Your power to create change in 2020 will be shaped by these 6 big questions on sustainability

In January last year I wrote a post asking if 2019 would be the year “Sustainability Goes Epic?”. Since then, we’ve had an incredible 12 months and, despite a disappointing start with Gillette’s giant purpose flop, 2019 will be remembered for the enormous game changers of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. And, as well as the hugely significant commitment to a make the UK zero carbon, we’ve passed a big milestone; the first year the UK generated more electricity from renewable energy than fossil fuels.

With all this behind us, many of us who are working towards making better business the norm are starting the new decade with a spring in our step. However, while 2019 may have been a big year for raising the energy and urgency behind the climate message, where we go from here could have drastic consequences for whether the 2020’s become a transformative decade of action or another wasted decade of debate.

The difference between those two outcomes lies in what happens next on 6 big cultural questions that are shaping the intertwining narratives around climate, business and political polarisation. Not all of these will be within your gift to change, but all will change your ability to give your time and energy to create a better world.


XR’s Next Step

Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) impact in 2019 was undeniable. Erupting into the public consciousness at a time when the entire nation was getting fed up with the never-ending faff of Brexit (indeed many of them voted to “get it done” in December’s election). Whether climate was their number one issue or not, Brits empathised with the frustration of climate demonstrators who so passionately called on the government to “act” and ruthlessly called out their empty words and failure to deliver.

Polls showed public concern about climate change has risen to 85% of the population, with 52% very concerned (Ipsos MORI) and climate change became a major issue, on a par with crime and the economy for voters in this year’s election. However, while XR were well aligned with the public mood for the most part, 2019 also saw the Canning Town misstep. Delaying the morning tube of London commuters is a dangerous game at the best of times, but choosing an area like Canning Town where many of those travelling are likely to be in precarious employment, represented the worst of the environmental movement – a middle class introspection that’s deaf to the needs of the less affluent.

To their credit XR is well aware of the negative impact of disrupting public transport and many within the movement had cautioned against it. The strength of their message was to paint the government/establishment as the villain, not the average citizen, and with signs that patience is starting to wear thin with road blocking, a miss-timed or mis-judged action could un-do much of the progress already made. A focus on particular industries could open up opportunities to create change but the loss of public support could actually undermine efforts to drive action on climate. What they do next and crucially, who they choose to target will be critical and either reinforce a sense of ‘we the people united for change’ or crumble into a special interest group that steadily alienates those they once connected with.



What will XR do next?



Many Messengers

While Jeremy Clarkson is far from becoming a greenie environmentalist, his frank acknowledgement of climate change and his personal reflection on his role was, for me as a life-long Top Gear/Grand Tour fan, a stand out moment in 2019. This was particularly intriguing given his loud and public impatience with Greta Thunberg, whose hectoring tone is more off-putting than many environmentalists who are supportive of her message tend to acknowledge.

In a world that is increasingly polarised and divided up into ideological tribes, if we’re to bring people together around climate change, then there must be room for many messengers bringing the same core facts, urgency and call to action to different groups. A composed and confident 16-year-old reprimanding her elders with a “how dare you” and a brash, disagreeable 59-year-old reflecting on his unwitting contribution to today’s challenges can, and should be allowed to reach different audiences in their unique ways.

Along with Clarkson we’ve seen Farage call on Trump to support tree planting and even the infamous surviving Koch brother is pivoting to more pro climate position. I’m not for one minute saying that we shouldn’t treat these manoeuvres with a healthy scepticism, but we should recognise that climate change is best fought with a consensus that spans across groups with different values. All too often those on the left can demand a level of ideological purity that can work against collaboration, resisting this impulse will be a test for many.



What new messengers will enter the conversation in 2020 and will the environmental movement be wise enough to welcome them in?



Climate Justice Vs Climate Action

One to watch in the year ahead is the evolving narrative on climate change. Historically in the UK we’ve had a story of ‘Climate Action’ (CA) a scientific and rationalist approach, focused on the need to take rapid action to reduce emissions. The Climate Strikes movement and the ever-present cultural influence of US politics has seen an increase use of the ‘Climate Justice’ (CJ) narrative which makes an emotive, impassioned plea for an equity and human rights-led approach to responding to climate change with a focus on the redistribution of resources and the elevation of issues of oppression and social exclusion.

While CA might be a little cold and uninspiring, its dispassionate approach can have a broad, cross-values appeal. Climate Justice on the other hand, brings a host of core, left wing concerns right into the heart of the climate debate with advocates like Naomi Klein in her book On Fire, arguing that affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, open borders migration policy and even the redistribution of wealth via reparations are necessary for tackling climate change.

While in practice most who subscribe to CA appreciate the need for change to happen in a fair way and most who ascribe to CJ know that the most important thing is to bring emissions down, there are big differences in the potential appeal of their messages across different political values. As Colin Hines, convenor of the UK Green New Deal Group states, while reflecting on what’s necessary for success at the forthcoming 2020 COP climate conference in Glasgow, “[the] preachy global justice narrative that the rich world must atone for its historical carbon sins” will fail to reach across the political spectrum and drive the action we need.



Will we see a shift from a narrative of climate action to a narrative of climate justice and will increasing polarisation result?



