In a few weeks, delegates from governments around the world will convene in Paris at the 21stConference of Parties to try and hammer out an agreement for meaningful action on climate change. Most readers who have come to this page are fully aware of the critical importance of this meeting. We may have signed petitions, contacted our representatives, written op-eds or even articles in publications like this one. But for most of us, all we can do at this point is to wait and hope for the kind of outcome that all of us, whose vision is not clouded by billions of dollars, know that we need.
As a publication with an emphasis on what businesses are doing to bring about a sustainable future, we decided to take a look, as we kick off this new series, at what some leading companies are doing, beyond sitting by and hoping for a good result.
The conversation begins just outside of Copenhagen, where we had the opportunity to sit down with Peder Holk Nielsen, CEO of Novozymes, a biotechnology company that consistently ranks among the top in sustainability rankings (and who happen to be sponsoring our independent COP21 coverage). Their products as well as their operating philosophy are steeped in a vision of a sustainable future. The specialized enzymes they have developed enable biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, cold water laundry detergents, numerous contributions to the circular economy, including waste-to-fuel, and, most recently, the development of bio-agricultural products which add micro-organisms to seed coatings that allow the plants to take up nutrients more efficiently.
Triple Pundit: Recent events, such as the agreement between the U.S. and China, have hopes running high. Do you share those?
Peder Holk Nielsen: High hopes, yes, but also this feeling that time is running out and that things have to happen and they need to happen fast. Decisions are badly needed. I’ve heard Al Gore use this one punchline several times. He says that “luckily, political will is a renewable resource.” And every time I hear it, I feel like standing up and screaming, “yes, but it’s a scarce resource!”
That’s where I think we are now. We need the political will to make it happen. And I don’t think Novozymes are experts in the process of making that happen. But we are, as a company, seeking impact on this agenda, We are jumping on various soapboxes, to shout out to politicians that 1) time is running out, 2) decisions are badly needed, and 3) which is perhaps most important, many of the technologies that can actually help us are already available.
I think you’re aware of all these consultancy reports, and I think the most well-known is the McKenzie Abatement Curve, where you can look at the necessary CO2 mitigation that needs to happen to stay below 450 ppm. Actually two-thirds of those technologies are available. Of those, one third has been shown to be economically advantageous, while another third is roughly neutral. Then there is one-third where it’s complicated, and expensive, which means, we really don’t understand how to do it yet.
Politically, I think that sometimes that last one-third becomes the excuse for not doing anything. I fail to understand why we don’t do the two-thirds that we already understand how to do. But that requires transformation in our various societies, which, of course, is not a simple thing. And it’s not going to happen unless there is political will.
3p: Do you have a battle plan for adding your voice to this argument?
PHN: As a company, we have a battle plan for how we can actually affect this. As you know, we are suppliers into the renewable energy sector, we have quite a few technologies that go into energy efficiency, and many that go into sustainability in terms of the circular economy in many different ways. So, we have a lot of “tech talk” that we can do, to demonstrate that these technologies really do exist. That’s where we usually start from. Then we work at the United Nations, both at the sustainability conference, and climate conferences. We also work under the Sustainable Energy For All umbrella, which is a partnership between the UN and the World Bank, leading one of the high impact opportunities called Sustainable Bio-energy for All. Then, we are involved in the various COP meetings and have been for the past 6-7 years. We are involved in trying to set the agenda for B20 meetings within the G20. Then we are also involved with local governments, we are trying to get involved with the American administration. We work with other people in the U.S., to try to affect the upcoming primaries and the presidential election. Of course, Novozymes is just a mid-sized European company, so there’s a limit to how much we can put at work here, but if we join forces with a number of other people, we can at least get our voice heard. And of course, Iowa [where the company has a research facility] is not a bad place to try to spin a renewable fuels agenda.
We try to work with the European Union. We are well-connected in China, and are also connected in India and Brazil and of course, here in Denmark where our headquarters are located.
In Paris, we’ll get to sit with the delegates before the actual meetings in a roundtable format, to try to influence them and to try and put words to the technology, both in terms of what it can do now, and what it would be able to do if there was the political will to use it.
3p: So, if you had a minute alone with a critical delegate in an elevator, what would you say to him or her?
PHN: The usual speech would be “don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.” Let’s try to do what we can now, and then quickly approach some of the key technologies. Then I would talk about our contribution which is to use nature’s own technologies to help us solve some of these problems.
Nielsen closed by talking about how there is “still a lot more money to be made from unsustainable behavior.” We have to counter that, he said, “with facts and political courage.”
While in Copenhagen, we also dropped in on Susanne Sturmer, VP of Sustainability at Novo Nordisk, another sustainability leader. When we asked her about the role of business in the upcoming Paris talks, she said, “What we are sensing are tectonic shifts between business, government and civil society. So the logic as we see it, that speaks to the COP and whatever else you want to talk about, is that business has a growing influence and role in society, as an economic factor. That’s what we are. But we are also a social factor and we certainly are an environmental factor.”
She framed the question in terms of “enlightened self-interest,” harking back to the UN Global Compacts put in place by Kofi Annan. We discussed the business case — self-interest. It comes down to how aware company leaders are about the extent they depend on conditions that they operate in, and the importance of not impacting those conditions adversely. That might mean ensuring a supply of skilled employees, or the need for clean water for their production facilities, or a stable economy in which their customers can afford to buy their products.
Like Novozymes, they too, will attend the talks, and take advantage of opportunities to speak with delegates. “Politicians are just humans too. They want to be informed by people who are in the know. So if they meet people who can speak sensibly and be a business voice, they would be happy to. There are canyons, but they can be bridged.”
Finally, another Scandinavian company, Volvo, with headquarters in Sweden, will hold a series of meetings in Stockholm, just before the Paris summit, convening business leaders, with stakeholders in government and civil society to discuss how business can contribute to sustainable development. The forum, entitled Next Stop Paris” is the theme for this year’s Volvo Group Sustainability Forum, which will be led by Professor Johan Rockström, Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre. Rockström is perhaps best known for his nine planetary boundaries that map out the other areas where human activities could potentially put us in peril.