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In climate conversations, high hopes are put in the private sector’s potential to step in and step up the collective game of changing the way humans use the planet. Chilean businessman and entrepreneur Gonzalo Muñoz – who is this year’s High-Level Climate Action Champion for his country, which is leading the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid – has significantly lessened the wait-time.
In 2009, Muñoz founded TriCiclos, a private company focused on sustainable waste management, which expanded its footprint throughout Latin America during a time when terms like “circular economy” – another focus of the company – were still nascent at most.
Now, TriCiclos has grown to be a social movement as much as a profitable enterprise, seeing it become the first certified B Corporation outside of North America and Muñoz the first private-sector nominee for climate action champion, whose role it is to bridge the gap between national delegations and sectors such as industry, NGOs and finance. Already, he’s left his mark on the COP by calling all sectors, from city governments to investors, to join the Climate Ambition Alliance and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Here, he tells what the journey has meant for him.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why did you choose to focus your career on waste management and circularity?
I come from a family that is very well-connected to environmental resources. I studied a master’s in environmental management, but then I became CEO of companies packing food for 10 years. And when you pack food, you realize that you’re not only putting food products into the market; you’re also putting the envelope, the packaging. And many times, that packaging is not necessarily designed in a way that it’s considering the impacts on the environment when it’s discarded.
So, after 10 years of packing food, I realized that I needed to start focusing on analyzing how much of this is an error of design. You have to correct the design, not only of the products or the material you’re using, but also of the business model in order to give to the customers, to the clients, to the consumers, to the citizens what they require and not make them part of a problem while buying as well. They might not know how to discard certain elements in a way that doesn’t affect their own environment.
So that was a tipping point in my life, connected as well to a few moments. my youngest daughter got ill with cancer, and I had the loss of one of my great friends, my first partner in business. So I decided to move toward what I thought I was meant to do in my life.
How did it feel to be nominated as the Chilean High-Level Climate Champion this year?
It was very special because it was totally unexpected. I have never had any kind of, let’s say, public role. I had developed all of my career in the business sector or NGOs – so, much more in the private sector. But all the time – at least in the last 10 or 12 years – I was very connected to developing public value and connecting the public sector to the public needs; and therefore analyzing and strengthening the road that the public sector, mostly businesses, must have in terms of delivering public goods.
We were having permanent conversations not only with the current environmental minister of Chile but also the previous ones; I was showing the work that we have been doing, not only through TriCiclos but also through the B-Corp movement. So when the minister called me, I thought that it was going to be another conversation around circular economy or the role of the B-Corp. And all a sudden she started talking… and I was not only surprised but absolutely grateful for the opportunity. I would never have dreamed of a better opportunity for impacting the world in a way that the COP and the role of a high-level champion can be.
What outcomes are you expecting and hoping for at this COP?
Well when it comes to my role, the role of the high-level champion is totally connected to what the non-state actors can do. Private sector stakeholders are extremely relevant, have been extremely relevant since the Paris Agreement [on climate change]. And that’s why the role of the role of the champion was created: to mobilize action through those that are not necessarily in the negotiating room but those that are in the real world, those that are delivering concrete actions that can change the current situation, that can help solve the crisis.
And mostly they can deliver evidence for the people that are in the room negotiating to know what is happening and what can happen if we align the incentives.
So mostly my role is to bring those actors here. We have just delivered the Yearbook of Global Climate Action and also the Climate Action Pathways. We have allowed and promote the work of Marrakech Partnership and all thematic areas to be connected to the 1.5 [degree goal for limiting global warming]. Everybody who has read the Pathways is celebrating the tool and also the effort that this group has done in less than half a year by delivering each of the Pathways, each of the thematic areas, and a very concrete pathway towards a net-zero [emissions] world in 2050.
We understand it’s the moment to show… how relevant is the work of the Marrakech Partnership, how extremely urgent it is to strengthen the work of Global Climate Action, and… the need for all of the countries in the world to set every area, every industry, every sector toward that common goal.
How did climate and environmental issues play into the uprisings in Chile that spurred the COP’s move from Santiago to here in Madrid?
I understand that they’re two faces of the same coin. We absolutely understand that most of the social demands, most of the social unrest that we are seeing in many countries in the world – in this case, in Chile in particular – are absolutely connected to environmental demands as well. And it’s absolutely connected to everything that’s being discussed and to what we need to solve in a place like the COP.
We need therefore to connect that in a stronger way, in a more clear way, so people everywhere in the world can know that what we’re doing here must reflect – and must therefore be therefore delivered – in a way that they feel a very concrete value added on a daily basis to their lives. That’s something that maybe we have failed in the past, and now we have to make it much stronger for people everywhere to understand that there is no way we can achieve all of the environmental and climate challenges without considering all of the social demands.
The inclusive aspect, the resilience aspect, the need of leaving no one behind are present in all of our discussions in the COP and therefore must be integrated in all of the solutions.
If you could put one message on a billboard for everyone to see, what would it be?
It would be for all of the non-party stakeholders join the Climate Ambition Alliance right now. You have no time to waste. This is the moment for action.