Net Zero Carbon

In May, Theresa May committed the UK to becoming zero carbon by 2050, improving on its existing pledge for an 80% emissions cut by the same date. While this might disappoint XR activists who were calling for a 2025 date for zero carbon it’s nonetheless a world leading position.

The end of this decade is a key moment to reflect on what we’ve achieved and what the next ten years will need from us. While we can certainly argue that we’ve slowed the rate of increase in emissions, it’s now time to reverse the trend line and drive rapid, global reductions. If we’re to remain on track for net zero global emissions by 2050 and keep climate change to within 1.5 degrees, we need to roughly halve our emissions of greenhouse gases in the next decade. This challenge presents a real opportunity for leadership from organisations that want to raise the bar on climate action and intend to still be around in ten years’ time.

One of my proudest moments of this year was working with the Futerra team to deliver Formula 1’s new sustainability strategy which has a commitment to net zero carbon by 2030 as its flagship goal. Not only will achieving this goal make a solid contribution to carbon reduction, the signal it sends about the willingness and openness to change, innovation and progress should not be underestimated. No one knows exactly how to pull off a prosperous, net zero carbon society and yet we have to start trying anyway. Bold commitment in the face of uncertainty is courage in action; fitting for the greatest motorsport in the world.



Will Zero Carbon commitments gather momentum and become the new must-have goal for all those striving to lead in responsible business?



Restore & Regenerate

The optimistic energy of 2019 should not go unremarked on. While it’s easy to focus on the doom and gloom message of environmental activists, those of us working to innovate better ways of doing business are upping the ante with higher levels of ambition. For years the focus has been on the reduction of impact, the negation of emissions and the de-coupling of growth from resource use. However, last year saw discussions about a restorative and/or regenerative approaches to system change take centre stage (as highlighted by Paul Polman in his Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech).

This is a trend that’s been steadily building in the background over the past few years. Restorative approaches seek out practices that mimic nature’s interdependence, collaboration and balance. One way of delivering this is by innovating business models that create value by restoring damaged parts of the natural world or regenerating the very resources that are needed to deliver goods and services.

While it’s certainly possible to design new businesses that have this model at the heart of their approach to value creation, it can be harder for established business to shift to a different approach. That said, there are plenty of natural environments that could be restored with a little focused investment. For businesses aiming for zero carbon that don’t have viable technological alternatives available we may well see a re-emergence of offsetting, focused on sequestering carbon through nature restoration. However, last year, Easy Jet received a less than warm response to its decision to offset all flights from 2020. Clearly, offsetting remains a particularly difficult activity to communicate and making meaningful, appropriate investments in projects an undervalued approach.


BIG QUESTION for 2020:

Will we see a return of offsetting with an upgraded, focused approach on sequestration via nature-based solutions?




Capitalism in Question

Of course, for many greens climate change is not actually the issue, it’s the capitalist system that’s created this challenge in the first place. What was truly remarkable about 2019 were the new voices calling the status quo into question. While Mark Carney, the governor of the Band of England has been vocal on the need for the financial world to take climate change as a serious risk factor, 2019 saw the stalwart of the business media, The Financial Times, ran a series declaring that it’s “time for a reset” on capitalism itself: “We cannot allow unchained capitalism to run on in the hope that it will leave behind scraps for the rest of society. The time of trickle-down economics is over,” declared Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times.

Adding to this trend was The Business Roundtable’s statement on the purpose of the corporation. Representing 181 CEOs from the world’s largest companies, the statement put out after this year’s conference goes straight to the heart of the problem with modern capitalism – shareholder supremacy. A doctrine that emerged in the 80’s/90’s, this management ideology has put short term, profit maximisation as the core purpose of modern business, making shareholders – however distant, dispassionate and transactional their relationship with a business may be – the primary stakeholder that business is there to serve. The statement commits these companies to deliver value for all their stakeholders and a refocusing on long term value for shareholders.

Finally, this has been the year that the advertising industry, who have been fundamental to driving unsustainable consumption and advancing the interests of big polluters, started to take a good look at its complicit role in fuelling the climate crisis. Ben Essen, a key collaborator behind Create and Strike opened 2020 with this article in Campaign, asking if this will be “the decade that advertising changes the world for the better”. With networks like the Purpose Disruptors engaging creatives across the industry, could we be at threshold of a sector-wide change where ethics go from niche to norm?



We’ve heard a lot of good noises, but will we see genuine, novel attempts to change the way business is done in 2020 or more high-minded rhetoric with no real follow through?



With Greta and Clarkson, extinction and regeneration and the financial press and advertising industry all bursting onto the scene, I’m officially declaring 2019 an epic year for sustainability. As well as making me appear clairvoyant, I feel a genuine shift in culture has occurred. Things *feel* different as more and more of the pieces needed for a better future begin to fall into place.

Despite all these warm words, positive trends and exciting debates, it’s important to remember that as of 2019 global emissions were still climbing and ppm CO2 in the atmosphere continued to accumulate to a concentration that has not existed on Earth since before human beings. The truth, then, is that, at the dawn of 2020 we still haven’t actually started to move the needle in the right direction.

Nonetheless, the momentum is with those of us trying to figure this all out, like never before. The appetite for change is growing and the case for change increasingly self-evident. The answers 2020 will bring to the big questions above will undoubtedly shape the decade that follows.



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