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Community Insights Energy & Green Tech Sustainable Development Goals

The Hour Is Dark, But the Future Could Be Green

It Is Also the Way To Recovery

Let’s combine lessons from the pandemic with the momentum of the righteous protest against racial injustice to work towards a sustainable future. Industry, civil society, and people from all walks of life must ensure substantial change.  CEO and stakeholder activism are essential.

We are deep into the most serious health crisis in 100 years, which has brought us straight into the most serious peacetime economic recession in 100 years. The Covid-19 virus is still raging in large parts of the US, with the pandemic epicenter moving towards South America, Africa and India. More financially developed regions of the world, such as Europe, are gradually on their way to normal.  But what kind of normal? And how do we face up to the fact that our pre-Covid “normal” was seriously flawed?

The privileged parts of the world generally have turned a blind eye to an escalating global crisis.  Multiple crises, in fact – crises of trust, disparity, conflicts, the environment, energy, food insecurity, water, health, human rights, and structural racism, all now voiced by thousands.  And amidst all this, we are still facing the serious and imminent threat to our climate, and the risk that climate change is irreparable and irreversible. (A new report from an international group of scientists reinforces the likelihood that global warming, unchecked, will be severe.)

When world leaders managed to agree on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, it was a momentous breakthrough. The breakthrough was made especially historic by the recognition by heads of state across the world that no substantial change could be achieved without the active participation of the private sector. Since then, we have seen substantial positive change, largely driven by the capacity and resources of private industry.

But we can’t hide from the fact that we still find ourselves in a life-threatening mess.

Our climate is still in crisis, people continue to struggle under structural injustice and financial inequality, and the overall trajectory is downward and negative. This may be even more so in a post-pandemic world hit by an economic downturn, which has wiped out decades of economic and job growth worldwide.

So, beginning with our potentially most life-threatening crisis, how will the climate and green agenda fare, as we fight our way out of the current pandemic?

The biggest risk is that we opt for a quick and dirty recovery that sacrifices the environment in the favor of short-term economic activity, rather than realize the potential gains of a green recovery. Climate efforts may seem costly to national decision-makers facing difficult choices of suffering national budgets and the imminent problems of public health and unemployment. But this may be our last chance to reverse the climate crisis and repair the planet. We cannot afford to be short-sighted by prioritizing money over human existence.

On the plus side, our efforts to fight the pandemic have taught us valuable lessons in collaboration and accelerated research and innovation throughout the world. We are benefitting from faster learning, new ways of communicating and an increased focus on new or different priorities. The full potential of online meetings and work from home does not simply save office rent and travel expenses, but also leads to reduced carbon emissions. This climate lesson is acute and valuable and cannot be ignored as we move forward.

Our most important opportunity lies in ensuring that our economic recovery efforts integrate accelerated green investments and the continued efforts of transitioning to a green economy.  Not only does our planet need this, but it is quite frankly good business.

Within 30 years, decarbonization could boost cumulative global GDP with gains of USD $98 trillion and quadruple jobs in the green energy sector from 11 million to 42 million. It’s possible! Global green frontrunners have shown the way: Denmark, for which I long served as a diplomat, has reduced its CO2 emissions by more than half since their peak in 1996. And it has simultaneously increased employment in the green energy sector by a dramatic 27 percent since 2012.  The European Commission’s €1.85 trillion seven-year budget and pandemic recovery package is lighting the way for green ambitions, and the US green economy already has created 10 times more jobs than the fossil fuels industry. That is a statistic that bears repeating as often as possible–a green economy creates more jobs. Strong public-private partnerships are the basis for just about all of these gains.

Resilience is the Covid-19 buzzword. As we build more resilient societies, we should ensure true resilience through sustainability. We possess the experience and knowledge to expect that companies in 2020 will practice responsible digital leadership by supporting sustainable business; in practice, this support will leverage digital possibilities and ensure compliance with the standards and values of civil society.

We have at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, in collaboration with an international group of banks and insurance companies over the past year, worked on a project on responsible digital leadership in the financial sector. We have seen what can be done. We need to ensure that this innovative, responsible and sustainable approach becomes the general standard.

Without that standard, we won’t have the sustained economic development we so desperately need right now.

The recent protests against systemic racial injustice have also opened our eyes to the grim fact that, even though a priority for human rights is reflected in all 17 of the UN Global Goals, nothing can be achieved without real systemic change that involves local authorities, business, and citizens.  This moment holds energy and purpose to support hopes of change and a vision for better society.

The next generations have shown us that they care and are ready to act. First for the climate, and now in recent months by voicing their protests in the streets – week after week of demonstrating, displaying not just care and action, but perseverance and stamina too. Given the scale of the challenges ahead, this holds hope.

Industry joined the UN SDG efforts and seems increasingly to demonstrate an understanding of the new business metrics and the responsibility it shares for, and with, society. Look at the increased focus on impact investments pre-Covid, or how many corporations have embraced the BLM movement, or how big corporations are taking a stand on Facebook’s lack of decisive action on harmful content by pulling hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising from that platform. Corporations are an essential part of the solution, and CEOs are now expected to communicate their values and be activists for a healthy planet and a better society.

The big planned celebration of the UN’s 75th anniversary this year may have been cancelled, but let’s use this occasion as an opportunity to replace formal celebration with real action and meaningful change.


Søren Juul Jørgensen is a research fellow at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University, and Founder and CEO of the strategy firm ForestAvenue. He is a former Consul General of Denmark for California and was also CEO of Innovation Center Denmark in Silicon Valley.

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