The future market winners and sustainability heroes will be the companies that can harmonize urgent short term challenges with a very long term outlook.

2020, 2030, 2050.

There are a lot of deadlines in the air. Two new reports and a UN Secretary-General point to the need for immediate climate action before 2020. Most companies are trying to align with the 2030 Agenda. Sixty leading experts are now advocating for a 2050 outlook on sustainability.

Business leaders of today are faced with a ‘deadline overload’ of 2020, 2030, 2050 – all dates of greatest importance to the sustainable growth of companies and the survival of the Earth. Add to this that many companies are simultaneously concerned with short-time horizons of days, weeks, and months. And add to this, that they can even expect new reports and studies that could within hours obstruct these horizons completely.

The best way to comprehend this leadership challenge, is by introducing the metaphor of the chess game. Your chances of winning the game depends on your ability to make the right move now, based on your ability to foresee your opponent’s next move and to look several moves ahead.

This all adds up to one massive challenge for today’s business leader – how they manage to navigate in the short, medium and long-term. In order words: How can immediate action be informed by a 2050 outlook?

The best way to comprehend this leadership challenge, is by introducing the metaphor of the chess game. Your chances of winning the game depends on your ability to make the right move now, based on your ability to foresee your opponent’s next move and to look several moves ahead.

Urgent action needed

To be more specific, the two new reports calling for immediate action are: The IPCC’s much-discussed report on the status of the climate, and PwC’s Low Carbon Economy Index release last week.

The main conclusions from the IPCC report are that strategies for a drastic cut in carbon emissions within a few years are needed now, in order to avoid a temperature increase of 3-4ºC. We are about to lock the global economy into a trajectory that will lead to a 3-4ºC increase in this century. Its other main conclusion: There is a huge difference between a temperature increase of 1.5ºC and 2.0ºC. “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” as Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC-report’s working group, says.

New technologies will likely be required, such as those that can remove carbon from the atmosphere. “Allowing the global temperature to temporarily exceed or ‘overshoot’ 1.5ºC would mean a greater reliance on techniques that remove CO2 from the air to return global temperature to below 1.5ºC by 2100. The effectiveness of such techniques are yet to be proven at large scale, and some may carry significant risks for sustainable development,” the report notes.

The new PwC report provides the status of carbon emissions. PwC found that global emissions in 2017 rose by 1.1% and that 6.4% is the decarbonization rate needed to limit temperatures with 2.0ºC. In 2017 it was only 2.4%. That means we need to act urgently if we are to prevent reliance on decarbonisation technologies.

To complicate things, urgent action is not enough.

Add to this, that UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent out a ‘cry’ for action exactly one month ago at the Global Climate Action Summit. He pledges for urgent action:

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time – and we are at a defining moment. We face a direct existential threat. Climate change is moving faster than we are – and its speed has provoked a sonic boom SOS across our world. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”

Urgent action must be informed by a long-term vision

To complicate things, urgent action is not enough.

Last month, 60 of the leading scientists released a comprehensive report emphasising that a 2050 outlook is a prerequisite for achieving the SDGs by 2030, and getting the world on a sustainable path.

As one of the lead authors, energy economics professor Neboijsa Nakicenovic, tells The Sustainian in an interview: “If you have a long-term vision where humanity should be – because we are not going to achieve everything by 2030 – then we can work with more clarity on the short-term policies, measures and actions to be implemented, otherwise you drop off the hill in 2030.“

Still time – but action is needed now

The good news is that both the IPCC report and the PwC Low Carbon Economy Index acknowledge that there is still time. But how much?

Based on the messages of all three reports, as well as Guterres, it becomes alarmingly evident that the most important decisions will have to be made within a very short-term period.

Guterres therefore not only sent out a special warning, but also a special invitation – inviting leaders to come to an extraordinary climate summit in September 2019 – and to arrive with proof that they have accelerated not only their climate ambitions, but also their climate actions. To prepare for this meeting and actually be able to put forward a plan for action and clear ambitions by next year, perhaps it’s time that CEOs retrieved their old chess sets?

Here is a starter to brush up your old chess skills.

  • The three chess moves of the CEO:

    Short term perspective – the corporate intelligence.

    These are your “here and now” moves. It is your corporate reality, both concerned with operation and development. It is the turbulence and events here and now that must be addressed, like climate change issues, competitors, and concern with annual reports.

    Medium term perspective – the political intelligence.

    This is your political perspective, the patterns at this level are still more or less defined. They are defined by larger societal agendas, as well as larger social and economic trends that must be carefully understood. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals belong to this perspective, as they are concerned with the world in 2030 – the medium term perspective.

    Long term perspective – the historical intelligence.

    This is the visionary perspective. Here you should be concerned with how you are  writing your history, looking ahead to 2050 and beyond. What will your contribution to next generations be? What will the world look like in 2050 and beyond? How will you win the chess game in the long run?

The success of your first move here and now, as well as your overall maneuverability, will be determined by your ability to the second and third  perspective!

The World in 2050 report: The 5 root causes, and the 6 trajectories for change
According to the new report “Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals” written by 60 of the world’s leading scientists on climate change and published by The World in 2050 initiative, five major challenges are standing in the way of going down the sustainable path – in due time. These are not just a matter of new innovation or a matter of one industry doing something differently – they are so-called root-causes, that are deeply imbedded in our global society and thus calls for a total redefinition of our societies, economies and cultures. we critically ve to act on
“These challenges are driven by long-term, path dependent second-order dynamics which are deeply embedded in our societal structures, have many feedback and anticipation loops among themselves and will prove extremely difficult to change,” the report concludes.
But there is no way around it. It is this monumental mountain – these five root-causes – that we will have to address with clear ambitions and actions before Guterres’ meeting next year:
  1. Extreme poverty: Many people are still trapped in extreme poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, South-East Asia and Latin America. This persistent poverty leads to hunger and malnutrition, a lack of healthcare, shortages of education, and insufficient access to basic infrastructures services.
  2. Growing inequality: Inequality persists between men and women, but also in terms of income, employment and social status. Inequalities in access to public services, infrastructure and basic needs are both causes and outcomes of other kinds of inequalities.
  3. Unsustainable planet: Human activity is degrading the physical environment and the global commons, violating planetary boundaries and putting the stability of Earth within a Holocene-like state at risk.
  4. Demographic stress: High fertility rates, rapid urbanization, and an ageing population creates demographic challenges throughout the globe. These are driven in part by lack of education, insufficient access to sexual and reproductive health and high child mortality rates, as well as gender inequality.
  5. Lack of political leadership: Weak and poor governance, fragile and failing institutions, and a rise in nationalism in many countries and regions, as well as intensifying international conflicts and eroding multilateral systems, are undermining the local, national and global capacities to implement the 2030 Agenda.