Can transformative interventions from corporates balance out the evident cooling down of governmental support for green recovery packages?Here, Jonathon Porritt explores negative and positive shifts in sustainability commitments around the world in the latest of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series.

Six months into the pandemic, it’s anybody’s guess whether:

  1. Governments are effectively using their massive recovery programmes to address the Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies;
  2. Businesses are effectively using their voice (and backing words with actions) to encourage governments to seize that opportunity.

Optimists tell us there’s still all to play for; pessimists advise us to ‘follow the money’ and get real. You can see why. An excellent summary from VividEconomics estimates that ‘in 13 of the 16 countries considered, potentially damaging flows outweigh those supporting nature.’ And New Energy Policy Tracker has shown that support for fossil fuel industries has significantly outstripped support for clean energy across G20 countries.

This is not a rich world/poor world story – as we can see in both the US and India. In public policy terms, Trump’s presidency is a basket case when it comes to understanding the upside of low-carbon investment. Who knows, however: now that the man himself is modelling the wearing of face masks so stylishly, maybe his advisers will have him posing in front of a huge Texan windfarm?

And in India, Prime Minister Modi has one foot buried as deep as ever in coal mining, and one in the green fields of solar power – but the big issue in India at the moment is the way in which employers (including the all-powerful coal industry) are using the COVID-19 crisis as cover for rolling back decades of slow but steady progress on labour rights. Ten leading trade unions in India have appealed to the ILO against decisions being taken by several states in India. 

Elsewhere, it’s still a very mixed picture. In an earlier column, I pointed to the scale and ambition of the EU’s huge Next Generation recovery package. After the usual horse-trading and brinkmanship, the final package was confirmed at €750bn – around a third of which is dedicated to low-carbon investments. However, the much-touted Just Transition Fund (to wean countries like Poland and the Czech Republic off their dependence on coal) ended up with just €17.5m, less than half of what was initially proposed. No wonder that Greta Thunberg was damning in her response to such a compromised outcome, pointing out that EU leaders still don’t seem to understand that a Climate Emergency demands emergency responses.

It’s more or less the same half-hearted fumbling here in the UK. Rishi Sunak’s heavily trailed Green Industrial Revolution’ turned out to be neither very green nor revolutionary. Even the £2bn identified for retrofitting housing stock in the UK is no more than 25% of the commitment made in the Conservative Party’s Election Manifesto in December last year. Objectively speaking, this is all hugely disappointing. Far from these huge recovery programmes being seized hold of as ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’, it’s the usual, ‘bit of this, bit of that’.

Which leaves us, yet again, looking to business for more progressive interventions. A number of trade bodies around the world have been busy defending pre-COVID advances, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. In South-East Asia, numerous efforts are under way to ‘pivot’ different sectors towards more sustainable practices, including the Asian Shipowners’ Association and Food Industry Asia. But the focus, understandably, has been on helping members cope with the many impacts of COVID-19.

That said, a number of NGOs advising businesses are confident that ‘lessons learned’ from the pandemic will strengthen the case for corporate sustainability. Globescan and BSR surveyed 102 businesses regarding the likely consequences of the pandemic, and the majority felt that there would be a marked increase in the importance of corporate sustainability. And the B Team has been busy calling on business to deepen its partnerships with trade unions, civil society organisations and human rights defenders.

Beyond that, happily, we’re still seeing a number of companies doubling down on their decarbonisation commitments, particularly Big Tech companies. Microsoft has convened a further eight major companies (Maersk, Mercedes-Benz, Natura, Nike, Starbucks, Unilever, Wipro and Danone) in a new ‘Transform to Net Zero’ initiative, supported by both BSR and the Environmental Defense Fund. Interestingly, all members have committed to engage with policymakers to lobby for the kind of low-carbon policies and investments which will make Net Zero possible. Elsewhere, We Mean Business has joined forces with Amazon to persuade all 1,280 companies involved in We Mean Business to set Net Zero commitments by 2040. 

Perhaps most encouragingly of all, Apple has radically upped its game by committing to be carbon neutral by 2030, guaranteeing that all devices sold by them will have ‘zero climate impact’, with all its suppliers mandated to use only renewable electricity by that date – otherwise they will be de-listed. And a lot of good stuff in the announcement about getting rid of the plastic packaging (by 2025), and recycling all the rare earths on which its devices depend.

With the politicians still hopelessly stuck in yesterday’s carbon-intensive world, we’d better enjoy the good stuff coming from the corporates – and just make sure they deliver on all these fine words. 

Interested in finding out more about the Transform trajectory? Take a look at Forum's latest Future of Sustainability report, titled 'From System Shock to System Change - Time to Transform'. 

The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact – both in terms of lives lost and economic disruption. At Forum for the Future, we believe that it would be tragic to go back to yesterday’s “business-as-usual”; moments of radical disruption like this provide unprecedented opportunities to reinvent the future. We are therefore calling for business, governments, civil society and communities to seize this moment in helping to deliver a more just, sustainable and resilient world. 

Visit our COVID-19 content hub to find out more.