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After COP21: Achieving a zero carbon economy

After COP21: Achieving a zero carbon economy

 Polly Courtice, Director, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

18 December 2015

Dame Polly Courtice DBE, LVO, was Founder Director of the University of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (1989–2021). She is now Emeritus Director and Senior Ambassador, CISL.


“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Martin Luther King Jnr

Our world leaders have agreed a surprisingly ambitious deal in Paris to tackle the challenge posed by climate change. But in our efforts to manage our expectations do we risk finding ourselves slightly under-prepared for the response that is now required? 

What matters now is that we respond with a sense of fierce urgency and determination to build on what has been achieved.  We should heed, but not be deflated by the views of Jim Hansen, father of climate change awareness, that without taxation across the board the deal is "just worthless words ...  no action, just promises". Nor George Monbiot’s assertion that "Until governments undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made … Let the delegates congratulate themselves on a better agreement than might have been expected. And let them temper it with an apology to all those it will betray."

The underlying point of those views is hard to dispute, but they cannot be an excuse for further inaction. Fortunately many companies and investors are taking the view that, painful as it might be to achieve a zero carbon world, the risk of ignoring the challenge might mean being left behind in the next industrial revolution. It’s hard to imagine a rapid exit from the trillions of dollars invested in fossil fuels, still seen by many as one of the safest investment bets around. But as our recent ‘Unhedgeable Risk’ report highlights, investors are far from immune from climate-related market sentiment, not just in the long term but, increasingly, in the very near term.   

In the lead up to Paris we saw many of the companies we work with beginning to align their business models with a low – if not zero – carbon economy.

The deal in Paris, and the commitment to progressively ramp up mitigation and adaptation, offers investors and businesses a clear direction of travel which opens up immense opportunities for trillions of dollars in investments, substantial deployment of clean technology, changes in land-use practices, and major shifts in the ways we move goods, services, and people around world.

For us at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership this agreement represents the culmination of more than two decades’ work – raising awareness and ambition though our executive and graduate education, developing leaders, and building consensus and concerted action through the business platforms we convene. The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) in particular has challenged and supported policymakers to achieve an ambitious, science-based deal.

The last two years, and indeed the last two months have seen a monumental effort on the part of the CLG, working independently and in partnership with the French Presidency, the UNFCCC, the IEA, the OECD, the World Bank, the EU delegation and with a range of business groups as part of the We Mean Business coalition, to send unequivocal messages from business to governments around the world to raise and maintain the level of ambition.

I am only too aware that the real task lies ahead, for governments, for business, and for us as CISL. Through the Corporate Leaders Group, and our banking, insurance and investment groups, and through our education programmes and our nearly 8,000-strong network, we will continue to support the Paris Agreement to ensure it is ratified.

Businesses have an important role to play in holding national governments accountable and in raising their level of ambition. Our Rewiring the Economy’ plan offers a useful framework for actions that can be taken by the major economic actors and will encompass initiatives on carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidy reform, and technology pathways that were established in the lead up to the COP.

In our educational programmes, which is where CISL began nearly 30 years ago, we are committed to go beyond highlighting the urgency of the problem and support leaders to adopt ‘the fierce urgency of now’ in building a just, zero carbon economy.

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives rise to new certainties?”

Vaclav Havel

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post.

About the author

Polly Courtice

Polly is Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership

Polly is a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee and the Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a Director of Jupiter Green Investment Trust and a Non-Executive Director of Anglian Water Services Ltd, and is on the environmental/sustainability advisory boards for AstraZeneca, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Lloyds Banking Group and Nespresso. In 2008 Polly was made a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO) announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. Polly was awarded the 2015 Stanford Bright Award.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.