Ms. Dixson-Declѐve, you are holding several "sustainable" positions and are a sustainability ambassador par excellence. You have been working in this field for over 30 years. Which aspect of sustainability do we need to discuss urgently?
It is high time for us to confront the issue of financing. This requires all partners to come to the table: industry, policymakers and society. It is not enough to have reflected on what a sustainable future might look like. These ideas need a solid financial foundation: Sustainability must also be affordable to those in our society who are already counting every penny today. And there are many of them. In light of this, we need to talk about a carbon tax, subsidies, investor initiatives and a just transition. And we need to do so with all parties involved! Because sustainability is not a nice add-on, as many still continue to think. Sustainability is a core business for all of us, from the automaker and the investor to the local politician and every consumer.
Do you have a personal motivation - what drives you?
I ask myself what kind of world we want to leave to future generations. One thing is clear: If we continue to put growth before resources, we will bring this world to its utmost limits. The Club of Rome made this very point 50 years ago and we don’t have another 50 years to waste. If the entire world lived the European way, the limit of reasonable resource consumption for 2019 already would be reached in May. That is why I kept building bridges to the industry during my entire career to bring policy, industry and NGO players a bit closer together. However, I do notice that we haven't gone far enough yet.
For more than 30 years, Sandrine Dixson-Declѐve has been advocating sustainable growth and leadership in European and international politics, policy and business. She is currently the Co-president of the Club of Rome - an international association of experts standing up for a sustainable future for humanity and all species. In addition, she is a Senior Associate at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership and E3G, sits on the Advisory Board of ClimateKIC and a special advisor to ETC and Xynteo. From 2009 to 2016, she served as director of the Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group and the EU office of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
Do you feel that sustainability is given particular attention at present?
Yes and for good reason: 40 percent of our insect species are on the verge of extinction. We stand back and watch our glaciers melt and the sea levels rise – to mention just the consequences of climate change and eco-systems decline that are already visible. At the same time, some opinion leaders and parts of society continue to succeed in turning a blind eye to this fact – just as they do to other socio-political problems.
Which socio-political challenges do you see?
Many members of the public and in particular youth feel that policymakers do not hear or do not want to hear their worries. That is a problem – not only because it opens doors for radical parties. The cost of living is rising continuously and for many it is too high already. The disparity between poverty and the land of plenty continues to grow: While some own two or three private vehicles - or homes, others can hardly afford the train fare or their monthly rent. Clean energy has its price but most importantly we need to find ways to convince consumers that clean energy is not necessarily more expensive than dirty energy with a full cost benefit analysis. That is not an easy task. While the arguments for clean energy are obvious, we still need to find an affordable way together now and this comes back to ensuring a “just transition”. That is equally true for buying electric cars as it is for heating living spaces.
What must the policymakers do to make climate protection affordable for everyone?
Politicians are taking fewer and fewer risks, because they don't want to disappoint their voters and lose them to populist parties. At the same time, our processes and systems are sometimes designed in a way that results in many things taking too long whilst our political systems are based on short term cycles. That’s why our politicians must succeed in getting good ideas through the democratic process faster. We have to prevail. Including over those who are trying to delay the transformation. Unfortunately, when I think about the past, the auto industry also comes to mind in this context: In retrospect, I would have expected that companies in the technological lead would have developed climate-friendly alternatives even more quickly.
And the policymakers – have the players prioritized climate protection early enough?
Europe has now passed the right legislation to move towards the Paris Agreement as well as enhance environmental protection and the quality of land-water-air across Europe including our cities. Looking back over the past years, the processes that took us there certainly have taken too long overall. From my point of view, we all need to practice self-criticism, understand where we have failed and where we have succeeded and I am not making an exception for policymakers.
The climate goals of the EU are quite ambitious. Are you not jeopardizing the stability of the economy as a result?
True, the goals are ambitious. But they are just ambitious enough for us to keep our planet a little while longer. To ensure the economic stability does not suffer, the automotive industry should from now on only invest in vehicles whose primary objective is emission-free mobility.
The automotive industry is thus supposed to ensure the economic stability single-handedly?
Of course not, all sectors must work together for us to meet our low carbon goals and economic and tax policy must create a framework to give companies the room to transform. And to enable consumers to afford this transformation.
And how do you want to convince the customer to invest exclusively in cleaner vehicles?
If the product is strong and sells for a fair price, customers will be quickly convinced. However, I also know what challenge the policymakers present to the automotive industry in doing so: A transformation at the required pace is definitely not easy – but also there cannot be a reason for doubt. We know from the past that this industry is able to adapt. One example: Right after the original light and heavy duty vehicle emissions legislation was passed in 1998, the automakers and oil industry switched to the production of cleaner engines and fuel at a phenomenal pace.
You therefore are confident that our industry can manage this fundamental transformation?
It is difficult, no question. Nonetheless, I am optimistic: The necessary technologies already exist, as do the right approaches for using recyclable and eco-friendly materials.
How fast a company can reinvent itself also depends on financial resources.
I agree with you: developing new markets with new technologies is always a question of money. Because your industry is strongly geared to the capital market that is an important if not the lever: Investors usually look for investment options that pay dividends in the long run and have future potential. Investors are increasingly looking at the climate risk of their investments. Fossil energy and high carbon transport are increasingly perceived as stranded assets. If the companies don't change their thinking, they will alienate their investors sooner rather than later. Investors are thus speeding up their investments in decarbonization even if we are nowhere close enough to the total shift in capital we need to meet our 2050 targets.
Does this mean that most investors are already thinking in terms of sustainability?
Some wish for even more political impulses such as a stronger CO2 price or subsidies to invest in low carbon technologies in the long term. Many are already betting on sustainable infrastructure, products, processes and services today.
How can we make even better use of the capital market's influence for the transformation?
We have to bring those investors on board who are interested in a livable future. With their investments, they not only speed up the transformation, but also reduce the risks.
Is electric mobility the solution?
Electric mobility is an important component. I know that Daimler is investing in this area and even thinks beyond its core business. That is fabulous. However, for the equation to work, we must make renewable energy available as quickly as electric vehicles and push battery and charging technology to also be available at the scale we need. An electric vehicle operated on coal-based electricity does little for decarbonization.
Decarbonization is also a key issue of the "Fridays for Future" movement. From your point of view, what can a company such as Daimler say to this young generation?
The youth are the voice of the future. Daimler should thus listen attentively and enter into a dialogue with young people – with the following message: We have the solutions and we are transforming. Young, old, industry and policymakers have to sit down at the table to provide answers to the pressing questions of our time.
Is there any advice you would like to give us as a company?
Daimler is a company with outstanding technologies and excellent products. It is now time to leave your comfort zone. Be bold and keep advancing the transformation towards a climate-neutral mobility! To this end, you need to give yourself an ideally broad setup and a diverse portfolio in order to remain the market leader in the future as well.