Public-Private Partnerships: Paving the way Towards a Sustainable Future

Michel Wallemacq (Senior Economic Advisor, Embassy of Belgium) speaks about recycling and the importance of a circular economy. Photo by Jess Latos.

"We need a “sustainability revolution” and both the private sector and policymakers need to do their part," Lauren Riley (Managing Director of Global Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, United Airlinestold a group of foreign diplomats and NGO, private sector, and government representatives. When it comes to sustainability, action is lagging far behind rhetoric. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have a vital role to play in changing the trajectory of the development of sustainable infrastructure, which is necessary to adapt to changing climate, resources and technologies. In a future-focused discussion hosted by the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement in partnership with United Airlines, speakers from the private sector, foreign embassies and multilateral institutions shared ambitious goals and detailed plans of action to build sustainable infrastructure. 

The hollow-square discussion on November 7, which was moderated by Ambassador Piper Campbell (Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement Advisory Committee Member), continued with Laurence Carter (Senior Advisor, International Finance Corporation) elaborating on IFC’s $20 billion a year spent on emerging markets, of which 30% is related to developing clean energy. Through the issuance of “green bonds,” IFC has leveraged public-private partnerships for everything from scaling up solar technology in Africa and Asia to tackling the largest European landfill in Belgrade. 

The conversation continued with Nancy Young (Vice President for Environmental Affairs, Airlines for America) who shared how airlines are combating climate change by increasing biofuel usage and fuel efficiency. While electric passenger planes may not be feasible until 2040, airlines have turned to biofuels which can be used in their current aircraft to reduce their carbon footprint. In addition, Riley detailed how United Airlines partnership with Fulcrum Energy is aiming to save between 90 and 180 million gallons of fuel over the next 10 years. United Airlines has already improved fuel efficiency by 45% since 1990 and is committed to a further 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.  

Lastly, Michel Wallemacq (Senior Economic Advisor, Embassy of Belgium) described how the retrofitting of older buildings in Belgium has begun to significantly reduce heating costs in cities. Wallemacq detailed Belgium’s ambitious goal to reduce 30% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. In addition, he touched on Belgium’s EU leading 78% recycling rate, and the need to increase recycling rates as close to 100% as possible. A worldwide shift towards a circular economy will help respond to a growing populations and dwindling resources.  

Cost-effectiveness was considered the biggest challenge facing the shift towards sustainability. There is consensus across the board on changes that need to be made, but often the price tag attached to these changes is too high. In addition, the financial problem has been compounded by lack of support from policymakers. With the biofuels industry ready to scale up and the private sector willing to shift green, there needs to be a formalized tax incentive to mitigate the current cost of biofuels. While some states, such as California and Oregon, have implemented carbon standards, no such policy has been made at the federal level. As Nancy Young pointed out, the airline industry will do its job but needs support from the government before a sustainable mandate can be formalized.   

Those in attendance agreed that in order to make a tangible shift in the global climate change trajectory, commitment towards sustainable infrastructure must be globally driven and cross-sectoral. There was also broad consensus that individual private sector company and industry commitments are vital and must be both transparent and well-marketed. But for a significant shift to occur, industries must collaborate with one another, with multilateral institutions and with governments around the world. Aggressive goals in the form of benchmarks, targets and standards are essential. Participants concluded that bottom-up momentum has already started, and it is the responsibility of those in positions of influence to translate these sentiments into policy and action.   

The Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement accelerates collaboration between the international diplomatic corps and the U.S. public and private sectors to address global challenges and opportunities facing the United States and the world today. Meridian convenes programs across borders, parties and industries enabling participants to connect in intimate settings with top officials and policy-makers, dive deeply into issues, understand how Washington works and strengthen peer-to-peer relationships. Our ‘Diplocraft’ series provides senior diplomats with a greater understanding of the inner workings of Washington through policy deep dives and peer networking opportunities. The series of convening programs provides context on key areas of mutual concern. 

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