Climate change: It’s time for CEOs and mayors to join forces

Recognising the limits of individual efforts, companies are now joining forces to lobby for changes in policy and in financial markets. This places the city in the middle of the sustainability conversation, John Elkington says.

sustainable elkington
With more than half the world's population living in cities, urban centers have a significant role to play in the fight against climate change. More city-led sustainability initiatives are being established to contribute to the global conversation. Image: Shutterstock

“I found Rome a city of bricks,’ boasted Emperor Augustus, “and left it a city of marble.”

Progress of a sort, but today’s city mayors face different challenges. Pope Francis, Rome’s most famous current resident, is now engaging 50 city mayors and governors from around the world to work out how best to tackle challenges like climate extremes and the eradication of poverty.

Although I have antibodies to religion, I am excited by the Pope’s recent interventions. It would be wonderful if other holy cities - including Jerusalem and Mecca - would follow suit. Meanwhile, let’s think of the Vatican as the world’s longest-running business, the Pope as its CEO, and encourage rapid improvements in its sustainability performance on all fronts, including population control.

That said, the meetings on July 21 and 22 were convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Which sounds serious. The July 21 session 21 was titled, “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: The Commitment of The Cities” while the July 22 session focused the evolving triple bottomline agenda under the heading, “Prosperity, People and Planet: Achieving Sustainable Development in Our Cities”.

All of this was sluicing through my brain as I stood up to keynote the first meeting of a new cities-based initiative, baseEUcities. Of all places, this was held in one of the ‘balls’ of the extraordinary Atomium structure in Brussels, now a powerful symbol for the city.

Ironically, when it was built for the Brussels World Fair of 1958, the thinking was that the structure (representing an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times) would be dismantled once the Fair was over. But popular demand intervened.

Popular demand can be a wonderful thing. Indeed, it is a motive force in our modern democracies. But it is far from infallible, like the process of design itself.

When the stainless-steel-clad Atomium was first designed, the shining balls were simply meant to rest on the top of a series of shining stainless steel ‘sticks,’ held in place by their own weight. Then wind tunnel tests showed they could have toppled over in wind speed of 80 kilometers per hour.

It was just as well that they changed the design: Belgium later recorded wind speeds as high as 140 kph.

So the Atomium can also be seen as a symbol of the challenges that cities face as climate change builds.

Meanwhile, the notion that cities are central is trending in part because the world’s urban population crossed the 50 per cent line in 2008 and is headed toward the 70 per cent point by mid-century. There are many plus points, of course, but the negative economic, social, environmental and political impacts are also likely to be profound.

Originally trained as a city planner, I switched to environmental impact assessment, then focused in on business and markets. I still believe that there is huge potential to help individual companies switch on to the sustainability agenda and to bring their supply chains and sectors up to speed.

Cities, too, offer a critical leverage point for pushing the necessary changes at scale. If we are to have any hope of switching from incremental approaches to tackling the “bad exponentials” that threaten us all to driving “good exponentials,” we must follow Pope Francis’s lead and help mobilize city designers, planners, managers, and mayors and governors. 

But I hear a growing number of CEOs and other business leaders, albeit often behind closed doors, fretting that there are real limits to the company-by-company approach.

Instead, some of them are joining leading edge business-to-business platforms. mong them are The B Team, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, We Mean Business and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals coalition.

There is also a dawning recognition that business must lobby for changes in both government policy and, even more challenging, financial markets. Some necessary next steps in relation to the second of these are outlined in the Generation Foundation’s latest white paper “Allocating Capital For Long-Term Returns”.

Cities, too, offer a critical leverage point for pushing the necessary changes at scale. If we are to have any hope of switching from incremental approaches to tackling the “bad exponentials” that threaten us all to driving “good exponentials,” we must follow Pope Francis’s lead and help mobilize city designers, planners, managers, and mayors and governors.

The Vatican is not alone in this field. We have seen a series of fascinating initiatives launched by the likes of C40, now associated with over 70 cities worldwide, and Sustainia, which has joined forces with C40 to launch a call for entries for their 2015 Cities listing, titled “Building the Cities of Tomorrow.”

One question I was asked in an interview ahead of the baseEUcities Atomium networking event was why we need yet another city-targeted initiative.

My answer: the scale of the challenge means that it’s an all-hands-to-the-pumps moment—and, like it or not, a degree of competition can be healthy.

But, as baseEUcities project leader Daniella Abreu told the audience, their October event is a trade fair, potentially creating a platform for everyone. She previously worked with Skanska, the Swedish construction company, and is acutely aware that urban and infrastructure markets depend on factors way outside the control of individual companies.

So will 2015 be the year when a critical mass of city mayors decide to move beyond local marble-clad vanity projects to co-evolve a global legacy based on resilience and wider sustainability?

They should. You don’t have to be the mayor of Detroit to know that even once-unstoppable cities can endure near-death experiences, even without climate change.

In their Sustainable Cities Index, Arcadis use a People, Planet & Profit benchmark, seven of the top 10 cities were European. So baseEUcities clearly has solid foundations on which to build.

But, at a time when popular demand is not yet insisting that thousands of cities join forces to help cool the planet, we must do the politics, in Brussels and elsewhere. And let’s pray that the Pope and the Holy See continue to give air cover and wings to the wider effort.

John Elkington is co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans. He also co-founded SustainAbility (where he is Honorary Chairman) and Environmental Data Services (ENDS). His latest book, The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, is co-authored with Jochen Zeitz and published by Jossey-Bass. May sees the launch of his latest report, The Stretch Agenda and a new online resource, The Breakthrough Forecast. He tweets as @volansjohn. 

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