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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership 'Rewiring the Economy' Dinner, St James's Palace State Apartments - Prince's Trust Australia
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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership ‘Rewiring the Economy’ Dinner, St James’s Palace State Apartments

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so pleased that you have all been able to join this evening’s gathering, especially as I know how difficult it is to pin you all down – and me! – in one place!  I am, therefore, immensely grateful that you have been able to find the time to be with us and, indeed, in many cases to join one or more of the three events that have been arranged to occur either side of this evening’s dinner.

As you are all very well aware, even if many others may not be, 2015 is a vital year for the future of humanity.  Targets, plans and timetables being agreed this year, in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris, will be absolutely critical in ensuring peoples’ – and Nature’s – long-term health, wealth and security.  So we must all hope and pray for the right outcomes.

But what happens then?  Achieving the targets and goals arising from these historic global gatherings is going to require integrated action across all sectors.  And that is not something we have ever come close to achieving in the past.

Having thought about this a great deal, and for more years than I care to remember, it seems to me that if we are to achieve different outcomes to the ones toward which we are presently headed, then we will absolutely need a different kind of economy to get there.

The need to join up disparate efforts on finance, sustainable development, climate change and a whole range of related challenges has been apparent for decades.  But the irresistible power of ‘business as usual’ has so far defeated every attempt to ‘rewire’ our economic system in ways that will deliver what we so urgently need.Yet if we are to limit climate change, conserve resources and keep ecosystems functioning, while at the same time improving the health and wellbeing of billions of people – including the several billion who are projected to be added to our population later this century – then we will need to see profound changes.  That is why 2015 is just the start of a longer and deeper process, and why 2016 will see the start of the really hard work.

We will need to achieve an unprecedented level of cooperation and integration, not only in relation to building synergy between ecological, social and economic goals, but in finding ways to integrate the action of different groups of actors in the economy.

Governments will have to set targets, signal the direction of travel and create the fiscal conditions necessary for attracting the right kind of finance towards the correct priorities.  Those who run our financial systems and lead our companies will need to develop strategies and work together for successful implementation.  And citizens across the world will need to understand why change is necessary.  It is not, therefore, simply the individual actions of the different actors that are going to be crucial, but the way they are coordinated to achieve the collective and integrated impact required.

So with an eye to addressing these challenges in 2016 and beyond, I am delighted that today the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership has launched its ‘Rewiring the Economy’ initiative, setting out an integrated plan based on ten tasks across government, finance and business that could help align efforts to meet rising human demands within the capacity of the Earth’s essential life support systems.

These ten tasks relate to, among other things, how best to use the hundreds of billions of pounds of subsidies allocated by governments each year, including those that incentivize the production and use of fossil fuels.  Given the importance of achieving the transition to a low-carbon economy in an orderly and well-managed fashion, I was particularly interested in the recent estimate from the International Energy Agency – as we heard earlier from Mr. Birol – that shifting these subsidies could cut global emissions by about thirteen per cent.

The Cambridge plan also focuses on private finance that works for the long-term, rather than mainly for quarterly returns, and emphasizes the importance of businesses adopting visionary and transformative new business models.

Take the question of how we might approach the massive quantity of new infrastructure that will soon be built.  The World Investment Report highlights that to meet the Sustainable Development Goals between five and seven trillion U.S. dollars will be needed, the majority of it deployed in developing countries, and much of it in infrastructure.  Unbelievable as it might seem, global urban expansion between now and 2050 is expected to add city and town capacity equivalent to about one hundred and seventy-five times the present size of London.  That is an awful lot of infrastructure and even a quick look at the huge environmental footprint of our existing cities shows the scale of the task, especially when over the same period we will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about four fifths!

In seeking answers to the question of how best to harness finance for infrastructure, my Accounting for Sustainability initiative today came together with my International Sustainability Unit to identify the kinds of practical actions implied by the Cambridge plan.  Developing new housing, roads, ports, schools and hospitals, while at the same time keeping ecological systems and human communities in good health and thriving, will require more than tinkering with business as usual.  It will require us to find different ways of doing things.

