25th January 2021

By Anderson Tanoto, Managing Director, RGE 

New possibilities are opening up for companies in developing economies to take a lead in addressing some of the world’s most intractable challenges. Here are three steps to enable more sustainable businesses in emerging economies. 

Last year, as companies around the world reframed their corporate sustainability commitments towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, no one expected to face a global pandemic that has wrought such huge changes.

The task of dealing with the pandemic has commanded all our attention. At the same time, there is increased urgency to address the global climate and sustainability agenda to protect the global commons.

From advocacy to action

What we have collectively learned over the past decade – as we enter a period punctuated by pandemic – is that fundamental change and real action is needed.

The years immediately after the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 were in many ways characterised by advocacy and activism. That advocacy played an important role in helping the global community and companies understand and accept that climate change must be tackled. It paved the way for the evolution of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals into the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as waves of corporate sustainability and nature-based commitments.

By the time of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21), it was clear to most that tackling climate change required a common purpose. Society at large embraced goals such as keeping global warming to below 2˚C.

But as we move into 2021, top-down advocacy is insufficient to make the necessary difference. Sustainability must be both embedded in approaches to policy-making and aligned with bottom-up business growth to solve the climate challenge ahead of us. This is especially critical in emerging countries, where the global climate and sustainability agenda can be perceived as a barrier to development under their sovereign agenda.

NGOs, civil society organizations and multilateral agencies must partner alongside governments and companies to jointly walk this challenging and complex path of policy implementation. Not all models and methods will succeed, but out of this – by taking a learning-by-doing approach – a number of successful pilots will emerge that can be replicated at scale. Only through such a journey can comradeship be forged and trust earned across organizations to jointly tackle the climate and sustainability agenda.

The case for developing economies

Pressures on natural capital will only increase as emerging economies gear for recovery amid rising populations and consumer demand. This has opened up new possibilities for companies in developing economies to take a lead in addressing some of the world’s most intractable challenges. The very same businesses that have helped to lift billions of people out of poverty operate at the intersection of sustainability and development.

There are three urgent needs to enable more sustainable business in emerging economies:

1. The protection of biodiversity and the sustainable use of resources in production must go hand-in-hand. Such models solve the funding dilemma, where production funds investment in nature-based solutions and circular innovation.

2. Collaboration at the landscape level is key to realising a production-protection compact among actors on the ground. Emerging economy governments and businesses are becoming open to new ways of investing in biodiversity protection, forest conservation and restoration, and to solve problems through partnerships with a common goal.

3. The need to demonstrate action, agility and speed. Unencumbered by legacy practices and approaches, things can happen faster in the emerging world, resulting in rapid progress and action to build momentum through to 2030. Trying something and learning by doing is better than doing nothing at all.

Transforming for the decade

Embracing stewardship of climate, nature and sustainable development in these ways assumes even greater urgency if we are to eventually achieve a strong recovery. In emerging economies, we can be enablers of change by deploying our financial and technical resources in collaboration with governments and communities to implement lasting solutions that balance the needs of climate, nature, people and business growth.

What is good for the environment can also be good for business. It is easy to fall into a vicious fallacy that the only way to grow one's business is to have trade-offs in the environment. We have refreshed our commitments to chart our sustainability path for the next 10 years, targeting ambitious goals for 2030. We aim to deliver a positive impact on climate, nature and people.

We must transform our businesses as we embrace innovation and circularity. We must embed new mechanisms to ensure revenues from production activities permanently underwrite new sustainability targets of achieving net-zero carbon emissions from land use, positive measurable gains in nature including forest restoration, conservation and protection of wildlife, and eliminating extreme poverty in our communities. Most importantly, we must align the KPIs and metrics of our organizations so that environmental sustainability and business growth can be on the same side of the equation, not on opposite sides.

Climate change knows no boundaries between nations. In the decade ahead, we must turn commitments and pledges into reality. While advocacy and debate still have a part to play, we need to harness the same passion for advocacy and turn it into vigorous action on the ground and attempt bold yet pragmatic solutions if we are to turn this period into a decade of action for all.

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