Within weeks, COVID-19 had rapidly overshadowed Australia’s devastating bushfire season in the global news agenda. But forward-thinking businesses have recognised that our response to this immediate crisis can in fact accelerate climate action long-term.
This was the consensus of the panel Climate Change: An Economic Reset at the 2020 Shared Value Summit Asia Pacific in early June.
In a special presentation, director of climate change documentary 2040 Damon Gameau implored participants to harness the opportunity to enhance climate progress: “COVID-19 has brought us extraordinary abilities to strengthen our communities, to build our resilience, to create healthier food, healthier humans. This really is an opportunity to fundamentally change how we interact with each other and all of our living systems.”
Founding Partner at Pollination Martijn Wilder agreed: “The focus on climate has certainly not gone away, and if anything, it’s probably accelerated. I think that people have realised that COVID-19 is a short-term thing [while] climate is a long-term impact.”
Moderated by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Victoria, Dr Gillian Sparkes, the panel noted that while there is appetite among investors for climate action, it remains difficult to channel that appetite. Wilder suggested that in his experience, “the challenge remains that [investing sustainably] is conceptual; and as a general rule, investors do not invest in ideas”.
UNSW Professor and Director of NSW Circular Veena Sahajwalla pointed out that businesses of all sizes are able to expand and deepen their sustainability practices, speaking from her experience with recycling waste materials. “The microfactory concept and technology that we’ve developed at [the University of New South Wales] shows that you can actually take waste plastics from our economy that currently are deemed non-recyclable and convert those into really high-quality materials and products.”
However, the support of the financial services sector is vital in helping business to adopt sustainable practices, as highlighted by NAB Group Executive, Corporate and Institutional Banking David Gall. “I think the way financial services organisations, particularly banks, support that transition is going to be incredibly important to enable companies to actually get there over time.”
He noted this was already underway at NAB. “We’re very much assessing climate risk as part of [our] credit risk assessment, so it’s absolutely fundamental,” he explained.
Professor Sahajwalla urged businesses to think locally when it comes to sustainability: “The reality is that in many instances, we are still importing stone waste products from overseas. There’s an opportunity to look at what we’ve done with microfactories by taking locally available waste glass and waste textiles and creating that into a highly functional product.”
Building on this, Wilder pointed out the relationship between sustainable domestic manufacturing and trade, asking, “If the Australian government wanted to have 8,000 electric buses, what does that actually mean? Does that mean we can simply outsource those buses? Or does it mean we have the raw materials in Australia, we can build the batteries, we can build the buses, we can put them together here, we can start a domestic industry?
“We’ve got to be thinking in a much bigger picture, systemic way, and then encouraging other people to invest in local, sustainable options.”
Gall concluded by applying a shared value lens to the issue: “The reality is there are many great projects out there that have great outcomes and consequences for climate, for the environment more broadly, and for society, but actually make good financial sense as well.”
Or as Dr Sparkes proposed: “This could be a business-led economic reset with a shared value outcome of climate action.”