 184 countries under the Paris Agreement, are not enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Countries need to double or triple their 2030 reduction commitments, or else the failure to reduce emissions will cost the world a minimum of US$2 billion per day in economic losses.

I think we have already started paying this cost.

The main problem that I can see is that we have not taken climate change seriously. For example, many organisations, including companies and governments, do not prioritise sustainability budgets. Others will even treat sustainability as a political tool or a one-off public relations exercise.

In 2020, amidst many organisations missing their sustainability targets, Covid-19 arrived and gave us a slap on the face. Climate change, biodiversity loss and escalating emissions are the underlying causes of a lot of different crises, including the novel zoonotic Covid-19. When humans do not act, nature will. Now we have no other choice but to speed up and seriously address the underlying causes of our crises. Now it is a matter of survival. Covid-19 has forced us to work harder to get back on track.

As governments are rolling out stimulus measures to mitigate the fall-out from Covid-19, do you think there’s a risk that they might disregard ecological aspects of the socio-economic recovery? How can we achieve a ‘smart recovery’ that does not replicate unsustainable patterns of the past?

The risks are always there, especially if country leaders only listen to business partners that are focused on the status quo. There many roads that lead to Rome. The voices of global citizens, the power of transparency and the power of the market are often stronger than governments.

People are becoming more aware of the links between zoonotic diseases, deforestation, and interaction with wildlife. Public funding in response to Covid-19 continues to rise to date. We need to ensure that this funding is used responsibly, not only to conduct research for pandemic vaccines, treatment, and emergency responses, but also on prevention efforts. There was a recent report that stated that the total gross cost of such prevention efforts would be up to US$31.2 billion, less than 2 per cent of the total damage from Covid-19 to date, which is up to US$15.8 trillion. A smart long-term recovery plan would cover the prevention cost to avoid even greater economic and climate damage from future pandemics.

Globally, there is a lot of promising progress being made, especially in Europe with its EU Green Deal, biodiversity, and deforestation strategies. Also this year, China made an announcement to suspend the sale and consumption of wildlife that eventually could be passed into law.

But the next 10 years are key. We can witness the climate and forest destruction around us on a daily basis, from coral bleaching to forest fires. The government stimulus must include efforts to end forest and biodiversity destruction now to achieve a smart recovery, in partnership with business leaders and civil society to ensure our survival.

There is a definite shift in citizens’ expectations and demands for a new social contract—especially amongst the vocal and digitally savvy younger generation. How does Covid-19 present an opportunity to re-design our models of social and economic development?

Let us have a look at the no-deforestation pledges. In the mid-2010s, hundreds of companies worldwide announced no-deforestation commitments by 2020. The Chain Reaction Research this year reported that 88 per cent of the top 25 fast moving consumer goods companies are lagging in the execution of their no-deforestation commitments. This finding represents a business model based on over-consumption and short-term profit, and combined with the pandemic, has resulted in uproar within civil society, the vocal and digitally savvy generations. New concepts such as the doughnut and steady state economies became more widely known and are no longer frowned upon. We should focus less on economic growth and more on economic stability.

The responses from some businesses, and governments, are interesting. For example, the EU, the USA and even Indonesia have started to adopt circular bio-based economies. I define this economic model as “the low-carbon, sustainable, harvest and production of renewable biological resources, and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, where the value is maintained in the economy as long as possible, diminishing the ‘waste’ that re-enters the ecosystem, to close the circularity loop”. The focus of the circular bio-based economy ranges from energy, food security, biodiversity, and medicines ­– including pandemic-related biobased value chains – to alternatives to plastics and fossil fuels.

How can international organisations actually contribute to national efforts around climate change meaningfully and in a way that understands local regulations and actions?

First, by making sure that the local key stakeholders lead and take ownership of the efforts. Many international organisations and donors focus too much on box-ticking exercises, fancy reporting and headlines created by foreign partners instead of the sustainability of the climate change programmes on the ground.

We need to change this model; we need to measure the actual impact and the sustainability of the programmes on the ground. Secondly, the international organisations and their programs cannot operate in silo. All these programmes need to be coordinated and adopt a holistic approach. Thirdly, use the existing national regulations as an umbrella to ensure the legitimacy of the programmes. Populate the implementations of the regulations and work with local and central governments and the directly impacted stakeholders to make the programmes work. 

Inclusivity is a big topic now as we discuss economic recovery. What does inclusivity mean in the context of climate action? What do we need to be focusing on to make sure that certain groups don’t get left behind?

I am very supportive of the implementation of the doughnut economy. It suggests that we adopt the ecological—such as the planetary—boundaries as the outer ring of the doughnut and the minimum needed to lead a good life, such as the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals, as the inner ring. The planetary boundaries concept presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Largely due to the past development in “wealthy countries”, today we have breached five of the planetary boundaries, which includes climate change, biodiversity loss and land use change. We need to bring these back to within the limits. The adoption of the minimum social foundations necessary to support quality life, the implementation of the UN-recognised Free Prior Informed Consent and looking at the carrying capacity of the landscapes will help ensure that no one gets left behind. 

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