Sustainability: a diplomat’s job

SDG 16: the dove peace on the justice mallet

I’ve been in the sustainability space, for 12 years now. Every year or so, I hit a point when I’m particularly low.

That time of the year might be now.

Some years, the frustration stems from a particularly unhappy encounter at work. A client with a massive outburst taking it out on you. A fruitless debate with a manager that tells you that he/she is not the right manager for you.

The worst ones though, are the sense of helplessness. Of questioning all the hours put into what is to be your life’s work, the stress resulting in snappy interactions with the family - and wondering if it makes any impact where it counts. What’s the right way to get there? Am I sure that this approach works?

Polarising world not great for polar bears

A friend and I commented that in our admitted short lives of three decades on average, the geopolitical tensions feels like it is the most tumultuous it had been. This discomfort stems primarily from US-China tensions. We also continue to see media fuelling negative sentiments, and the role of social media continues to polarise groups. Polarisation is dangerous, encouraging confirmation bias and driving communities apart.

When this takes place at the global community level, it can make it much harder to persuade and broker for a better climate deal.

A sustainable world for the wealthy?

The rise in sustainable finance seems to be matched not only by an increase in marketing campaigns, but also a rise in carbon emissions and perhaps even more varied stories of greenwashing in the industry.

I remember at the Principles for Responsible Investment conference in Paris in 2019. The focus was on climate — it was Paris, after all — with Macron himself opening the conference (albeit with a recording).

What struck me was that no one who spoke was from China, India and Indonesia. What is a discussion on climate without these three countries, the largest emitters and the most populous?

I vividly recall the quote by Dr Sanna Markkanen from previous workshop’s session on social implications and implications for equality of climate change. She said that it is often cited, erroneously, because poorer countries are likely to experience the majority of negative impacts, they also benefit primarily those who are most vulnerable to climate change. And with that comes the shift in responsibility that surely they should be incentivised themselves enough to get their act together. Never mind the need to provide basic needs and educate their existing population.

On an aside, India and Indonesia are unwilling to commit to higher emission targets without more funding from richer nations. That is not unfair to ask of I think, without getting into the weeds of what exact number would be considered exploitative. For all the major protests and lawsuits in the name of climate change, I certainly have not heard one calling for major injections of funds from one’s own developed country to help the vulnerable in developing countries.

Peace — a missing piece?

We operate in a world bounded by sovereign construct. Companies may have extensive flexibility, but are often bound by the lot they get where they operate.

International politics matter. They set people up for the negativity they may expect. I’ve seen companies be on the defense from the onset because they assume the conversation would start off with them having to defend why they are not taking positions that Europe or US takes. As you can imagine, those didn’t go very well.

In agitating for change, I’m finding that for my work in ESG, one of the most important readings I do are not just those by scientists, but also those by diplomats. Diplomats who build the case for a different approach, who understand multiple cultures enough to be a bridge in the manner of explanation. When it comes down to it, diplomats are brokers of peaceful ways to negotiate.

To end on a positive leadership opportunity

However, while the contextual element has always been present in analysis and engagement, developing strategies on a country-level basis was something that popped up to me in the course of reflecting upon just how important the sovereign constraints are.

So it may sound incredibly straightforward to say, but my one takeaway is to set out to really understand country-level dynamics, and push for country-level engagement strategies especially for Australia, China, India and Indonesia.

Till the next blog post!


[ dip-luh-mat ]

a person appointed by a national government to conduct official negotiations and maintain political, economic, and social relations with another country or countries.

a person who is tactful and skillful in managing delicate situations, handling people, etc.