Unilever CEO Paul Polman calls on the private sector to secure binding COP21 agreement

Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever, One Young World Counsellor and Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. This article was originally published in Devex Impact.

Involve business to secure binding COP21 agreement

This week the eyes of the world are, once again, on Paris as world leaders gather for the COP21 climate summit.

The tragic events of Nov. 13 will be in the forefront of our minds of course. The events of that night shook us — we feared for our colleagues, our families and our friends.

But it means I will head to Paris with even more determination — to support this great city and to ensure we don’t waste this opportunity to make a difference. The decisions made at the Paris climate conference affect everyone and everyone has a role to play in making sure we get the agreement we need. Make no mistake, a failure to secure an ambitious consensus at COP21 could have a devastating impact on the future of our planet. The stakes really are that high.


Private sector responsibility

Climate change could wipe out development gains of the last century in little more than a generation. The World Bank estimates that it could push more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030. A high level of ambition is needed from Paris. We need to see businesses doing more to tackle climate change in their own operations and encouraging world leaders to be bold.

There is much that businesses can do.

Here at Unilever, we have achieved a million tonnes of carbon savings across our manufacturing and zero waste to landfill in all of our factories and much of our energy used in Europe and the U.S. is from sustainable sources. We innovate to reduce water-use and packaging in our products and are committed to eliminating deforestation completely. Reaching two billion consumers every day, we hope this can make a real difference. And we're encouraging others to adopt similar innovations.

For example, we have waived the patent on our compressed-deodorant technology to help the whole industry cut its aerosol carbon footprint by 25 percent. There’s always more that can be done of course and we continue to strive to find new ways to ensure we enshrine a sustainable legacy.

Last week we announced our target to be carbon positive by 2030. This includes the sourcing of 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources and all the electricity we source from the grid to be renewable by 2020. Any surplus will be made available to the markets and communities in which we operate.

This is a very challenging aim, but the drive, determination and sense of purpose of partners and colleagues all over the world, mean it is one I believe we can achieve.

It is my hope that we will look back on COP21 as a defining moment but we cannot achieve what we need to if we are not united. Just as the world came together in solidarity after the Paris attacks so we have to stand side by side once more. Differences must be put aside to ensure that, come Dec. 12, we have an ambitious and binding agreement that we can all get behind.

A transformative change?

Just last month, I found myself talking to hundreds of bright, ambitious 18-30 years old in Bangkok. The One Young World summit brings together brilliant, young change makers from around the world each year.  

Many of them were actively involved in raising awareness of the Global Goals, and are committed to being the generation that ends extreme poverty and begins to tackle climate change. It is to these millennials who we will turn to find innovative ways to ensure the future of our planet. If COP21 is going to be the beginning of a transformative change in the way we live, work and do business then it is vital that they and everyone is a part of that.

Here are five things that we spoke about and I urge people everywhere to do what they can to improve our chances of making the Paris climate talks a success:

1. Inform yourself.

Follow the news and understand what’s at stake — it’s not just about the number of emissions, it’s about biodiversity, oceans, forests, water, health, poverty, hunger… Know the economic arguments for action and the differing views of those attending. The more people are informed the more powerful our collective voice will be and the more likely we are to affect change.

2. Help build scale and momentum.

A local charity or NGO might be organising activities you can get involved with. If you aren’t available during COP21 these organizations are looking for informed individuals to fundraise and spread awareness all year round.

3. Tell your governments what you want.

Make sure your government knows that you expect them to play a part in a binding agreement at COP21. Perhaps contact your local political representatives or sign a petition in your local area calling for decisive action.

4. Spread the word and mobilize those around you.

Make it your business to tell other people about climate change, COP21 and how important it is. Chat to co-workers, family and friends and encourage them to get involved. Or simply join the debate on social media using #COP21 to follow what’s going on.

5. Reward businesses that do the right thing.

Be discerning about where you buy the products you use every day. Vote with your wallet if you don’t like what you see and hear — your voice is a powerful tool. As I said everyone has a role to play in COP21 and that includes business.

Any agreement must commit us to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, which is the only way we can confidently avoid the 2 degrees Celsius global warming threshold to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change. We only have one planet and we may only have one chance to get this right. We all have a role to play, let’s all do our bit.