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Aiming Higher:
5 Deeper Issues Missing from the Climate Week Conversation

Climate Week NYC, now in its 7th year, kicked off this week with high hopes of energizing companies, governments, academia and civil society to lead us to a low-carbon future. With more than 150 events of various sorts all over New York City — from public demonstrations and discussions outdoors, to the launch of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, to more niche working groups and panel sessions hosted by universities, businesses and NGOs — the agenda surely looks rich and promising.

Climate Week NYC, now in its 7th year, kicked off this week with high hopes of energizing companies, governments, academia and civil society to lead us to a low-carbon future. With more than 150 events of various sorts all over New York City — from public demonstrations and discussions outdoors, to the launch of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, to more niche working groups and panel sessions hosted by universities, businesses and NGOs — the agenda surely looks rich and promising.

While I fully support Climate Week NYC’s intentions and would love to see it thrive as the largest and most impactful gathering on this topic to date, I also think it’s important for all of us to put its highlights in context and understand how best to link this week’s momentum to the future world we collectively would like to bring about. In the midst of all kinds of new commitments and partnerships discussed this week, respective leaders would do well to remember to not lose sight of the necessary end game: moving the whole system across an ultimate finish line, so to speak, and arriving at a truly sustainable economy. That goes not just for carbon, but for all other material sustainability impacts, as well. Yes, this sounds ambitious and perhaps too forward-looking, but that is exactly the point — the most efficient way to navigate the journey to a sustainable economy is to clearly understand and visualize the right end goals as early in the process as possible.

You might ask: “Do we even know what the right end goals are, for any type of impact?” My answer: We are a lot closer to knowing than you might think. Rigorous roadmaps and metrics that tackle science-based end-game sustainability have been in development for a while and a lot of them are ready for wide-spread adoption. Among those, of course, are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), though a number of analysts seem to already be disappointed by them (more on that below). Now, much of this new thought leadership I am referring to — above and beyond the SDGs and the mostly arbitrary carbon commitments coming out of Climate Week NYC — will not make headlines this week. That is why I thought it was worth sharing some of it here. The ways I see it, there are five types of these deeper issues to consider:

  • On science-based goal-setting: The UN SDGs are certainly a great overall step in the right direction, though when it comes down to specific impacts, they are proving to be inconsistent in terms of end-game targets and alignment with the scientific community – some of the goals are very ambitious and specific, some are not so much on target, and some are not representing crucial impacts well enough. An alternative guide that I admire is The Future-Fit Business Benchmark. It offers a set of goals that collectively define what every company must do if we are to safeguard the possibility that humanity can flourish forever. It’s an open-source framework that outlines ~30 social and environmental goals across business areas that apply to all companies, regardless of industry or size.
  • On the ROI of sustainability: I can’t wait to read news of more companies describing the ROI of investments in a low-carbon economy this week. At the same time, what we need even more is a positive ROI on all sustainability efforts, in ways that satisfy business leaders and investors alike. Thankfully, there are now hundreds of studies showing multiple financial benefits of well-run sustainability programs and other sustainability-driven investments. Among the most compelling recent reports on this are ones by IO Sustainability, CSRHub, Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and HIP Investor, among others.
  • On inspiring a purpose-driven Millennial generation to contribute: Millennials (among many others, of course) will surely be out on the streets of NYC this week to voice their concerns and values. What is equally impactful is to keep giving them ways to be involved throughout the year. A lot of work is being done by companies to harness the energy of this purpose-driven generation and transform company cultures and sustainability programs. On the cutting edge, in my mind, are two trends: understanding how to shift system-change dimensions within companies, grounded in the latest social science and firm metrics demonstrating progress; and learning how to unleash Millennials’ investing potential through high-impact portfolios, now available as cleverly designed 401(k) plans and other compensation packages.
  • On solving the materiality quagmire: What social and environmental impacts are truly material? And how does one distinguish between what is and isn’t material? And then, material to whom — solely shareholders, or all stakeholders? These simple questions often result in massive heated debates and, even worse than that, inaction or lack of decisiveness in measuring and reporting sustainability impacts. Will Climate Week NYC help us figure out these thorny questions around materiality? I doubt it, and yet in theory that should be high on the priority list.
  • On practical web-based tools that help advance ambitious multi-impact sustainability programs: The proliferation of practical sustainability tools, whether web-based or not, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, tools can and often do make the lives of sustainability professionals easier by allowing them to perform a range of projects — such as embedding sustainability innovation criteria within company- or product-level strategy, modeling ROI, and getting senior management buy-in, among others — faster and more cost-effective. On the other hand, so many tools with such a large variety of applications have appeared that it has become virtually impossible to track and make sense of them all. In a sense, Climate Week NYC exacerbates this situation, seeing as more and more solution providers continue to enter the picture with new tools. Are there ways to pool and compare the massive ecosystem of tools? Yes, there are, but harmonization of tools isn’t high on the priority list for this week, either.

All in all, Climate Week NYC is fantastic in that it gives us all many reasons to contemplate not just incremental advances, but the whole big picture and everything needed to get to a truly sustainable economy. Business executives and other leaders would be smart to use the occasion and make a note to follow up on all above-and-beyond-Climate-Week issues raised above. For those who realize the value of doing so, I hope to see you at New Metrics ’15, October 6-8th in Boston, where we will explore everything I raised in this blog post.

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