Last week, Climate Week NYC  brought thousands together to showcase climate action and highlight the need to do more. Discussion ranged from energy and food transition to health, livelihoods and equality. It was an inspiring week; one that saw the United Nations declare the 2020s, ‘the decade of delivery’. But it was also frustrating in parts: time is running out and while progress has been made, are we too self-congratulatory, staying comfortable within our own echo chambers? Are we really delivering enough at the scale and pace needed? 

For those that weren’t there, Forum’s Chief Executive, Sally Uren, shares insights from what the team saw and heard on the ground, as well as six areas that we hope all of us can focus on, whether or not we were in New York.

Asking big questions in the Big Apple

Against a backdrop suitably chaotic for the city that never sleeps (a subway system that doesn’t close; iconic skyscrapers shadowing an estimated 8.55 million people; thousands of sustainability professionals from multiple sectors running between back-to-back meetings; glitzy soirees; everyone competing for the spotlight), the Forum team embraced a wide-ranging itinerary. 

Our co-hosted events saw us join the United Nations Global Compact in the UN to launch the Health Is Everyone’s Business Leadership Brief, which highlights the interdependencies between people and planetary health and calls for interventions that have potential for multiple benefits across multiple systems.

We stood alongside the Sustainable Shipping Initiative to debate the role of biofuels in decarbonising the shipping industry, and partnered with the Transit Center to explore how we can rapidly decarbonise and improve the way people get around U.S. cities. All the while, joining side-events on wide-ranging and emergent areas such as youth activism, just transitions and climate adaptation.

It was a stimulating five days, with much-needed discussion and debate, but of course the irony of thousands flying to a climate summit is not lost on anyone, begging the question: just how impactful was Climate Week? 

The value comes in what’s next. We’ve talked about what needs to be done, now the conversation needs to move on to the how. Where do we focus our efforts to ensure meaningful delivery? Reflecting on what we saw and heard, we see six areas as critical to addressing the climate crisis, some of which came through loud and clear at Climate Week; others, not so much.

Six areas to focus on:

  1. Raising awareness and deepening understanding of how to deliver system change for sustainability

While the need for system change was on everyone’s lips last week – referenced at least once during every event we were at - the interventions discussed were too often not systemic at all. 

In fact, they were typically isolated or short-term, lacking the potential to deliver transformational, long-term change. They frequently failed to address the root cause of an issue, or to attempt to change the mindsets, values and behaviours that drive our currently unsustainable trajectory.

We need to bridge the gap between system change rhetoric and real action. This means looking at the fundamental systems on which we rely – food, energy, shipping, health – with a focus not on the individual parts, but on how they are interacting. Our world is dynamic and complex, and a system change approach recognises this.

It means reconfiguring the relationships between different aspects within a system towards sustainability outcomes. I’ve previously covered six steps to delivering a systems-changing strategy, as well as how you can tackle common barriers that may hold you back. So, there’s no excuse to not get started.

  1. Recognising that the goals of a system need to fundamentally change

Embracing system change means recognising that our current systems are no longer fit-for-purpose. Consider our global food system and how it’s putting relentless pressure on the very land that sustains it. Or our energy system and its fuelling of carbon emissions and climate breakdown. 

We all need to acknowledge what changing the goals of our systems might look like. It’s a daunting prospect and one that forces us to challenge our preconceptions of how the world works, but it’s vital to delivering change. For example, what could a commercial model that prioritises long-term economic, social and environmental viability over short-term profit look like? And crucially, how can we align the incentives needed to make it happen?

  1. Recognising the inter-connected nature of climate-related risks across multiple systems and sectors

There is still not enough conversation about the raft of indirect impacts of climate change. From impacts on human health to the disruption of food supply to triggering mass migration and social upheaval, there is not yet a widespread awareness that the impacts of climate change go well beyond adverse weather conditions.

We need everyone, everywhere, to recognise the dependencies between the world’s sustainability issues, and therefore the potential of their interventions to have multiple benefits across multiple systems.  

  1. Putting people at the heart of the transition

Probably the biggest shift in people’s thinking at Climate Week was widespread recognition of the need to put people at the centre of change. There are real signs of hope that this is possible: millions are marching across the world and we’re seeing people-led climate innovations at local, national and international scale. Take for example, our PowerPaired initiative, which – with support from the People’s Postcode Lottery – is putting renewable energy into community hands.  There’s also the growing and ever meaningful conversation of a ‘Just Transition’.

  1. Walking the talk around collaboration

We know that the world’s issues are too big for any one person, company or government to tackle alone, and while we’re all talking – a lot! – about collaboration, are we actually doing it? What became clear at Climate Week was just how similar many initiatives, campaigns and innovations – often developed in isolation of one another – there now are.

The result? Intense competition for attention and for the resources needed to fund the work. 

We need more collaboration between markets, sectors and industries, pooling ideas and resources while openly sharing learnings. Only then can we avoid duplication and maximise efficiency. Examples of successful collaborations abound, each bringing together wide-ranging players in pre-competitive initiatives capable of prototyping innovations and scaling up existing activities for impact. Right now, there is an urgent and critical need to align similar initiatives to bring additionality and acceleration of impact.

  1. Striking the right balance between appealing to the head and the heart

This year, with the spotlight on the climate crisis, there has been more mainstream media attention and public outcry than ever before, but we need to recognise that an emotional appeal only goes so far in creating the space for change.

There’s no doubt that emotive moments such as the millions marching in the Global Climate Strike help make demands for urgent and decisive action. However, we then need to bolster these with rational cases for change, made so well by successful initiatives such as the RE 100, a group of the world’s most influential companies committed to 100% renewable power. We need game-changing sustainability strategies that respond to the scale of the emergency with solutions that deliver rapid and deep decarbonisation throughout the 2020s. 

So what does it all mean for Forum?

In more ways than one, times are changing at an unprecedented pace and based in part on our experience from Climate Week, Forum is focusing its priorities. Among them, we will:

  • Play our part in limiting net global warming to 1.5°C by ensuring we help deliver cross-cutting programmes that drive multiple benefits across multiple systems and geographies
  • Continue to challenge the ambition behind partner sustainability strategies, and be bold and honest in our critique where goals fall short
  • Demonstrate what effective collaboration looks like and ensure we’re working with pioneers and leaders best-placed to deliver impact. The time for ego and self-interest is over; we’re better together, and need to capitalise on that
  • Equip and inspire change-makers to drive system change. It’s never been more important and our School of System Change is leading the way
  • Promote on-the-ground, real-world examples of system change for sustainability and share practice across the movement.

Our strategy is evolving. Is yours? 

As the decade of delivery hits, we all need to ask ourselves how we can create the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time. We need ambition and alignment. A more sustainable future is still within our grasp, but only just.