As 2015 draws to a close, the BSR team is still riding high from COP21, and we’re already getting to work with our members and partners to build the low-carbon economy signaled by the Paris Agreement. This year had its share of difficult global moments, but we were inspired by the historic worldwide cooperation of the Paris climate talks, as leaders from all sectors combined forces to head off one of our greatest global challenges.
The powerful sense that we are all in this together defined many of the sustainability developments of 2015. New partnerships formed among unlikely bedfellows, business took on a lead role in global progress, and actors beyond the usual suspects appeared in sustainability conversations.
We came into 2015 knowing that two major global agreements would be on the table: the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September, and the adoption of a new international climate agreement at COP21 in December.
The adoption of the SDGs communicated two important points. First, the new global goals brought sustainable development to the fore—underlining that economic growth cannot come at the expense of the vulnerable, or of the environment. BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer noted that the “SDGs redefined global objectives, linking climate and health, among other issues, with economic development.” Only through a holistic approach to growth that includes public health, equality and rights, and environmental protections, among other issues, will we see inclusive—and long-term—economic benefits.
Second, unlike the previous Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs apply to all countries of all incomes, not just the bottom of the pyramid. Given the just-released report of a UN working group on the disheartening status of women in the United States, this is an urgent priority. Additionally, the 2015 focus on living wage issues among U.S. retail workers, as well as diversity and gender inequality in the technology sector and other industries, underlines the importance of inclusive-economy issues in the developed world, as well as in developing economies.
A successful outcome at the COP21 climate talks was more tenuous than a new sustainable development agenda, and it relied on strong-voiced leadership and cooperation from all sectors.
In terms of government leadership, the United States and China in particular set the tone for the year, such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitments and executive orders (like the Clean Power Plan), as well as the joint statement from the two countries. And religious leaders stepped into the climate story, from Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate and social justice, to statements from Jewish and Islamic leaders in support of climate action. These developments, followed by national climate commitments by more than 180 countries and a successful Paris Agreement, gave political and moral authority to global climate action, and set the stage for greater ambition by both government and business.
Business leadership on climate was also at an all-time high in 2015. We saw big climate commitments, such as General Mills’ science-based climate targets, from companies that we do not usually name among the top corporate sustainability leaders. In more good news, we saw a “race to the top” among technology companies on powering data centers with renewable energy, including through BSR’s Future of Internet Power, among other efforts. Investors, insurers, and utilities also demonstrated that there was a new, low-carbon game in town: Major institutions, including AXA and Bank of America, BNP Paribas, and Morgan Stanley, cut investments in the coal industry, and Enel, NRG, and EON SE embraced clean energy. At the COP21 negotiations this December, the business community also had a strong voice supporting an ambitious climate agreement through the BSR-cofounded We Mean Business coalition and other groups.
The adoption of the Paris Agreement “puts the world on a path to decarbonized prosperity,” Cramer told us recently, which marks a significant shift for our work at BSR. In 2016, we will no longer be talking about “business in a climate-constrained world,” but rather about “business in a climate-compatible world,” as our climate lead, Managing Director Edward Cameron, has said. Business and all other sectors have signaled a readiness to join and contribute to a thriving, clean economy.
Heading into the new year, our collective challenge is to turn the “2015 moment” into a “2016 movement.” We know that the significant progress of 2015 will falter without persistent leadership—and without raising ambition levels over time. From climate change to inclusive growth, business has an important role to play through innovation, financing, and partnership development. Companies should look at how they can drive inclusive benefits among local communities, as well as how they can heighten their sustainability commitments and integrate human rights, climate action, and other key issues into their business strategies. We’ll be sharing this ambition and these stories with you throughout the coming year, as we work with business to set the bar even higher to create a sustainable future for us all.