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A sustainable economy can only be created if it works for everyone

Stephen Prendiville


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Tackling climate change requires a rethink across business and government to succeed

Tackling climate change requires a rethink across business and government to succeed

Tackling climate change requires a rethink across business and government to succeed

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the challenge that faces government and businesses as they seek to rebuild livelihoods and shattered global economies. The economic recovery from the pandemic must not come at the expense of our sustainability goals. Now is the time to strengthen our resolve, to build back better and braver, with resilience, agility, adaptability and sustainability as core tenets for progress.

In the five years since 2015 we've made little progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The pain of the pandemic did not make much difference, bringing about just a 5.9pc emissions reduction in 2020. We completely missed our 2020 target of 20pc emission reductions and have left ourselves with a steep mountain to climb as an economy.

We cannot merely focus on one or two of the SDGs in order to make quick progress on either. We must address each of them together. The pandemic has given the planet a chance to breathe and it's shown us the importance of being ready for global shocks. An inevitable side-effect of progressing climate action when a pandemic has already disrupted our world and disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable, will be the further displacement of jobs, businesses and industries around the world. The discussion about the future of the office, while good for climate action as it will reduce the amount of commuting public, will provide little comfort to the office cleaners, janitors, coffee baristas and so on, who rely on the established routine of people gathering in a concentrated area to work.

Mitigating climate change and meeting the remainder of the SDGs requires deep and meaningful collaboration between government and business, the establishment of structures to support negatively impacted people, and the creation of real incentives for people and organisations to change their behaviour. Addressing only the climate change element of the SDGs would be to inherently misinterpret the spirit in which the goals were conceived and to debunk the entire concept of sustainability.

Areas for collaboration are surprisingly obvious. The UN SGDs call out the need to pursue sustainable cities. The first two targets under that goal is to create sustainable and affordable housing along with the provision of sustainable public transport. The implication of both targets being linked to the singular goal are obvious - governments and developers must work closely together to plan and deliver sustainable transport and housing, as one begets the other.

The urgency with which the discussions are unfolding are outpacing the traditional and slow development processes that have epitomised legislative and policy development. Simply put - the rules can't keep up with the ideas and the enthusiasm for change. It's not that there isn't some fantastic work being done, but as a collective business community, sustainability must be first fully understood and from there, crucially, organisations need to take bold action quickly - they can't wait for the ink to dry on rules that may need to be changed soon anyway. This will become more apparent for everyone as a new Climate Action Plan comes forward from our Government in due course, and COP 26 in Glasgow is almost certainly going to bring even more changes and bold actions. The US re-entering the fray may also bring fresh momentum.

The only way to make progress towards achieving our sustainability goals is to generate momentum and to sustain it. From EY's perspective (specifically relating to climate change), we are pushing beyond our original carbon neutral objective that we achieved in December 2020 and committing to be carbon negative this year. It's going to take work and involves a rethink across our whole business, from supply chain, to travel, to energy sources, real estate, and working models. But it's important work and we are committed to doing it.

This year is the year for all of us, both business and government, to build back society and the economy, braver. We must accept that our plans and strategies will not always be perfect, but will be part of an imperfect, evolutionary and incremental step on our journey. We won't always get it right. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and change our plans as we learn. We need to be resilient in the face of what is likely to be, a state of constant disruption for the coming decades. We must lean into the uncertainty and press ahead.

The number one risk to all of us in achieving our climate action goals is inertia. We have been talking about climate change, climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals and launched various initiatives since 2015 but we haven't, as a collective, made meaningful progress to this point.

Businesses are in the fortunate position where we can see the perfect storm approaching. Companies that take timely action to understand, plan for and take action to mitigate the risks of climate change and embrace the opportunities of sustainability and long-term value creation will also be best positioned to succeed in the coming decade and beyond.

Stephen Prendiville is EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

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