Reflections on COP21 and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development meeting

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What's am I going to do. Photograph: Elizabeth Haslam

In December, eight Management School students had the privilege of attending the largest annual meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development ever run, with over 100 CEO’s and 800 delegates in attendance.  The students heard from speakers including the CEO of Unilever and WBCSD chairman, Pol Polman, the CEO of WBCSD, Peter Bakker, UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon and former American Vice President Al Gore who served under Bill Clinton. This meeting was hosted to coincide with the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris and as a result, Ban Ki Moon was able to provide the students with an update of what was happening at COP21. Today, I find out about the students thoughts on the outcomes of COP21 as well as their experience at the WBCSD Annual meeting.

Jan-Oliver Distler, one of the students attending the meeting, reflected on the event telling SCAN that “overall COP21 was a success because we have not had such a strong resolution and agreement since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1992.” For the first time since 1992, all the countries of the United Nations were able to come to an agreement on the basic, fundamental steps needed to tackle the problem of climate change to be put in place in 2020. We now have to ask is that enough?

The aim of the conference was to create a legally binding agreement between the countries to keep global warming below 2°C. As a result of the conference, each country has come up with their own action plan to move forward, so that is nearly 200 written action plans across the United Nations. Even if every country stuck to their individual action plans, the CO2 emissions would be so high that the global temperature would rise by 3.5°C. Scientists have stated that an increase of anything more than 2°C would be highly detrimental to the majority of the globe, while for some islands, the case is even more severe and an increase of even 1.5°C could see these islands disappear completely. However, the action plans show a definite step in the right direction to reducing the problem.

The question now is, will they keep to their 2020 vision? It is very difficult, with nearly 200 separate action plans, to create anything legally binding between the countries. For example, Western countries have agreed before to spend 0.6 per cent of their GDP on the D-8 Organisation for Economic Cooperation; an organisation for the development cooperation of less developed countries, and are simply not doing so because there is no legal mechanism to enforce this. We hope this will not be the case with the action plans made at COP 21. Miriam Luft, another of the students who attended the meeting, says, “of course it is always kind of demotivating to see the long way that is still to go to reach the destination. Yet I find it is also something like a wake-up-call or call to action for everyone, as it was obvious that we can reach some improvements when the right partners find each other and work together.”

However, it is not all doom and gloom. At COP21, developed Western counties have also agreed to contribute money to helping countries such as China and India develop in a sustainable way, rather than repeating our own mistakes of industrialisation with little care for the environment. It is all very well saying we need to be more green, however sustainable developments cost money, that is why it is really important that Western countries have agreed to financially help developing countries in their strive to be environmentally friendly.

It is fair to say that as well as COP21 obviously having a big international impact on the effect of climate change, their experiences of WBCSD has also impacted the students who attended on a personal level, particularly given the effect climate change has had regarding the recent floods in Lancaster. Jan-Oliver explains how he now takes the train over to university from his home in Germany to prevent contributing to the CO2 emissions given off by flying. Alexia Petricu has had similar thoughts saying, “I have always cared about the environment, but the learning gained during OWT230 lectures (Management and the Natural Environment: Ethics and Sustainability) and the attendance at the conference strengthened my sense of responsibility for the environmental issues and my willingness to make better decisions. Not only businesses, but also consumers and individuals can make the difference with a few little changes in their purchasing decisions. For example, I now pay more attention to the provenance of what I buy and to how it was produced. I try to avoid deliveries at home, and I consider the environmental impact of any of my actions. Next step will be lowering the number of my flights and finding alternative ways to travel!” Miriam Luft considers her future career path more carefully than before explaining that “[the meeting of the WBCSD] influenced my thinking about possible future employers – I think I couldn’t work for or with a company that does not at all consider climate change in their business strategy, firstly of course because of their impact on the environment but secondly also because I now realised that companies without climate awareness will sooner or later not be able to survive.”

Between slipping into model executive roles, observing WBCSD Council Meetings and attending sessions and listening to talks with high profile CEOs and political leaders, it is clear that the students that attended have been personally impacted by their trip and are already taking practical steps to show this. Miriam concludes, “First of all it was a great experience, hence once again a big thank you to the OWT department, Alison and Joe to make this trip happen. Moreover the trip also had an impact of my awareness towards sustainability – although I have never been someone to ignore climate change or behaved in a very unsustainable way – but it showed me, or better Rodney (Irwin) said something really memorable. He said that when we really want to be a change in this world then we should not become a member of organisations such as the WBCSD but become a CEO and lead our business in a sustainable and ecologic way.”