It was 2.30 am in Dubai when Paul Polman, Co-Founder and Chair of IMAGINE, delivered an alarming wake up call to attendees at Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering conference.
Recently returning from Glasgow’s COP26, Polman seemed disappointed with Australia’s performance.
“Climate considerations are non-negotiable and, unfortunately, you have a prime minister who probably is not totally aligned with that,” he told the audience.
Polman has just published his book, Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, which outlines the lessons he learnt from his own transformation as CEO of Unilever and other private companies that are striving to address climate change.
The market is just waking up to the pressure of addressing climate change, Polman said.
“The citizens of this world increasingly only want to buy from you if you’re responsible. And if that isn’t enough, listen to your children or the young people in your companies,” he said.
“For the first time, probably in the history of mankind, people are willing to walk out of companies if they don’t have aggressive plans to mitigate climate change.”
However, Polman believes engineers, and organisations such as Engineers Australia, hold the power to make radical changes.
“[Engineers Australia has] 100,000 members. You have a tremendous impact on the engineering industry, in Australia and globally,” he said.
“Engineers are at the roots of many of the innovations that need to happen. So, I think indirectly, you’re in the business of giving confidence by showing what is possible.”
A dire situation
In July this year, humanity reached World Overshoot Day, or the day humans are using more resources than the earth can replenish. Polman calls it, “stealing from future generations”.
“We’re living well beyond our planetary means,” he said.
“COVID probably has shone a light on the shortcomings of our economic system. It has shown that we cannot have healthy people on an unhealthy planet.”
According to Polman, COVID-19 has likely pushed back sustainability targets by 20 or 30 years – time we just do not have.
“The IPCC has confirmed that we don’t have until 2050 to get our act together, not even 2040, the real deadline that we have to hit is 2030.
A failure by leadership
Polman had warm words for Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans AM HonFIEAust CPEng and the work she has done to address climate change and gender inequality within the engineering profession.
However, he had strong words for others in positions of power.
“We’re short of leaders and trees,” Polman said.
“Normally we’d rely on our political leaders to take action, but our political system is paralysed by self-interest. Our global governance structures are unable to bring solutions to our shared challenges.”
Polman was particularly scathing towards the current Australian government.
“This [inaction] is getting to be close to crimes against humanity,” he said.
It’s a reminder that engineers need to have a place at the table if Australia is to take real action to deal with climate change. This is a sentiment Polman agrees with, and many in the audience hoped government representatives were paying attention.
“Paul should be invited to give a lecture in our parliament. We engineers fully agree with him, but politicians need to be convinced for action,” one viewer commented.
Achieving net positive
Ultimately, Polman would like to see more businesses commit to becoming net positive.
“That is a business that improves the wellbeing of every operation, every region, every country, and every stakeholder including employees, suppliers, communities, customers, future generations and yes, the planet itself,” he said.
To achieve this, organisations must take a top-down approach. Leaders need to embrace the transformation and take a “multigenerational view”, Polman said.
Beyond that, leaders need to be prepared to look inwards and, perhaps, change themselves first.
“Start with changing ourselves and becoming the leaders that the world desperately needs.”