Think outside the bottle

The Global South offers a rallying point for change, says Rob Beswick, Chamber Media Services.

If delegates at the IoD Annual Global Conference 2021 needed an emotional lever to prompt action on climate change, it was provided by student eco-activist Vanessa Nakate.

Inspired by the actions of Greta Thunberg, Vanessa had led student demonstrations in her native Uganda outside its parliament, and her inspiring journey from solo campaigner to a leading African voice on climate change put the debate in a very human context.

She urged directors to remember that all deserve a future that’s liveable and sustainable; recent flooding followed by severe drought in her home country highlighted how the Global South was already bearing the brunt of the climate change emergency. She criticised western countries for continuing to develop fossil fuel facilities in Africa when renewable energy was required. Such developments prompted the wry comment, “remember, we cannot drink oil.”

Vanessa told those delegates tasked with taking their first steps to more sustainable operations that activism can be difficult and lonely – but was vital.

It was a point explored by the IoD panel debate that followed, which considered the shift needed to move from ‘talking the talk’ to ‘walking the walk’. Dr Rachel Sibande, the founder of Malawi’s first tech hub, had faith that digital innovation would provide a path to sustainability, while being prepared to “think outside the bottle” had led young Scottish entrepreneur Amee Ritchie to produce a sustainable plastic-free water container.

But strong words from Mark Logan and Samantha Suppiah offered conference’s most strident challenges. We were blindly following ‘the tragedy of the commons’ in our selfish destruction of natural resources, said Mark, while Singapore-based Samantha pointed an accusing finger at the Global North for perpetuating colonial-style development policies that endangered eco-systems in the Global South. For her the only hope and inspiration came not from western-centric activism but from indigenous communities challenging the profit-first priorities of global corporates.

Tough words, and in part echoed by Professor Mariana Mazzucato in conversation with First Minister of Scotland, the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP. Her vision is for a new economic model to help us make the transition to Net Zero, but to do so with societal equality and fairness built in; not Build Back Better but ‘Build Forward Much Better’. 

We need to design a new system, she told the First Minister, and used as her template the way NASA rebuilt its entire structure from the ground-up in order to reach the Moon.

She urged conference to remember that, to beat climate change, collaboration is key. She suggested that the Scottish Government’s Business Pledge – a values-led partnership based on boosting productivity and competitiveness through fairness, equality and sustainable employment – should be linked to future state assistance.

It was appropriate that the final word came from Kate Chambers of the 2050 Climate Group. She had been impressed and inspired by the commitment on display but urged delegates to double down on their pledges: in a nod to Amee Ritchie’s work, it’s time to start thinking outside the bottle on how we respond to the climate change emergency.

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