Wrong direction: A deep sense of urgency is emerging

Just 15 years ago, most of us did not understand the sustainability cost of economic progress. Leading companies now recognise they are a part of the problem, and must do more to take the lead in securing a sustainable future before it is too late.

‘Eco justice’, ‘climate refugees’, ‘resource wars’, the ‘food-water-energy nexus’ – these terms have emerged in recent years, signalling a much greater understanding today about how economic, social, environmental and governance issues are closely intertwined.


There has been a significant development in our understanding over the past 15 years of how issues impact each other. From a high degree of silo-thinking, resulting in often very separate and disconnected approaches to deal with challenges, we are increasingly connecting the dots between the economy and society and the environment. We now understand that the consequences of social and environmental pressures will affect vulnerable populations the most.


Today, the linkages between human production and consumption patterns, climatic changes and environmental deterioration, and social and economic costs are undeniable. Ninety-seven per cent of scientists agree that human activity is the main cause of climate change. In the last couple of years, there also appears to have been a palpable shift among sceptics towards accepting climate change is real and humans have an impact.


Our methods to predict the implications of climate change and resource stress for humanity in the decades to come have become more robust. Unfortunately, the picture is dire. Science tells us that if we continue on the current trajectory, human suffering will increase, political instability and social unrest will be widespread, we will see mass-migration from increasingly uninhabitable areas, economic costs will rise, and conflicts will erupt.


There is a growing sense of urgency that if we do not change course soon, we are headed for a world that will be much more difficult to live in. Previously thought to be distant problems long into the future, we are increasingly realising that climate change and resource scarcity are already happening, and will hit us hard within just a few decades.


The scientific community has played a central role in building this sense of urgency through more active communication and targeted outreach. One example is how the Planetary Boundaries Science Collaboratory has targeted key business networks with more business-friendly messages relating to how the planetary changes witnessed today affect long-term development and prosperity.

As such, the ‘responsibility’ of the scientific community has changed. From a neutral messenger of facts and knowledge for others to act upon, scientists today play a much more active role in informing decision-makers in all sectors about adequate and necessary solutions.


Despite the unquestionable science, and a growing push from people around the world, leaders have yet to agree on mechanisms to effectively deal with the challenges we face. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted in September and the 21st round of climate negotiations in Paris in December offer some hope. Translating knowledge into long-term targets is an important element to steering society towards a new kind of growth and development.

There are some bright lights on the horizon. Investors are gradually shifting their thinking around risk. There is a growing ‘moral movement’ to convince institutional investors (in particular church, university and private endowments) to pull out of old business models (like coal and fossil fuels) that at their essence threaten our survival. For example, several investors have now decided to divest from fossil fuels.

Increased collaborations between a wide range of sectors is now seen as the only way to solve these complex issues, with the business sector increasingly viewed as a critical part of the solution.

“If we are truly to experience a transition to a more sustainable and inclusive economy, we need to create a shift in mindset. We want corporate leaders to carry out a sustianable change because they want to – and not because they are forced to.” 



As we gain a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of problems and the urgency to address them grows, what has been the role of the Global Compact in catalysing change?

In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1999, proposing the idea of a global compact between the UN and business, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:

“I call on you -- individually through your firms, and collectively through your business associations -- to embrace, support and enact a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, and environmental practices. Why those three? […] because they are all areas where you, as businessmen and women, can make a real difference [and] because they are ones where I fear that, if we do not act, there may be a threat to the open global market, and especially to the multilateral trade regime.”

At its core, the Global Compact was built upon a recognition of the interconnectedness of world problems. Through speeches and publications over the years, Global Compact leaders have spent a considerable amount of time communicating two key messages.

The first is that global markets must be underpinned by universal values to counter the negative impacts of business activity, and to preserve the legitimacy of markets and trust in business. The second is that in a globalised world, changes will affect you no matter where you are located. As Georg Kell said in 2000:

“Either we reconnect markets with society by building the pillars that markets need to be sustainable, or we risk a rollback -- if not a crushing end to globalisation”.

Our findings also strongly support that the ten principles themselves, collecting a broad set of issues under one umbrella, have helped business to understand the broader scope of its responsibility. Recent resources provided by the Global Compact office are making the connections between different challenging issues, such as climate and social justice.