Summiting a mountain is the final thrill that mountaineers seek. It can be a precarious leg of the journey, with unpredictable weather making or breaking a successful trip. 

With much anticipation and momentum ahead of this particular summit, the UN’s Climate Action Summit, Sustainia’s own mountain climber Rasmus Schjødt Pedersen felt comparable excitement and frustration as his view from the summit became overcast.


“More than 60 heads of state showed up, but judging from what they had to show for, I must say that we did not see the type of political leadership we need to deliver on the Paris Agreement”, Rasmus admits.  


Rasmus was involved with the Private Sector Forum — a series of events aimed specifically at businesses, and different from where Greta and heads of state delivered the headline-making speeches. It was also the scene for the launch of Sustainia’s most recent report: 1.5°C Business Leadership.

As he listened to business leaders announcing ambitious climate action plans, he alternated between moments of inspiration and of disappointment. Uplifting one-on-one exchanges with the likes of Al Gore contrasted against the daunting realisation that even with pioneering businesses adopting radical solutions, we are not moving fast enough to remain under 1.5°C of global heating.

Bold action taken by the few
Out of all of the country commitments that were made during the Summit, Rasmus highlights the Danish government as exceptionally bold in its sustainability commitments. They have set targets of 70% emissions reductions by 2030, and pledged to dedicate $50 billion from Danish pension funds to climate action over the next decade. In his exchanges with the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs and the British Secretary of State for International Development, Rasmus sensed they were impressed with Denmark’s contributions, and hopes such steps effectively inspire others and spur them into action.

In a more critical reflection, Rasmus argues that “although the Danish Prime Minister came bearing gifts, the most prominent speaker this year was, however, not a state leader but a sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl. Greta Thunberg, following on from the million-strong climate march in the streets of New York, bolstered her position as the poster child of the critique of political inaction. Nations must ensure not to let her be just a comfortable distraction from the profound changes that must be made and instead rally behind her calls for action”. 

No-growth is no strategy
While the overall inadequacies of public and private climate efforts struck him, Rasmus believes that capitalism must be viewed and exercised as the driver of sustainable development, rather than its inhibitor. We have reached a point in time where there are unprecedented needs to inspire executives, transform the workforce from within, and in turn foster the innovations necessary for decoupling economic growth from unsustainable production and consumption.  


“I think it is naive to believe we can fight climate change with a no-growth strategy. A society without growth is a poor society, and it is by no means a fossil-free society. To solve climate challenges we need both technological innovations and behavioural change. We need new solutions to make real progress, but it was not new solutions that made the headlines at the Summit. Instead the headlines belonged to the alarming climate reports forecasting dire temperature and sea level increases.” 

Rasmus Schjødt Pedersen, CEO, Sustainia


A new reality
There are indications that we will not be able to cap emissions and restrict global warming below 1.5°C. A recent UN Environment report concludes that we have lost a decade in our attempt to control climate change, where emissions are still on the rise and have not peaked, and we are currently on track for temperature increases between 2.9 – 3.4°C before the year 2100. In light of these projections, it is a new and harsh reality that “the magical 1.5°C may no longer be possible, so we are looking at massive risks… but these risks also constitute massive opportunities for business”, Rasmus challenges. 

He continues to argue that “we do not necessarily stare into disaster if we act in time, prepare ourselves, and turn risk into opportunity. We definitely need more innovation — both in the political arena and driven by business”. It is along this conviction that Sustainia has launched its 1.5°C Business Leadership report in collaboration with the UN Global Compact and Norwegian certification giant DNV GL, having focused on the strategies, mindsets and solutions coming from the frontrunners in the business arena that have committed to climate action. Through the opportunity to present the report at the UN, Rasmus was amongst various prominent global CEOs, and was inspired as they debated how to best contribute.

“I love that prominent people like Al Gore, who also delivered a speech on climate commitments, have become agents of change. Agents like him have a persuasive power, but the key transformation must come from individual business owners and executives who change their companies’ operations, increase energy efficiencies and market products and services that are close to net-zero.”

The key insight
Having reflected on his experience at the Summit and weighed it against his expectations, Rasmus concludes that companies are growing frustrated on how to make the transition to a net-zero emissions scenario, and that most are struggling to adjust to the new market reality. 


Rasmus notes that “inspiration from fellow peers may help, but each CEO must also think differently regarding the possible ways they can fundamentally contribute. For some that is an insurmountable task, but for those that make the transition, I believe that is where the most promising business opportunities lie”.


Hope over hopelessness
Rasmus has returned from the Summit with neither naive optimism nor hopeless skepticism. It has become all the more clear that no one is yet facing and addressing the climate crisis with the mindsets and solutions required, but we are still at a point in time where choices can be made and solutions can be implemented. Having returned somewhat disappointed from the overcast Summit views, Rasmus believes there is room for cautious optimism, and looks forward to the next time he can make the journey, when hopefully there will be some more rays of sunshine to celebrate.