Editor’s note: Achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals is essential to protect nature and save the bottom lines of businesses everywhere, a leading conservationist told business leaders this week at a meeting of the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the U.N. Global Compact.
“The goal of protecting nature isn’t an addition — it’s integral to the success of the entire spectrum of the Sustainable Development Goals. You can’t address issues of equity, of health, of hunger without recognizing the role nature plays in addressing these challenges,” said Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International (CI).
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals that have been adopted by U.N. member states aimed at ending poverty, fighting inequality and tackling climate change by 2030.
Seligmann’s talk touched on everything from current corporate trends in sustainable production to the “Aha!” moment of the conservation movement. An edited transcript of his speech follows.
A miraculous agreement
In December, there was a significant moment in human history in Paris, where 195 nations came together and formed an agreement to address climate change. Never before have so many countries come together with such urgency to address a shared challenge. Led by the United States and China, supported by India, with about 190 other countries, what happened was a miraculous agreement that signaled to the world that climate change has to be addressed.
[Conservation International was] there with a simple concept: You cannot solve climate change if you do not respect and understand the role that nature plays in fighting climate change and ensuring the health of all of us. We also underscored that the protection of forests will actually contribute up at least 30% of the solution of climate change: 11% because they’re no longer being burned, and an additional more than 20% because trees actually absorb carbon.
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More than an energy crisis
What was fascinating was that the conversation in Paris shifted from a conversation that focused on renewable energy and getting rid of fossil fuels to a recognition that if that is all you do — if all you have [is] cheap, clean and abundant energy — you will solve an energy issue, but you will not change the way we treat nature and each other. The gathering there reflected the simple truth that the issue is bigger than climate. It’s about ensuring a healthy, sustainable society.
That’s what the Sustainable Development Goals are all about. When you read them, they all point in same direction. Addressing poverty, inequality, health, environment. These are all integral to humanity’s continued survival on this planet. Just reducing CO2 emissions alone doesn’t solve these global challenges. The climate challenge is the opening for delivering on sustainability targets. It’s how we begin to address the challenges of communities, indigenous peoples, companies, nations.
What’s important to understand is that the goal of protecting nature isn’t an addition — it’s integral to the success of the entire spectrum of the SDGs. You can’t address issues of equity, of health, of hunger without recognizing the role nature plays in addressing these challenges. It is impossible to imagine ending poverty or creating lasting peace on our planet without healthy, vibrant ecosystems.
The “Aha!” moment
Nature is the foundation that every single state on this planet depends upon. Our forests are water factories. Our coral reefs are protein factories. Our insects are pollinators. Our air is cleansed by nature. Our mangroves protect our cities.
[CI] recognized that, over the course of centuries, our population had gotten to a place where we were actually having an impact on the chemistry of the Earth. Progress had become a mechanism of undercutting the health of our Earth. We had decided that we had to choose between the environment and economics — and that’s like choosing between your heart and your lungs, or your right arm and your left arm.
That was a fundamental wake-up call. We need to make sure that this planet — which as far as we know is the only place in the universe that can support human life — can continue to nourish us.
Making sustainability the business of companies
It’s crystal clear that the business sector has a role. We cannot get there if there’s discordance between how the business sector works, how jobs are created and how issues of poverty, the environment and equity are addressed. Companies are obviously the agents of change for the global economy.
So, 15 years ago when we were thinking about these issues, we began working with Starbucks, [which] recently announced the milestone of sourcing 99% of its coffee sustainably according to the rigorous standards we set together. We’re now working together to push for full sustainability for the entire [coffee] industry. If we can make coffee the world’s first fully sustainable commodity, we can do the same for soy, for beef, for fish. It proves that sustainable production isn’t just an idea – it’s the path forward.
It was the same with Walmart 12 years ago. Anyone trying to sell goods needs to make sure there are goods to produce. We said to Walmart, “It is in your enlightened self-interest to do a better job when it comes to sustainability — you need to use your influence on your 150,000 suppliers to make sure you’re not depleting the ecosystems that provide your resources.” What was fascinating was they grabbed it immediately, because it inspired their young workers and it secured their supply chain.
How do we make certain how we produce, how we gather supplies, how we communicate, how we distribute our goods, is done in an open, fair, non-exploitative, enlightened way? The companies that figure that out are the ones that will flourish. If we all don’t figure it out, we will continue to have a world that is filled with conflict, strife, disharmony and inequity.
Fortunately, every single child, every single school talks about sustainability today. Every good, thoughtful effective business — every business that will last — is discussing it. Every country on this planet is dealing with the challenges.
This is a moment of breakthrough. When I started CI, I would go door to door talking to companies. And the door was slammed most of the time. That was 30 years ago. Today, most of these doors are wide open.
Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.
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