THOUGHT – LEADERSHIP Jonathon Porritt

18 October 2016

Sir Jonathon Porritt is a world-leading commentator and adviser on sustainability. He shared his wisdom at events in Auckland last week. Check his keynotes on everything from wadeable water to the future of human civilisation.

Sir Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future (UK). He is a writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainability and advises many organisations, including Air New Zealand.

During a series of events he spoke to Gary Taylor, Chairman of Environmental Defence Society, at the Climate Change & Business Conference.

And he spoke to a group of our corporate members at our CEO Forum, at Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Breakfast.

Here’s what he said:

“We’re in a race for our human civilisation.”

Carbon dioxide has just passed 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. Scientists say 450 ppm is the absolute safe upper limit, so this is a race for our human civilisation.

A glimmer of hope is offered by ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change within one year of 196 nations signing it. This is the fastest ever ratification process for an international agreement of its kind. An agreement has also just been reached on aviation emissions.

“We’re in the middle of a great energy transition”

The future lies in smart grids, storage, efficiency and better demand management. We need clear direction from government to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to a new energy paradigm.

“Every business is going to be living through a time of unprecedented non-stop disruption because we have failed to address the issues up until now.”

Regardless of what we do or don’t do, we are entering a period of relentless and profound disruption. We might enter it for the right reasons, because we are truly trying to address the challenges we face. Or we might enter it by default, by doing nothing, because we left it too late to start.

Business is beginning to see the opportunities in a more sustainable world. Although trillions of dollars of value will be destroyed in fossil fuel-intensive industries, trillions of dollars will be created as we move to a different energy paradigm.

“We have to ask much harder questions about the role of business in creating and supporting fairness in our societies.”

We have normalised chronic levels of deprivation and poverty. A lot of people have been excluded from growth. People are feeling left behind and marginalised. This is manifesting itself in support for Donald Trump in the U.S. and the vote in Britain to leave the EU.

A fairer, socially-just economy is just as important as tackling climate change. What is the business community going to do to build more just, fair and socially inclusive economies?”

“Good companies are set apart by three factors: leadership, integration of sustainability throughout the business, and empowerment of employees.”

Many ‘legacy incumbent’ companies have just woken up to the fact that they are in a race for their lives. While I’m up for collaboration, I’m also up for some sharp, combative dialogues where sustainability leaders – ‘new value creators’ – take on those legacy incumbents to show just how dangerous their actions are.

“Companies should be more confident about telling their sustainability stories.”

Businesses can tell stories to bring a sense of shared purpose and excitement. Air New Zealand doesn’t shy away from talking about its commitment to sustainability. It tells its sustainability story honestly and engagingly.

“New Zealand could become the world’s first genuinely sustainable nation.”

This is a realistic ambition because of New Zealand’s natural assets and people. But these assets could be eroded by poor decision making, poor business practices and careless individual decisions. We all have a duty of care to protect our assets.

“‘Wadeable water’ is not a suitably ambitious target.”

People are entitled to have higher expectations of their governments and businesses.

We need businesses to be stronger and more prominent advocates of ‘good regulation’. They usually believe in it, but they just don’t say it very often. And when they do it’s so refreshing, and it destroys that totally facile, spurious dichotomy between business being ‘left to do their thing’ and governments ‘intervening’.