Sustainable Gathering told we won’t be able to take clean water for granted in 20 years.
Over 600 representatives of business, the investment community, and Government attended this week's Sustainability Gathering in Dublin Castle where they heard that up to $85 trillion will be invested in global sustainability and resource efficiency over the next 15 years - and how Irish companies can grab a share of that spend.
Illustrating the potential opportunity for Ireland, Sustainable Nation - the organisation founded to support and develop ideas, innovations and investment strategies to successfully transition Ireland to a low-carbon economy - launched its new five-year strategic plan Positioned to Lead.
Its key goals include the creation of 2,000 new jobs at a regional level, and $250 billion in low-carbon funds domiciled, managed or deployed into low-carbon enterprises by 2021.
Event sponsor KPMG is taking a lead role in the sustainability area, according to partner Mike Hayes, who leads the firm's sustainability practice.
"We have established a dedicated sustainability practice and we have clients coming into us every day of the week looking for advice on it," he says.
"While this does represent a business opportunity for us, it is also our way of giving something back to society. It is something we believe in as a firm and something that I feel very strongly about personally."
He puts those feelings in stark terms.
"Our proposition is simple: we believe that sustainability is the single biggest issue facing global society at present and we have no choice but to confront it. The only choice is whether we confront it now or wait until after it's too late.
"It is no accident that 2016 has been the hottest year on record; that we are seeing a deterioration in water quality; and that pollution is increasing rapidly.
"We are also seeing food shortages provoke wars both within and between nations. The current terrible conflict in Syria started immediately after a massive crop failure. The next 50 years are going to be crucial. The problems are man-made and the solution is in our back pocket."
Fortunately, the signs from the investment community are good.
"As always, money talks," says Hayes. "Investors, including pension funds and so on, are starting to invest billions in sustainability. They are looking for safer options and recognise the long-term threats that climate change and related issues pose for business."
But there are problems.
"What's missing is actions by governments to introduce regulation to facilitate the investment. Governments have done this with roads and other pieces of infrastructure.
"They have put in place toll regimes and other mechanisms to attract investment. Some areas like renewable energy have been dealt with but more needs to be done.
"This all puts the current debate around water charges into context - in 20 years' time we won't be able to take access to clean water for granted. All that the investment community needs is some bit of security and risk mitigation from governments."
However, the experience across KPMG globally is that there is still cause for optimism.
"The great thing is the willingness on the part of the investment community to invest in sustainability projects given the right circumstances. Large corporates are also very much alive to this and it is high on their agenda.
"They see the opportunities it presents and are also aware of its potential to destroy businesses. Ninety per cent of Fortune 500 companies discuss this at board level."
He points to hard evidence on the ground of this changed attitude.
"When people build data centres now they demand that they are powered from 100 per cent renewable sources," says Hayes.
"The message coming through from the software community is that they are completely committed to sustainability. We are going to see a drift towards sustainable products as time goes on.
"People will be thinking about the extraordinarily warm weather, deforestation, water shortages and so on and that will influence their purchasing choices."
The Irish picture is also quite good in terms of changing attitudes.
"At KPMG, we are seeing evidence that Irish corporates are catching on. They are starting to get it and think about it and research we carried out recently shows that 74 per cent of Irish companies recognise that sustainability is important to their business strategy; 88 per cent of those companies already have a strategy in place. Many of them take a short-term view, however, and we need to challenge that."
Interestingly, 72 per cent of the Irish companies surveyed see it as a growth opportunity.
"It certainly is an opportunity if they confront it in the right way. From our point of view, here in KPMG, this represents the perfect alignment between business and society - being able to take advantage of a business opportunity whilst also putting something back in to society.
"Top of the agenda for many firms now is ESG - environmental, social and governance. It's not necessarily CSR anymore, climate change and the environment are what people are thinking about now."
Hayes concludes by pointing out that sustainability awareness has already delivered economic benefits for this country but that this could just be the beginning.
"Companies that focus on this area have already created 5,400 jobs in Ireland but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"A number of Irish companies are developing cutting-edge technologies in this area at the moment and if Ireland moves in the right way there is no reason why we shouldn't be global champions in this emerging sector."
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on 24 November 2016 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.