Paul Polman: “It’s better to make the dust, than eat the dust.”

By Nick Hay, Climate Champions Team | November 27, 2023

Business leader and campaigner Paul Polman discusses his role as a Global Ambassador to the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, the transformation of food systems to benefit nature ecosystems, and his hopes for the upcoming COP.

What does the Race to Zero mean to you?

“The Race to Zero is a unique initiative that works to galvanise non-state actors to help lead a stepchange in decarbonising the economy. As we enter COP 28, this role is vitally important to give the politicians and negotiators the confidence to act boldly at the negotiations.

We know that the geopolitical situation is extremely difficult right now. And yet the urgent imperative for decarbonisation remains. The consequences of not acting will be significantly greater in every part of the world than any of the shorter-term issues that we currently face.

It’s clear that optimising the current system, which candidly isn’t designed to function in the current context, will not give us the desired results. That’s why we’re falling short. The Race to Zero is about building a movement of non-state actors to step up and drive systems transformation.

In my role, I focus on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the emphasis on climate and inequality. The book Net Positive, which I recently co-authored, provides a blueprint for business leaders to support this agenda, to tap into the ingenuity and reach of the private sector, and to encourage capital to flow where it counts most.

Why is the food system critical to the climate and nature crises?

Global food companies have an enormous role to play in changing our food system, to mitigate climate change and protect nature.

Our food system is broken, and the mission to fix it is critical, as it goes to the very heart of the SDGs – dealing with poverty, climate change, inequality, resource scarcity, deforestation, oceans – the list goes on. Our current global food and agriculture systems account for about one third of GHG emissions, 70% of freshwater use, and 80% of biodiversity loss. Food is at the heart of everything. And since food generates nearly a third of global emissions, this presents an opportunity, because it’s also one third of the solution.

We have overshot our planetary boundaries to the extent that frankly being ‘net zero’ isn’t enough any more. It is certainly possible for companies to profit by improving the state of the world, rather than making it worse, by being ‘nature positive’ and ‘health positive’ and so on.

The consequences of the current system are enormous. 900 million people around the world are food insecure and rising. Three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. Two billion people are overweight or obese, leading to enormous healthcare costs.

I cannot overstate the need for finance to transform our food system. Although food accounts for 30% of the solution, it only attracts 4-5% of global investment; this is clearly insufficient for the scale of the risk and the opportunity at hand.

If we can turn this around and make it a sustainable, regenerative system, the social and environmental benefits would amount to around $10 trillion annually. There’s an enormous opportunity for business to lead this change.

The Call to Action for Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature, and Climate leads with supporting frontline food systems actors to adapt and build resilience. Why is this important?

The first and most important priority should be for food businesses to help the front-line players of the system, especially the farmers – who are probably the most stressed in this value chain – to build resilience to climate risk. That cannot be done unless companies support their suppliers’ in shifting to regenerative agriculture, ensuring that new models are economically viable, and by incentivising regeneratively grown, healthy food.

Business can play an incredible role in implementing new business models based on sustainable regenerative practices. Redirecting finance is key to ensuring that the cost of the transition doesn’t fall to farmers. We will fail if we bankrupt our primary food providers.

Regenerative agriculture practices firstly deal with restoring our biodiversity, restoring soil health – ensuring that landscapes remain a carbon sink, not a carbon emitting source. This also demands that we tackle unsustainable practices of animal husbandry, methane emissions and many others.

The first step for food companies is to align their business models with 1.5 C. This places a climate lens over the value chain that prompts the right strategic questions: “Is deforestation taking place?” “Are we degrading land?” “What’s our methane emissions exposure?” “How much food is wasted?” “Are we using green energy fully?” And so on…

We need to ensure that food is available, accessible and affordable for everyone. Companies also have a responsibility to protect the most climate-vulnerable people, who are also the guardians of our most precious ecosystems – the Indigenous Peoples.

To realise these opportunities, I want to encourage all food businesses to sign up to – and endorse the Champions’ Food Systems Call to Action to Protect People, Nature and Climate – and to submit a statement of action by 29th Nov – if not soon after.

What are your hopes for the upcoming COP?

Firstly, we must understand that delivering the Paris Agreement, the Global biodiversity Framework and 1.5 C is not a target, it’s a limit for the planet. The Global Stocktake will show that we’re well off track, despite some tremendous efforts going in from many businesses and governments, and other participants. However, as long as we stay on this linear, extractive production model, which is only measured by GDP, we’ll continue to create issues faster than solutions.

We are on track in many areas, we’ve seen major acceleration in investment in green energy, with solar and wind providing the cheapest power of energy in most places in the world – renewables are forecast to provide 40% of electricity by 2030. And electric vehicles are forecast to reach two thirds of car sales by 2030. So the direction of travel is clear, we just need to accelerate.

To pick up the pace we need all of society, as governments are side-tracked by geopolitical issues and short-term political gains. If they don’t hear from us, the non-state actors, that systems change is possible, that some businesses are already doing it, and that it’s the only viable route to long term profits for business and a prosperous society, then they will be less ambitious. We must get this message across loudly and clearly from all stakeholders in society

This COP we need real ambition, no backsliding – the Loss & Damage Fund, the $100bn Green Climate Fund – these are all necessary for leaders to show populations that they live up to their commitments. Additionally, we also need very simple focus areas that everyone can understand. For example, we need to transform our energy systems – tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency. We need to transform our relationship with nature, with business playing a leading role.

And of course, we need to transform financial systems. It’s a scandal how many parts of the world, especially the developing world, where 80% of the population reside, are treated, with a lack of access to finance, or basic healthcare, such as vaccines. The $100 billion GCF is a meagre amount when you consider that Europe and the US combined spent $60 trillion on recovering from the pandemic. And currently, conflicts and wars are eating up 10-12% of global GDP, while the core issue of climate change is not being addressed.

The ambitions are high; if we fall short at the COP, there will be a public outcry beyond the magnitude that we’re seeing right now, with politicians losing the confidence of their electorates and trust in business declining more than increasing.

And finally we need to ensure that the COP is well represented by people that are most affected by the climate crisis, including Indigenous Peoples and young people, who must not only have a voice in these negotiations, but also a seat at the table. Expectations are high on negotiators and politicians, for the benefit of humanity, and the benefit of their own children, this is the moment.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Waangari Maatthai, who I believe captured where we are now:

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

Highlights of the interview can be watched here.

Paul Polman is a business leader, campaigner, and co-author of ‘Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take,’ a Financial Times Business Book of the Year. Paul Polman works to accelerate action by business to tackle climate change and inequality. As CEO of Unilever (2009-2019), he demonstrated that business can profit through purpose, delivering shareholder returns of 290% while the company consistently ranked 1st in the world for sustainability. Today, he works across a range of organisations to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which he helped develop. Paul is #3 in Thinkers50.


Race to Zero at COP28

Race to Zero showcased real economy global progress with the release of its 2023 Progress Report. Under the leadership of 26 Partners and 31 Accelerators, the campaign has nearly doubled in number since COP26, with 13,500 non-state actors from over 145 countries working towards the global halving of emissions by 2030. Race to Zero’s COP28 […]


A breakthrough moment for mangroves: Delivering Global Action on Mangrove Restoration and Protection

Dubai, UAE, 10th, December, 2023: COP28 made significant progress towards securing the Mangrove Breakthrough’s goal of 15 million hectares of mangroves underpinned by USD 4 billion of new investments by 2030. Global mangrove protection and restoration has secured significant support of over 40 new governments via the Mangrove Breakthrough leading to and at the UNFCCC […]