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Ireland must grasp green opportunities or get left behind

Yvo de Boer, global adviser on climate change and sustainability, KPMG, who gave the keynote speech at The Green Economy 2011 in Dublin today

Yvo de Boer, global adviser on climate change and sustainability, KPMG, who gave the keynote speech at The Green Economy 2011 in Dublin today

Former UN climate change chief Yvo de Boer told delegates at The Green Economy event in Dublin today that while the climate change process is stuck politically, both nations and businesses are stepping up their sustainability efforts, and Ireland has a long-term economic opportunity to drive innovation and change through a green growth agenda.

In his keynote presentation at the Business & Leadership Briefing on The Green Economy, de Boer, who is today global adviser on climate change and sustainability at KPMG, began by asking the audience at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin whether we can we put the world on hold while we save the Irish economy.

“That begs the question, is the world on hold and can you put it on hold and begin by looking at climate change?”

The former secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who led 193 countries through the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 to achieve the Copenhagen Accord, said that you could argue that the climate-change process is stuck from a political point of view, but that nations are stepping up.

For instance, he said that, since Copenhagen, 42 countries have pledged to put economy-wide emission-reduction targets in place for 2020. In addition, 40 developing countries, including India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico, have tabled national plans to limit the growth of their emissions.

In that sense, de Boer said you have 80-plus countries that have actually committed to either targets to reduce their emissions by 2020 or they have committed to action plans.

“If you take that group of 80-plus countries, together they coincidentally also account for about 85pc of global energy-related CO2 emissions.”

Political agenda and sustainability

Referring to the OECD’s Green Growth agenda, he predicted that the broader political agenda is going to focus more on sustainability, with countries picking up very seriously on that.

Asked de Boer: “Why is there action on climate change and why is there action on sustainability when these political processes seem to be stuck internationally?”

He said that both leaders of businesses and leaders of countries are becoming increasingly concerned about trends such as energy prices, energy security and population growth and the scarcity of materials, and the interaction between those trends.

Even if you don’t factor in climate change, he said these issues are driving us in a similar direction that’s forcing us to be wiser about how we use energy and natural resources.

KPMG survey on sustainability

A survey carried out by KPMG on the extent to which businesses around the world are beginning to act on the sustainability agenda in an uncertain political environment found that, in a growing number of cases, these issues are making it to the boardroom agenda and more and more businesses are reporting on sustainability or planning to report on it, said de Boer.

“What we’re finding is for cost-reduction reasons, for branding reasons, companies are increasingly beginning to take an interest in this agenda and are beginning to basically reform their operations and look at their supply chain.”

He said we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that business is moving on this topic.

“I would argue that the politics seem to be dead but that businesses are moving and the private sector is moving as well.”

Economic recovery and sustainability

He said the way public sector action will shape the business environment is the way countries use the economic crisis as an opportunity for a gear change in terms of the nature of economic growth.

He pointed to how China has used a significant part of its economic recovery package – about a third – to drive a fundamental change in the nature of the Chinese economy, to invest in wind, solar power and in energy efficiency for example.

“China has used its economic recovery package to fundamentally shift the direction of economic growth.”

He also gave the example of Korea, which has used about 80pc of its economic recovery package to force that change.

De Boer argued that governments are trying to drive this change agenda to the extent that they can via economic recovery packages.

But what does that mean for Ireland?

He said that Ireland is confronted with the huge challenge of either putting sustainability on the back burner or looking at it as an opportunity to innovate.

“I really believe that you have a couple of very interesting opportunities that relate to where you are politically and that relate to where you are in terms of your society.”

Pointing to long-term predictability and stability, de Boer said people want to know where governments are going in the long term.

“Is this not a unique opportunity to develop a multi-party, long-term decision on climate and sustainability?

“Is this not also a unique opportunity to craft that long-term agenda in a partnership, not only amongst politicians but also in a partnership with businesses, knowledge institutions and civil society?”

Concluded de Boer: “The one clear consequence of waiting is you get left behind.”