Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future and legendary sustainability campaigner, on environmental responsibility, the role of print and paper, and his hopes for the future.
What’s your main focus at the moment?
My organisation, Forum for the Future, works with a huge number of companies in the UK and globally, and our role is to encourage them to set a more ambitious target for their decarbonisation strategies and join with others in trying to get the entire system to move further much faster.
What progress have you seen over the past five years?
There has been a huge take-up in interest around climate change over the last four or five years, but this isn’t a new thing for many leading companies. It’s something that they understand to be critical to their own success. So you can track back many years when they have mapped out different trajectories for reducing their own emissions and have now been implementing those action plans now for quite some time. For example, a company like Unilever has a track record of 10 years of engagement on climate change.
What role do consumers play in putting pressure on companies to improve their carbon emissions?
There will always be around 10-15% of consumers who are very keen to see companies play their part in the transition and another 20-25% who are supportive of what companies are doing. My own opinion is that consumers play only a relatively small part in terms of encouraging companies. Companies are much more concerned about what governments are doing, the way regulation is moving, what investors are saying. Consumers are important but not really the thing that causes boards to change their opinion.
What will drive change?
Real change can only come when governments combine forces more effectively to drive up standards. It was interesting to hear Mark Carney talk about this in a speech recently. He said sustainability has to be regulated, you cannot leave this to voluntary mechanisms, you can’t leave this to companies deciding what is or isn’t the right thing to do or consumers trying to work out what their personal responsibility looks like. So you regulate it at a national and international level. I wish he had said more of that while he was Director of the Bank of England but I’m very supportive of what he’s trying to do.
Do you see print and paper having a key role in a more sustainable future?
Yes, I’ve always been very clear that there’s no reason why pulp and paper shouldn’t be a completely sustainable sector within the global economy and operate on completely sustainable terms within each country. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen very significant steps taken by a large number of companies involved in the industry to reduce their negative impact on the environment and increase the positive benefits that they can bring both to their customers and to the environment. For me there is no inherent contradiction between the pulp and paper industry and the pursuit of more sustainable wealth creation.
You state on your website that you “can’t recall ever feeling the same intense combination of despair and hope!”. Can you explain?
Well, the first six months of 2021 from a climate perspective has been absolutely shocking. We have seen more extreme weather events in these six months than ever before. The wildfires in California, the heat dome in British Columbia, the floods in Germany and China. Around the world we’ve seen the proliferation of really severe climate-induced weather impacts.
Then there are reasons to be hopeful about the power and opportunity of our human systems to respond to this change in our natural systems. There has been a huge amount of increased focus on the role of government. You can see more realisation on the part of politicians the world over that this isn’t something that can be deferred any longer. So the hope comes from the degrees by which things are beginning to change seriously, and for me that hope is reinforced by a lot of new campaigning energy all around the world, in particular from young people.