6 Sep 2019 09:14am

Helping with the UN's sustainability goals

At a recent dinner for members in Malaysia, I was interested to discover how engaged the audience was with my thoughts on helping the UN with its Sustainable Development Goals

One of the highlights of a recent business trip to Malaysia was the Kuala Lumpur members’ dinner – a truly memorable evening with more than 500 members and guests in attendance. It’s the nature of large audiences in Asia that very rarely do they go quiet during the speeches. Rather, they often continue conversations while keeping an ear open to what you are saying.

It’s very different from Europe where people tend to listen quietly, but after years of making speeches around the world, it’s something I have grown used to. My speech that night included an update on ICAEW matters. I talked about issues concerning us at the moment such as trust in the profession and the impact of technology. I moved on to discussing our role in helping to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and I suddenly realised the room had gone quiet – and when I say quiet, I mean not one person was talking.

They were all listening to what I had to say. I was telling them about what I believe has been a very significant period in the first six months or so of 2019 in the UK and in many other parts of the world in which climate – or rather the climate emergency – has forced its way to the top of the SDG agenda. That clinging to the coattails of climate is biodiversity and people are finally waking up to the fact that there are going to be no jobs on a dead planet. I was interested to discover how engaged this audience in Malaysia was with the topic.

They immediately appreciated the fact that over the next few years – a timespan that is significantly shorter than we perhaps think – many businesses are going to have to make fundamental changes to their business models. We know that sectors such as the energy industry and car industry are undergoing radical change, but plenty of others, including food, retail and manufacturing, will all have to do things differently and they should be getting ahead of legislation and regulation and gaining a competitive advantage by doing it as soon as possible.

The Malaysians’ awareness of the need to protect their environment is not altogether surprising. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), south Asia is likely to experience the worst impact of global warming, with Malaysia and Singapore both on the front line. If drastic action is not taken, the bank predicts, climate change could end up knocking 11% off the region’s GDP by 2100. Increasingly extreme climate events, such as typhoons, flooding and rising temperatures, will threaten south Asia’s heavily populated coastlines, leaving millions of people vulnerable to homelessness, disease, drought and starvation.

Last year’s change of ruling party in Malaysia for the first time in more than 60 years has resulted in a new ministerial portfolio for climate change, and environment minister Yeo Bee Yin has already taken action to increase solar power in the country’s energy generation mix and reduce carbon emissions. She has also taken a strong line on plastic dumping, sending back several thousand tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste smuggled into Malaysia from countries including the UK, Australia, Canada and the US.

I ended my speech by making the point that we chartered accountants have a hugely important role in helping business achieve the SDGs given that we are at the forefront of strategy and decision-making in the organisations we work in. And I was so pleased that after dinner when we began socialising, member after member came up to me and said: “Thank goodness ICAEW is saying these things because if we want to be a relevant profession, we have to be dealing with these global problems.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Michael lzza is ICAEW's chief executive