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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


October 2019 – Dame Polly Courtice, Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, considers how our growing understanding of climate change must translate into an urgent and inclusive transformation of the global economy.

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.

Many milestones have come and gone since the threat of accumulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) first entered the scientific, political, and – finally – public discourse. Some have been positive, but most have marked another breach of what is safe or normal, such as a record-breaking tally of species in decline or an unprecedented extreme weather event. One hopes that 2019 will be remembered among the positive milestones, when policymakers, progressive businesses, and civil-society groups came together to make real progress in the fight against climate change.

This year, the United Kingdom became the first major economy to enshrine in law a national target of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. And to put its money where its mouth is, the UK government has already released a credible Green Finance Strategy for implementing the changes needed to reach that goal. Germany, France, Japan, major US states, and others, meanwhile, are in the process of committing to carbon neutrality within the next 20 to 30 years; and, despite an early summer delay, the European Union is expected to set its own net-zero target before the year is out.

Climate awareness has swept up not just governments, but also a wide array of businesses and other organizations. Through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CISL) network of nearly 9,000 decision-makers, we know that more and more companies are seeking to get ahead of the coming economic transformation by committing to science-based decarbonization targets. At the same time, industry-leading collaborations, such as the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, are lending momentum to the push for net-zero targets in the UK, the EU, and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the surge in climate action this year has been accompanied by some of the starkest environmental warnings to date. Europe, the United States, and many other areas roasted for much of the summer, experiencing the hottest June since 1880. Temperatures Alaska, part of which sits in the Arctic Circle, reached 86ºF (30ºC). In the Amazon basin, an area of rainforest the size of a soccer pitch is being lost every ten minutes. In the UK, the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990. And in the Himalayas, glaciers are losing more than a 18 inches (45cm) of ice every year as a result of global warming,

The long-term prognosis is even more sobering. A recent study of potential climate-related effects on more than 500 cities found that the vast majority will experience significant change by 2050, and around one-fifth will suffer conditions that no major city currently endures.

Moreover, collated evidence from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services shows that already high rates of biodiversity loss from habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species are likely to accelerate in the near future, owing to human population growth and climate change. Sea levels are rising, and rainfall patterns are changing. Testifying before the British parliament this July, naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned that the problems associated with climate change over the next 20-30 years will likely require profound changes in the way we live and in what we eat. The chances for widespread social turmoil are high.

Growing understanding of the science behind the crisis has resulted in growing concern, which is driving greater ambitions to address the causes and consequences of climate change. Highly visible and authentic public protests have prompted increased engagement from cities, communities, schools, and governments. Business leaders and politicians have joined with scientists in sounding the alarm.

Around the world, media, too, are rising to the challenge, dedicating more resources to reporting about threats to biodiversity, climate change, and ecosystem loss. Business, political, and finance journalists are helping to make environmental and sustainability issues part of the mainstream. The increase in fake news and deliberate misinformation has fueled growing demand for public access to facts and informed opinion.

With most segments of society now recognizing the scale of the threat, this is a good time to start developing a meaningful global timetable for decarbonization. We need a coalition of the willing – comprising business, political, and civil-society leaders, as well as consumers – to show that a net-zero future is necessary, desirable, and achievable.

To that end, the next gathering of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP26, should focus squarely on decarbonization. We need a “Net-Zero COP” to maintain the current momentum and overcome the obstacles created by today’s shifting geopolitical sands. Reaching a universal consensus will not be easy. But the international community needs to start building on the foundation established by the 2015 Paris climate accord.

More broadly, a net-zero target for 2050 should become the lodestar for climate policies at all levels. But agreements and legislated targets will not reduce GHG emissions on their own. A net-zero target will have to be backed up by a strategy that includes governments, businesses, and the financial sector. We must not delay in strengthening resilience against changes that we can no longer prevent. Even if we achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050, temperatures will have increased in the intervening decades, with potentially deadly consequences.

The necessary transformation of the global economy needs to be planned systematically and inclusively. A net-zero future must deliver on all of the Sustainable Development Goals. And as we pursue climate stability and resilience, we should commit to building societies that are fair as well as prosperous, by targeting today’s staggering levels of inequality.

At the same time, we must recognize that the climate crisis is just the most visible manifestation of a broader environmental challenge. In the years ahead, we will also have to grapple with the collapse in biodiversity, the decimation of rainforests, the destruction of soils, and scarcities of fresh water and other life-sustaining resources. Meeting these threats will require fundamentally rethinking our relationship with the natural world.


This article was first published on 7 October 2019 in Project Syndicate's Special Edition Magazine, Fall 2019: Sustainability.

Discover more about climate change via CISL's Climate Change knowledge hub.

About the author


Polly Courtice 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 2016 Polly was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 2008 a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO), both 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.


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.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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