Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

Environment

Pandemic no excuse to cut climate-change budgets, former Unilever boss Paul Polman says

Brexit, the Trump administration, inequality and global instability left the world ill-equipped to face the pandemic, former multinational chief says

Using the pandemic as an excuse to cut spending to tackle climate change will have devastating consequences, a leading businessman said.

Veteran multinational boss Paul Polman said a failure to rebuild economies with a focus on sustainability could be catastrophic.

“The biggest risk I see right now is many governments are saying 'we have run out of money and have to pull back now',” said Mr Polman, a former chief executive of Unilever, who now works with businesses to tackle climate change.

“It would be a tragedy if we cannot ensure more capital flows into greener directions.

Mother Nature is sending us the invoices. It’s not a battle between nature and humanity, because nature is going to win

Paul Polman

“We absolutely need governments to make that happen at the right scale and speed.”

Mr Polman was addressing an online seminar hosted by Masdar to promote Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January 2021.

He also said that the current political climate could have severe repercussions for the green economy.

“Unfortunately, we are at a very, very low point in global governance,” he said.

“Even issues like Covid-19 cannot be co-ordinated. Lots of money is being wasted.

“Climate change has been politicised to the extent that millions and millions of people are suffering.”

Next month’s presidential election in the US may be a tipping point, he said.

Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in Hejin in central China's Shanxi Province in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved an unlikely push for green transition amid falling emissions from halted air and ground travel. AP
Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in Hejin in central China's Shanxi Province in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved an unlikely push for green transition amid falling emissions from halted air and ground travel. AP

“Progress will be influenced by the outcome of the US elections,” said Mr Polman, a Dutch businessman who ran Unilever for a decade until 2019. He co-founded Imagine, which works with company chief executives to combat climate change.

“That will be an indicator of how quickly governments come together and align their policies across the world to have the right frameworks in place.”

US President Donald Trump was widely criticised when he withdrew his country from the Paris climate accords, which were negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the election, has pledged to re-join the Paris climate agreement if he is voted in.

Mr Polman said too much was at stake for governments and businesses to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to dealing with an ecological crisis.

“There are millions of people who have been exposed to climate risk and are becoming refugees,” he said.

“There are people drowning because of floods and there are fires in the US and Australia on a scale we have never seen before.

“Mother Nature is sending us the invoices. It’s not a battle between nature and humanity, because nature is going to win.”

The first Ecological Threat Register, produced by the Institute of Economics and Peace, was released last month.

It said that up to 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050.

Lessons must be learnt from the financial crisis of 2008 when governments and businesses failed to put the green economy at the top of their growth agenda, Mr Polman said.

“We missed a huge opportunity. A lot of money was spent to keep the banks afloat because there was a feeling that banks were too big to fail and people were too small to matter,” he said.

Only 2.5 per cent of the money spent to boost economic recovery was spent in building a greener economy.

“Climate change and income inequality went up further and this was expressed in the polls,” he said.

Mr Polman cited Brexit, Trump's administration, rising inequality and broader global instability as factors that had not left the world as well equipped to tackle the pandemic.

“The cost of acting is significantly lower than not acting. To go back to where we came from is simply not an option,” he said.

“Even before Covid-19 we saw the enormous costs of not being in balance with the planet.

“Climate change and the destruction of biodiversity are increasing costs that businesses have to bear.

“Covid-19 has shown that we cannot have healthy people on an unhealthy planet.

“The reason we have pandemics is because of the encroachment on biodiversity and the mixing of our wildlife with our human life.”

Updated: October 14, 2020 06:49 PM

THE DAILY NEWSLETTER
Sign up to our daily email