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.


Afghan assembly approves release of 400 ‘hard-core’ Taliban prisoners

Updated 29 min 40 sec ago

Afghan assembly approves release of 400 ‘hard-core’ Taliban prisoners

  • Some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians gathered to advise the government on whether the prisoners should be freed

KABUL: Afghanistan’s grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, on Sunday approved the release of 400 “hard-core” Taliban prisoners, paving the way for the beginning of peace talks aimed at ending more than 19 years of war.
“In order to remove an obstacle, allow the start of the peace process and an end of bloodshed, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 Taliban,” the assembly said in a resolution.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had convened the assembly in the capital Kabul, where some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians gathered amid tight security and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic to advise the government on whether the prisoners should be freed.
The Taliban militants had insisted they be released as a condition for entering peace talks with the government. With the release, the Afghan government will fulfil its pledge to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
Western diplomats said talks between the warring parties will start in Doha this week.
Deliberation around the release of last batch of Taliban prisoners, accused of conducting some of the bloodiest attacks across Afghanistan, had triggered outrage among civilians and rights groups who questioned the morality of the peace process.
But ahead of November elections, US President Donald Trump is determined to fulfil a major campaign promise of ending America’s longest war.
The drawdown will bring the number of US troops to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview broadcast on Saturday.
In a February pact allowing for the withdrawal of US troops, Washington and the Taliban agreed on the release of the Taliban prisoners as a condition for the talks with Kabul.