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Raising the bar on climate: how to create ambition loops


Authored by Thomas Lingard

Unilever’s Thomas Lingard explains why businesses and governments must work together for a zero-carbon future.

Anna Digregorio

About the author

Thomas Lingard, Global Climate Advocacy & Sustainability Strategy Director

Thomas Lingard

Global Climate and Environment Director at Unilever

Thomas leads Unilever’s global climate & environment agenda in support of our goal to improve the health of the planet.

No business or government is big enough to tackle climate change alone. But when companies and regulators work together and commit to clear, ambitious goals, then real change takes shape – and the good news is that we’re seeing it happen.

This kind of collaboration is something we call an ambition loop, and at Unilever we believe it’s a vital way to accelerate progress towards a zero-carbon economy around the world.

An ambition loop is perhaps best explained as a positive feedback loop where private-sector businesses and public-sector policy-makers share a common goal and push each other towards it, supportively. It’s a back and forth dynamic that sets out to get us all closer to a more sustainable future.

Clarity, confidence and constant dialogue

When policies and a shared, public commitment on climate action align is when markets shift and change takes off. But dialogue is absolutely key to achieve that.

An ambition loop begins when leading businesses make ambitious commitments to action. This has two effects. First it sends strong signals to suppliers and partners that there’s commercial demand for new products and services – in this case for renewable energy or deforestation-free commodities. Secondly, it gives confidence to governments and policy-makers that they can go further, faster in setting clear, ambitious policies to raise the bar across the industry. In doing so they can inspire the initial business leadership by driving others to achieve the same.

As the bar is raised the whole system starts to change. Increased flows of research and development are drawn to the challenges. Economics of scale are realised. As a result progress is often faster than initially expected.

As others catch up, so the leaders can once again raise the bar, and the loop begins again.

Ambition Loops diagram UN

The impact of the Paris Agreement

When it comes to addressing the issues of climate change, we’re seeing many businesses apply their expertise and advocacy to spur governments on to enacting environmentally friendly policies. Such regulations can help open the door to the innovation, research and development needed to transition to a zero-carbon future – and the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change was an important milestone.

When 195 of the world’s governments committed to limiting global temperature increases this century to well below two degrees Celsius and pledged to pursue efforts to keep temperature increases within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it galvanised companies to do more to limit their carbon emissions. And it’s still shaping public policy and business goals.

In October last year, international business leaders from the B Team, a non-profit group committed to doing business in a way that respects the wellbeing of people and the planet, wrote to EU member states to call for greater ambitions around climate change. Our own CEO was part of the group. The B Team asked for an explicit mention of a net zero emissions target in the EU’s long-term strategy, and many companies, Unilever included, came out in favour of this ambition.

A month later, the EU published a communication which included a vision of Europe as climate neutral by 2050. This will now feed into many political discussions between member states in the coming year, and there’s no doubt that the support from business leaders helped influence this progressive position.

More recently, in April 2019 CEOs from the Corporate Leaders Group issued a further direct call to Heads of State in each of the 28 EU member states, calling for them to adopt the vision and ‘net zero by 2050’ target.

Engagement and empowerment

Ambition loops are a constant work in progress. It’s not about sending a letter or attending one meeting. This type of collaboration between cross-sector businesses and governments requires everyone to be engaged and invested so that momentum is sustained.

People are used to seeing lobbyists. They’re used to seeing industry groups pushing for a particular position. But when you can get broad swathes of the economy saying that they want to chart a course for a different kind of future, that’s when ambition loops become empowering. Action drives policy and policy can then drive further action. It’s a cycle that’s positive for everyone involved.

Image credit: Anna Digregorio, Field Sales, Unilever Italy

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