Looking around me, I strongly suspect that many of you will have heard me say that before!  And what’s more, I have heard many of you say very similar things, particularly after the crash in 2008.  So I do hope I am not preaching entirely to the converted!  At least the evidence of our endeavours is there on our websites – you can ‘Google’ mine to find out more, if you really want to, although, of course, there are other good search engines available too! – so, perhaps, our grandchildren will one day stumble across it and be pleased that we did what we could, when we could.

Yet – however slowly – things are changing.  I am old enough to remember Friends of the Earth, led by the wonderful Richard Sandbrook, who is so sadly no longer with us, filling Downing Street overnight with bottles (please don’t try that today!) to draw attention to the need for recycling, and The Guardian newspaper thinking it was hilarious when I managed to encourage the installation of one of the country’s first bottle banks (which they described as a ‘strange engine’) at Buckingham Palace twenty-five years ago.

The challenge now is to go much further and much faster, progressively eliminating waste by developing a circular economy that mimics Nature’s loops and cycles, rather than perpetuating our largely unsustainable and linear way of doing things.  And there are some good examples of where this is already happening.

For instance, Caterpillar employs 3,600 people on its remanufacturing programme, which emphasizes component recovery and returns end-of life products to as-new condition, at a fraction of the cost of a new part and with minimal need for raw materials.

Splosh customers purchase a one-off ‘starter box’, containing a range of simply designed bottles.  Inside each bottle is a sachet of concentrated liquid – customers just add warm tap water to create cleaning products.  The bottles can be used repeatedly, with refill sachets delivered through the post.

Mazuma Mobile, an online mobile phone reuse and recycling service, offers customers money in exchange for old handsets.  The majority of handsets are refurbished and prepared for reuse before being sold to approved partners with whom they keep long-term relationships.  Once these phones can no longer be reused they are recycled for materials.

The question now is how we can persuade all businesses to reconsider all aspects of their supply chains, look again at how they engage with markets and consumers and bring forward the kinds of strategies that will deliver a net positive impact for both people and Nature.

Incidentally, Ladies and Gentlemen, as a brief point aside: I can only welcome and commend The Guardian’s ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign, which has proved so clear, compelling and powerfully resonant with many millions of people around the world.  The ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign is the first action of its kind from such a newspaper, and has – like the broader fossil fuel divestment movement – focused the mind very considerably as to the scale of the transition before us.   I do not doubt what a complex arena we are stepping into, but the “Divest / Invest” movement has recently seen significant and increasingly broad-based support, and has sharpened investors’ focus, not just on the risks of holding hydrocarbon stocks within their portfolios, but also to the ever more pressing need to divert vastly more capital into clean energy, low-carbon investments and infrastructure projects.

As those and other examples show, it can be done, and I am encouraged that tomorrow my International Sustainability Unit will be bringing together a group of international companies to compare strategies to move from commitment to implementation in achieving the goal of ‘net zero deforestation’.  This is also an area where members of my Banking Environment Initiative are showing leadership through their ‘Soft Commodities Compact’, supporting consumer goods companies in the quest to remove deforestation from their supply chains.

Well you know as well as I do, time is short and the stakes simply could not be higher.  If, however, we begin not just to conceive, but actually implement the kinds of integrated economic strategies that will lead us toward different outcomes, then we might still manage to achieve a secure human future within the ecological boundaries of our small planet.

To do this will require us to take a longer view; to see that we urgently need to rewire our economy – to tilt policy and finance in favour of sustainable, low carbon business models and unlock real business leadership.

The ten tasks set out in the Cambridge plan represent an ambitious set of actions that could positively shape our future direction.  I can only hope that all of you will be able to consider what role you can play in implementing these actions, and that you will work with my organizations as you embark on this vital journey.  Should we succeed, I have no doubt that our children and grandchildren will have much to thank us for.