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From collaboration to reskilling – companies are critical in achieving to net zero 

Following four days of compelling debate around business sustainability at the European SDG Summit (11th-14th October), the global focus on mitigating the impacts of climate change has perhaps never been stronger.

In just over a week, world leaders, NGOs and business groups will gather for the UN COP26 Climate Summit, in Glasgow.

And in August this year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning that the chances of limiting global warming to levels set out in the Paris Agreement could slip from our grasp unless we take “immediate, rapid and large-scale” action.

Against that backdrop, these are five key takeaways from the European SDG Summit.

1. The time to act is now

This was a common theme in many of the panel discussions, reflecting the call for urgency in the IPCC report.

“This is going to be a fundamental reshaping of our economics and our societies, we are going to be part of a profound change,” Frans Timmermans, the EU’s Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal told the Summit on its first day.

Climate issues need to be addressed because the challenge facing Europe’s business leaders and policymakers is stark, added Ilham Kadri, CEO of Solvay and Co-chair of CSR Europe. “We are the very last generation that has the luxury to make a choice, and take the right decisions for the planet, also our profits, and certainly for our people,” she said

Thursday’s panel on the Future of Corporate Net-Zero Targets also heard that 20% of the world’s leading companies had already set targets to reach net-zero emissions. But many organisations need clearer guidance on the pathways to net zero. Anna Lena Hackelsberger, Project Manager at Econsense, told delegates: “There’s still a lot of uncertainty around what net zero actually means and how companies can get there”.

A solution to that uncertainty may come in the form of “the gold standard” of corporate net-zero instruments – a range of targets accredited by the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) looking to ensure we overcome these challenges no later than 2050.

The overarching message was that urgency should override the wait for global standards. “Don’t wait for line-by-line guidance for your sector,” said Barry O’Donovan, from Ireland’s ABP Food Group, adding the short and sharp call to action, “get on with it.” 

2. Collaboration and ecosystems will drive success

If there was overriding agreement on any issue during the four days of debate, it was that no company could go it alone on sustainability.

Speaking at the State of the Union on Sustainable Industry session, Nirmalya Banerjee, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), issued a passionate call to action for industries to work together.

“We believe many of the elements of this journey, like circularity and biodiversity, can only be achieved through cross-industry collaboration,” he said. His remarks followed the initial results of Moody’s European Sustainable Industry Barometer, which pointed towards varying levels of disclosure when it came sustainable growth between industries.

He also drew on the words of Henry Ford, to reinforce his call. Quoting the great industrialist, Banerjee said: “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, working together is success”.

Dissolving boundaries between companies, organisations and industry sectors is the key to success. That was the message from Stefan Crets, executive director of CSR Europe. He told delegates: “More efforts are needed, more collaboration is needed. It’s not only an HR issue ... but it also has to do with customers, suppliers and local sourcing”.

3. Education and upskilling are paramount to meeting business needs

The delegates also discussed extensively how action to bridge the skills gap needs to start in schools, preparing students to enter the labour market.

“We’re very excited about the digital space and the ability to provide free, high-quality educational content that is flexible,” Ashley Young, Science Education Program Manager at the Amgen Foundation, announced in her panel discussion.

“Let’s use the power of technology,” Young said. “Let’s piece it together in a way that works for the teachers designing the learning experiment, but also in a way that students can use themselves.”

In a number of panels, there was a strong focus on upskilling, cross skilling and reskilling people already in the workforce.

Juergen Siebel, executive director, Cedefop, said that a “much more systematic approach” is needed and that “adult learning must become the new normal”.

He said while most jobs will not be replaced by automation, many roles will change, and require new skills.

His remarks echoed those on the first day of the summit by Sapthagiri Chapalapalli, who heads TCS’ business in Europe:

“Since we have literally been transported into the digital world, one of the key dimensions is how do we take our people along?” he told the plenary.

Reskilling the workforce for the digital future is a core belief of TCS; read more about our approach here.

 

 

 

4. Technology with purpose will be the unifying fabric

Technology will play a crucial role in bringing together the data for organisations to make sustainable efforts across their entire operations. Connective fabric including 5G and Internet of Things, and next-generation analytics powered by AI look set to make it happen.

Offering the proof was Nico van der Klugt, Corporate Communications Officer at Scania. By monitoring driving patterns captured by IoT sensors, the Swedish heavy vehicles manufacturer can make recommendations to drivers that improve fuel consumption by more than 10%.

“Our connected vehicles contribute to our customers’ sustainable goals,” he said. “New applications will become available in the coming years to enhance performance even further.”

However, the guiding principle behind any efforts at digital advancement must be purpose, as Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights at the European Commission made clear:

“The technology is out there, the potential is out there,” he said, before adding, “there is also a risk that we go away from this human-centred orientation.” The Commissioner stressed that one way to guard against a poor outcome for workers was, “to assign a purpose to companies ... that goes beyond profits alone.”

This underscored another core TCS belief: that technology will continue to offer new ways to protect the environment and will become more sustainable, and that acting in a responsible way will build customer confidence and brand loyalty.

5. Industries will lead a green and just transition

Alongside the spheres of academia and government, panelists were in wide agreement that the climate challenge can only be solved by the innovation efforts of organisations across Europe.

Delegates heard the many ways in which action was already underway, with French multinational utility Engie focusing on the restoration and protection of ecological corridors and preserve biodiversity. Meanwhile, everywhere from water treatment and autonomous trucks, the digitalization of industries offers newfound hope to the Paris Climate targets.

Head of Marketing & Communications and Ericsson, Corinne Muller was clear on the roadmap ahead. “We need pioneers and frontrunners to lead by example. And we need to scale up to reach the 2030 goals.”

There are plenty of ways corporates can play a role, so long as they embrace these new models of cooperation and look beyond their immediate operations, and address sustainability across their entire value chains.

“No company is able to achieve digitalisation or sustainability initiatives on their own,” concluded Carol Wilson, TCS’ Head of UK & Europe Communications, Media & Information Services. Only ecosystems can support these business goals, with co-innovation at every step of the journey towards net-zero.

Where do we go from here?

Protecting the planet and its people should be front and centre of policy and operations at purpose-driven companies. It’s a happy coincidence that doing the right thing is often also best for the bottom line.

As businesses move ahead with digital transitions, all stakeholders will increasingly demand to see demonstrable corporate purpose on sustainability. Cleaning up supply chains, reskilling employees, becoming greener and more inclusive benefits both the businesses we operate and the societies we operate in.

How to sum up the key messages from the conference? The words of Anthony Gooch, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, perhaps best encapsulate the themes discussed during the week.

“It will be the nature of our policies, our ability to harness the possibilities of today’s unprecedented digital and technological changes, while coping with the challenges they pose, that will determine whether we succeed or fail in creating better workplaces and more inclusive economies and societies,” he told delegates.

“It is incumbent on us,” he concluded, “to build a future of work that works for all.”