Lessons from David Attenborough's ‘A Life On Our Planet’, and how ESG can help

November 6, 2020

The recently released Netflix documentary ‘A Life On Our Planet’ is Sir David Attenborough's “witness statement and vision for the future”. In this documentary, Attenborough, the 94-year-old British TV broadcaster and life-long climate activist, recalls how our planet has changed throughout his lifetime. The film first showcases remarkable natural landscapes throughout the world - from lush green forests to deep blue oceans, each home to numerous and complex ecosystems.

But Attenborough worryingly declares how throughout his lifetime alone, he has witnessed an immense degradation of our planet. He says “the true tragedy of our times is still unfolding, barely noticeable from day to day: the loss of biodiversity”. Today, humans account for one third of the biodiversity mass on the Earth, and a further 60% is accounted for by the animals we raise for our food. 

This is followed by an even more nightmarish look into what the next few decades may look like if human activity remains unchanged: forest fires, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, extensive loss of biodiversity and innumerable extreme climate events. This film is yet another loud warning bell, calling us all to immediate action. Next, Attenborough spells out some key changes that we can make as a society to avoid this eerie future.

As Attenborough rightly points out, “This is not about saving the planet; it is about saving ourselves” - because with or without us, the planet will go on. Here are his key lessons:

1. Slow the rate at which the population is growing.

The most effective way to do this? Bring people out of poverty! Development has been highly linked to decreasing fertility rates. Some of Attenborough’s suggestions include providing people with better healthcare and encouraging girls to stay in education for longer.

2. Transition to renewable energy. 

The move from fuel-based energy to more sustainable alternatives is already happening. In 20 years, renewables could be the largest source of energy. However, Attenborough claims, the transition is not fast enough. He calls for investment banks, pension funds and others to divest from fossil-fuels and divert their money to renewables.

3. Restore the Wilderness 

The healthier the ecosystems, the healthier our planet. In order to restore the stability of the natural world, we need to ensure that biodiversity strives. Measures such as creating “no-fishing” zones have proven to promote growth of biodiversity to such extents that even the fishing zones have seen higher catch due to spillovers. We also need to reduce the amount of land we use for farming.


So, how can ESG help us achieve these goals? 

1. Empowering and educating women

The UN predicts that population growth will be driven by the world’s poorest countries in the next decades. Women who remain in education through adolescence are far more likely to have fewer children. Through empowering women to stay in education and learn about and access reproductive health services, they are more likely to break out of poverty and work towards financial independence, since they are empowered to choose what happens to their bodies and lives. Corporate ESG can have a huge influence on this issue, and Coca-Cola’s 5by20 initiative is one of many examples that aim to achieve female empowerment. In 2010 Coca-Cola pledged to empower 5 million women across their value chain by 2020. This has entailed equipping women to overcome social and economic barriers by providing business skills training, access to financial services and connection with peers and mentors. By 2018 Coca-Cola’s initiative had reached 3.2 million women in 92 countries in positions including retailers, suppliers, producers and artisans. 

2. Committing to renewables

In order to transition to renewable energy across the globe, many initiatives have been established to encourage and assist corporations in their journeys towards this goal. The RE100 is led by the Climate Group and partners with the CDP to bring together the world’s most influential businesses committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050. IKEA Group is a founding member of this initiative and has set a production rather than consumption target. The company is already energy independent in the Nordic area and predicts the same will soon be true in the US. Processes through which they have achieved this include installing almost 700,000 solar panels on stores and distribution centres, and committing to owning and operating 327 wind turbines. IKEA have committed €500 million for investment in wind energy and €100 million in solar energy as part of their policy to tackle climate change. 

3. Addressing biodiversity loss 

For many years emphasis on corporate environmental impact has fallen on carbon footprint and tracking greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to biodiversity, many companies cite difficulties in quantifying and measuring their impact when compared to the structures set up for measuring emissions. However, there are many companies paving the way in addressing and reducing biodiversity loss. Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code greatly emphasises their responsibility towards biodiversity, with mandatory practices for all farms and suppliers. These include prohibiting conversion of high ecological value stock areas into farm-land as well as hunting, fishing, or gathering rare, threatened or endangered species. One of many examples of the code’s implementation is Unilever’s commitment to saving bees in collaboration with agricultural suppliers of their Knorr product, who plant special flowers to attract bees in their fields and have set up insect hotels for these important species whose habitats have become scarce elsewhere. One of Unilever’s major tomato suppliers in California has also addressed concerns about the serious drop in pollinators by planting California Buckwheat, a native plant known to attract bees. 

Attenborough makes it clear that our Earth’s health is our responsibility. If current practices remain in place we could reach a point of no return. Good ESG implementation has the capability to turn the current trajectory around, and with this revelation, it is down to the global community, governments and corporations to work together and harness these powers for the good of the planet.