7 minute read 25 Jan 2021
Sustainable green building

Why we must engage everyone to increase climate action

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.

7 minute read 25 Jan 2021

When it comes to sustainability it has become obvious the only way to achieve our goals is to generate momentum and sustain it.

In brief
  • In Ireland, after five years of limited progress towards the 2030 targets, we’ve reached an inflection point and we need to take steps that address climate action now
  • Collaboration between Government and business is essential.
  • 2021 is the year when we need to build back brave. We need to acknowledge and accept that our plans are not perfect, but rather form imperfect, evolutionary and incremental steps on our journey.

It’s time for the talking to stop and real action to commence when it comes to climate change. We’ve had five years of little or no progress towards the 2030 targets and the mountain we have left ourselves to climb just gets higher and steeper.

And we can’t just address climate action in isolation. We must make progress on all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, which will require meaningful collaboration between Government and business, the establishment of structures to support negatively impacted people, and the creation of real incentives for people and organisations to change their behaviour.

We cannot just focus on one or two of the Sustainable Development Goals; they must all be addressed together. Progress on climate change will result in significant disruption and change for many people and businesses around the world. There is no point in achieving the objectives in relation to an area like renewable energy while leaving swathes of the global population in poverty as a result.

That’s part of the reason why collaboration between Government and business is essential. It won’t and can’t work if it is just one side driving the agenda. There will be pain involved for certain industries in the drive towards decarbonisation. Without supports to transition, re-skill and repurpose, some businesses will simply cease to exist, and people will find themselves out of work. A nuanced approach will be required to assist businesses to pivot and transform and to help people move into employment in different areas of the new, carbon neutral, productive economy.

Agriculture is a case in point. Agriculture is continually brought up in the climate change conversation as it accounts for 35% or more of our greenhouse gas emissions. The facile solution is to mandate a cut in production to reduce emissions; however, this would have a severe impact on both people’s livelihoods and our food security as an island nation. It also might not be the right answer from a European food security perspective.

The number one risk to all of us achieving our climate action goals is inertia. We have been talking about climate change, climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals, and launched various initiatives since 2015, but we haven’t, as a collective, made a meaningful decrease in our carbon footprint to this point.

The only way to achieve the goals is to generate momentum and sustain it. From EY’s perspective, what we are doing is pushing on beyond our carbon neutral objective that we achieved in December 2020, and striving now for carbon negative. This is maintaining and increasing our momentum. The simple fact is that we can be more helpful to our clients on their difficult carbon journeys if we have walked the road ourselves.

We need to be imaginative and creative in our pursuit of meaningful and sustainable behavioural change. Part of the solution may be through the use of technology and behavioural triggers embodied in a game.

If Pokémon Go for example, had the ability to make fully grown adults walk out into traffic to take a picture of a fictional character – for no monetary reward, then maybe this inherently human quality for play could be leveraged for the benefit of our climate goals. If we recast climate action – not as the great burden of our generation – but as the great opportunity, the global challenge, with rewards that recognise the absolute long-term value creation in the pursuit – how would we engage as people? How could we design such a scheme without it become a fad or a short-term novelty?

We have tried “the stick” for five years. Brow beating, consistent reminding, admonishment for failures. Maybe we need to bring back the carrot and start really pushing positivity in this challenge. This is a climate emergency – the science is clear. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be imaginative and apply ingenuity and positivity to addressing the very real challenges ahead.

We need to create clarity in relation to policy and regulation. Creating too much wriggle room on exceptions, or making concessions, creates ambiguity and slows down progress. Ultimate success will come down to long-term sustainable behaviour change. But current policy instruments are not designed to deliver that in earnest. More so there is a focus on compliance and penalties for non-compliance. If we exceed the speed limit or fail to tax or insure our car, we pay a fine or incur a worse penalty. In the environmental sphere, we encourage people to segregate their rubbish to avoid costs. The less they put in the general waste bin and the more they can divert to the recycle bin the lower the overall bill. But cost avoidance is a very slow way to achieve behaviour change. People respond much faster, and with greater vitality, if there are clear and tangible rewards.

2021 is the year when we need to build back brave. We need to acknowledge and accept that our plans and strategies are not perfect, and will likely never be perfect, but rather form imperfect, evolutionary and incremental steps on our journey. And this lack of perfection should not be allowed to impede progress. Everyone must accept that our plans will be subject to revision and change and updating as we go on. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to be resilient in the face of what is likely to be, a state of constant disruption for the coming decades. We must be brave and press ahead with what we have. The idea that the current Climate Bill is the last piece of legislation we’ll have on the topic between now and 2030 is likely ludicrous.

Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. We may have spent the five hours sharpening the climate action axe at this stage. We need to get chopping!

Summary

In short, 2021 is the year we need to take action to protect the planet. Now is the time embrace this opportunity and to set an example by pressing ahead with our sustainable development initiatives and to set the bar high.

About this article

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.