From vehicles to agriculture, high executives embrace new concepts in sustainable know-how

From the invention of the wheel to the advent of the steam train and the development of smartphones, people have pioneered new technologies for thousands of years.

Our thirst for innovation has changed society and turbo-charged economies. With increased concern for the environment, new ideas and innovations could play an important role in creating a more sustainable planet.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman took up the issue, referring to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“One of the reasons we’re moderately optimistic that we can hit the one and a half (degrees Celsius) … warming target and be net zero by 2050 is obviously the technology,” he said. “And this is where the private sector comes in.”

The automotive industry is an area where technology and environmental concerns have led to change in recent years.

Today, big companies like Daimler, Nissan and Volkswagen are expanding their range of electric vehicles to keep up with Elon Musk’s Tesla.

At the political level, a number of governments around the world have committed to banning the sale of new diesel and gasoline vehicles by the end of the decade.

During the discussion, Polman, co-founder and chairman of the social venture Imagine, highlighted the pace of change.

“We thought the turning points for electric vehicles would be 2050 too – we now think the turning point is 2024,” he said.

“We are about to overhaul the internal combustion engine,” he added. “Many countries have already made agreements to phase out internal combustion engines by 2030 and 2035, and most major automakers have done the same.”

Food production is another industry where digital innovations and technology are helping companies find value and conduct operations in smart and sustainable ways.

Last year, Polman’s former company Unilever announced it was partnering with Google Cloud to “use satellite photos to monitor the ecosystems associated with our raw materials”. The collaboration would initially focus on palm oil, Unilever said.

“Thanks to technology … like Google Earth, we can now compare the square meter concessions on … palm oil plantations with deforestation or fires,” Polman said.

Knowing this, companies can remove such plantations from their value chain, he added. “It’s a review or a compliance measure, that’s huge.”

Change attitudes, hope for the future

It is clear that technology plays an important role in achieving ambitious goals related to the environment.

Sustainability ideas, however, depend to a large extent on financial support and the willingness of large companies – as well as their shareholders – to take steps to change how it works.

In recent years, ideas around ESG – which stands for environmental, social and corporate governance – have grown in importance at some of the world’s largest companies.

Jan du Plessis, chairman of the British telecommunications company BT, had previously explained to the panel how much things have changed.

“I’ve been involved with public equity investors in the City of London for over 30 years, either as an executive or as a chairman,” he said.

“30 years ago, the idea that they could ask you about climate change and the ESG during these investor visits would have been unthinkable,” he added.

“It wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago, ten years ago you started talking about it, but honestly … you could sense that you feel like, ‘well, it’s something I should be asking about,’ but actually are they not interested in the answer. “

“Just five years ago when they had more airtime asking about ESG and climate … they knew they were going through the Movements. That changed a lot in 12-18 months.”

Du Plessis went on to say that he was “extremely optimistic” about what was going on now.

“The end investors, the end providers of wealth, the young people, the wealthy people, pension funds insist that their fund managers invest in companies that are credible in the climate field,” he said.

“And so the fund managers – surprise, surprise – hammer companies on their climate protection agenda.”

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