Something to aim for

Prof Dave Griggs will give two talks on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in Otago...
Prof Dave Griggs will give two talks on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in Otago next month. Photo: supplied.
Former climate scientist Prof Dave Griggs says businesses need to act now or be left behind as the world transitions to a high-tech, low-carbon future. He’ll be talking to Otago businesses about how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can help, Gina Dempster writes.

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster

Prof Dave Griggs was one of the world’s top climate scientists 10 years ago. As the head of the intergovernmental panel on climate change science working group secretariat, he saw the scientific evidence for climate change become irrefutable. And he waited for action.

"I kept thinking, if we just get the science right, then everyone will do something. We got the science more and more right, but nothing happened."

He had spent 20 years as a climate scientist, including providing scientific advice during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations and a position as the director of the United Kingdom Hadley Centre for Climate Change, managing 150 climate scientists. He waited and waited, but could see no decisive action on the horizon. Finally, frustrated by the lack of urgency, he decided to do something about it himself.

"I felt that if I believed what I was saying, then rather than just keep saying for another 10 years that the world was going to end, I had better try  to do something about it."

So 10 years ago he  moved to Australia to head the fledgling Monash University Sustainable Development Institute. At the start it was just him. Now the institute employs 45 staff, working on research, education and action for a sustainable future.

Prof Griggs says the days of choosing whether to believe in climate change or not are long gone.

"You can disbelieve in gravity but the apple is still going to hit you on the head. You can disbelieve in climate change but the Earth is still going to get warmer."

Is he seeing evidence of climate change in the world’s weather?

"There are so many pieces of evidence, global evidence. The last three years have all broken the record for the warmest year. There is no doubt that climate change is a reality."

Sixteen of the warmest 17 years on record have occurred since 2001.

So why does it still seem as if the world is stuck in quicksand when it comes to doing something about climate change?

"The reason why people don’t act is complicated," Prof Griggs says.

"Once people accept that climate change is a reality, they are faced with two difficult choices. One is to take action to switch to a low-carbon lifestyle, which may mean changing what they’re doing in all areas of their life from transport to food. The other is to do nothing, which creates a cognitive dissonance, a gap between what people believe and how they behave. That makes people feel uncomfortable, and no-one likes to feel like that."

Often the main barrier to businesses becoming more sustainable is finding the headspace to think about it.

"They’re so busy day to day that they haven’t got time to think about refitting the warehouse with more efficient lighting. It’s not part of their core business. It’s finding the time to think, this will make me money."

Some decisions are a no-brainer for the wallet, as well as the climate. LED bulbs will pretty much pay off their upfront cost in electricity savings in the first year. Then they’ll last for another 12 years, saving money the whole time by using less energy.

A good starting point for businesses is to figure out what a sustainable future would look like for their industry. That’s where the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can help. They set out a blue print for a sustainable future which is socially equitable, prosperous and environmentally sustainable.

At first, it is a bit hard to get your head around all 17 goals (although having colourful pictures help). I asked Prof Griggs, who was part of the three-year process of setting the goals, whether they could have left a few out.  He laughs.

"Well, we do have 10 commandments, and they’ve managed to last quite well."

He says initially the goal was to have fewer, but when it came to getting agreement from 193 countries, even getting the number down to 17 was an achievement.

"Initially I thought 17 was too many ... but now that I’m working with them, I think a larger number is better. What could we miss out? Climate change, health, education?"

Businesses are key in progressing the world towards a sustainable future, and that’s why Prof Griggs is making it his mission to talk about the UN goals.

"Look at the 10 richest companies in the world, they have more wealth than the poorest 170 countries. So countries alone are not going to solve it."

In Melbourne, students from Monash work with companies to identify what they can change, by mapping the business on to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Prof Griggs says companies can work through the same process themselves to help identify things they can do more sustainably; from printing on both sides of paper to investing in more efficient plant or transport.

Thinking of Central Otago, I ask him what horticulturalists, for example, might focus on. He says it’s about finding new, efficient and creative ways of growing business while making it less harmful to the environment. For example, minimising the use of pesticides and fertilisers, minimising greenhouse gas emissions and planting along streams.

And then there’s telling the unique story of their product and place to the customer.

"Increasingly, businesses are going to need a social licence to operate. Customers are making choices based on the ethics of companies that they are buying from, they’re looking at their supply chain and their labour, as well as their products."

Prof Griggs says in a highly-connected world, there is massive downside for companies who are seen not to be acting in a socially responsible way.

"Look at VW trying to fiddle their emissions software. One mistake can cause incredible damage to a brand."

As well as risks, change brings opportunities. Prof Griggs says that when South Korea invested to help pull the country out of the global financial crisis, 80% of it went into green tech. A government minister told him, "The world is going to go clean tech, and there are two choices, be at the table or be on the menu. When the fossil fuel revolution came around we were on the menu. This time round, we want to be at the table."

As individuals, we don’t have to wait for government leadership.

"Climate change is not one problem, there are millions of causes and millions of solutions," says Prof Griggs.

"Everybody can do what we can do."

But sometimes those little things just seem too, well, little. Is biking to work and switching to a low-flow shower head really going to make a difference to a problem as big as climate change?

"Little things lead to big things. If enough people are advocating for changes in the rules, the Government will sit up and take notice, and will put incentives and regulation in place.  We have to start the snowball rolling down the hill ... we have to start a social movement."


The talks

Prof Dave Griggs gives the following talks in Otago next month:

• Sustainability presentation (with morning tea), Wednesday March 15, 10am-11.30am.   Otago Museum (The Hutton Theatre), Dunedin. Tickets $15 from

"Thinking for the Future" business lunch, Friday March 17, 12.30pm-2pm. The Moorings Restaurant & Conference Centre, Cromwell. Tickets $25 from


At home

• Insulate your house

• Swap standard lightbulbs for energy-efficient bulbs

• Install a low-flow showerhead

• Choose energy-efficient appliances (

• Install solar panels

Outside home

• Buy in-season and local food

• Cut down on red meat

• Reduce food waste

• Choose products from social enterprises

• Support local businesses while on holiday

• Bike to work

• Walk or cycle with kids to school

• Carpool

• Buy an energy-efficient car

- For more individual more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals more about action in Australia on climate

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