Flying Dutch man’s mission to unite firms over climate change

Paul Polman is known as a leading voice on sustainable capitalism. (AFP)
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Updated 23 January 2020

Flying Dutch man’s mission to unite firms over climate change

  • Polman has set his sights on using his sway among business chiefs, governments, finance and civil society to get them to work together on climate change and making economies fairer for everyone

DAVOS: While global leaders take to the stage at Davos in the Swiss Alps, one of the world’s most prominent businessmen is busy behind the scenes — trying to bring together the heads of major companies to tackle climate change and inequality.

Paul Polman became known as a leading voice on sustainable capitalism while running consumer goods giant Unilever for 10 years, and is a regular at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting for the global elite in the upmarket ski resort.

Since retiring from Unilever a year ago, Polman has set his sights on using his sway among business chiefs, governments, finance and civil society to get them to work together on climate change and making economies fairer for everyone.

“If you can bring about 25 percent of the industry together across the value chain, you can create tipping points, and that accelerates things,” Dutch businessman Polman, 63, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at a Davos hotel.

His new sustainability consultancy, Imagine, set up last year, scored a major victory by organizing a fashion industry pact to announce at the G7 summit in France in August.

The pact involves 62 major fashion companies striving to use sustainable cotton, cut out single-use plastics, and align their businesses with the Paris climate pact to address global warming.

Now Polman wants to convene similar agreements in the food and land sector, tourism and travel, technology and finance, saying these companies had the biggest impact on the UN’s global goals to address inequality and climate change.

He was optimistic an agreement was achievable fairly quickly in the food industry, where he is already well connected as chairman of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

“They all want to be part of it ... six months from now we’ll have a substantial group in the food sector,” he said.

Polman said leaving Unilever had actually given him greater influence to change things for the better.

“As a CEO you had shackles around your legs,” said Polman, who has taken a leading role on a powerful list of bodies including chair of the International Chamber of Commerce.

With global challenges growing, governments could not be relied on, he said, adding that chief executives were starting to step up with bolder initiatives.

He cited Microsoft’s pledge to go carbon-negative by 2050 by removing carbon it has emitted over the past 45 years, and asset manager BlackRock saying it will stop investing in companies with a “high sustainability-related risk.”

“Things are happening at a faster pace than perhaps people think, but the multilateral process is difficult,” he said.

He pointed to disappointment over the recent COP25 climate talks, deforestation rising in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, the US administration quitting the Paris pact, and the Australian government’s reaction over bushfires and climate change.

But there was greater awareness at Davos this year about the need to act, including a commitment to plant one trillion trees to curb climate-heating emissions, he said. “The initiatives are becoming bigger and bolder. Is this enough? No, because you cannot change the world without governments’ buy-in,” he added.


Japan to declare coronavirus emergency, launch $990 billion stimulus

Updated 29 min 55 sec ago

Japan to declare coronavirus emergency, launch $990 billion stimulus

  • More than 3,500 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Japan and 85 have died
  • Numbers keep rising with particular alarm over the spread in Tokyo, which has more than 1,000 cases

TOKYO: Japan is to impose a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures as early as Tuesday to try to stop the coronavirus, the prime minister said, with the government preparing a $990 billion stimulus package to soften the economic blow.
More than 3,500 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Japan and 85 have died — not a huge outbreak compared with some hot spots. But the numbers keep rising with particular alarm over the spread in Tokyo, which has more than 1,000 cases, including 83 new ones on Monday.
“Given the state of crisis on the medical front, the government was advised to prepare to declare the state of emergency,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
An emergency, which Abe said would last about a month, will give governors authority to call on people to stay at home and businesses to close, but will not be as restrictive as lockdowns in some other countries.
In most cases, there will be no penalties for ignoring requests to stay at home, and enforcement will rely more on peer pressure and respect for authority.
Pressure had been mounting on the government to take the step although Abe had voiced concern about being too hasty, given the restrictions on movement and businesses it would entail.
Abe also said the government has decided to launch a stimulus package of about 108 trillion yen, including more than 6 trillion yen for cash payouts to households and small businesses and 26 trillion yen to allow deferred social security and tax payments.
It was not immediately clear how much of that package would be new government spending.
“The government wants to help businesses continue and protect jobs,” Abe said.
An emergency appears to have public support. In a poll published on Monday by JNN, run by broadcaster TBS, 80 percent of those surveyed said Abe should declare it while 12 percent said it was not necessary. His approval rating fell by 5.7 points from last month to 43.2 percent, the survey showed.
But Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Public Health at King’s College, London, said the emergency was too late given the explosive increase in cases in Tokyo.
“It should have been declared by April 1 at the latest,” he said.
Sounding an alarm over the high rate of cases that could not be traced, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike indicated last week that she would favor a state of emergency as a way to help her urge residents to abide by stronger social-distancing measures.
An expert on the government’s coronavirus panel said Japan could avoid an explosive rise by reducing person-to-person contact by 80 percent.
Under a law revised in March to cover the coronavirus, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease poses a “grave danger” to lives and if its rapid spread could have a big impact on the economy.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura called for calm saying there was no need for people in designated prefectures to flee to other regions, which could spread infections, NHK reported.
While Japan’s coronavirus epidemic is dwarfed by the 335,000 infections and more than 9,500 deaths in the United States alone, experts worry a sudden surge could overwhelm Japan’s medical system.
Abe must seek formal advice from a panel of experts before deciding to go ahead and declare the emergency.
Governors in Tokyo and elsewhere have asked citizens to stay home on weekends, avoid crowds and evening outings, and work from home. That has had some effect, but not as much as many experts said was needed.