SIMPLE IS KEY TO CONFRONTING THE CLIMATE CHANGE GAP

By Scott Poynton, Skytop Contributing Author March 24, 2021

Scott Poynton is an Australian forester. He founded The Forest Trust (TFT) in 1999 and grew it into a global non-profit working in 48 countries, impacting more than $1 trillion in supply chain transactions.

Scott supported some of the world’s largest companies to be more environmentally and socially responsible. He brokered major transformations across the wood and agri-commodities sectors, pioneering responsible sourcing and launching the world’s first No Deforestation, No Exploitation commitments.

In 2020, Scott founded The Pond Foundation. Its My Carbon Zero program helps individuals and businesses take their own strong, credible climate action. He also leads a different way limited, supporting C-suite executives and their organizations grow values-based leadership while sharing the lessons of his experience through writing, presenting and lecturing.

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According to an Eversheds Sutherland/KPMG Impact November 2020 report on climate change and corporate value, company boards and management believe they do not have the skillset to confront climate-related risks. There’s a knowledge gap about what’s required to create a net zero carbon business and more than three quarters of those surveyed think climate risk is a key factor in whether they’ll keep their job in the next 5 years.

The Pressure’s On

The good news is that there’s also recognition that the climate agenda brings opportunities  for businesses and the planet.  So the question is – how does one move from knowledge gap to strong action that converts opportunities into diverse, meaningful benefits?

Corporate leaders grappling with this question might do best to remember the old adage “keep it simple,” while also noting that the first step in any endeavor is always the hardest.

How Then To Get Going?

Anyone wanting to contribute to any solution typically first wants to understand their contribution to the problem. For business leaders looking to take credible climate action, that translates into wanting to know your carbon emissions. How big a problem do we have – do we emit thousands, millions, tens of millions of tons of carbon each year? Your number helps you define the scale of your challenge, the action you need to take, the time and budget needed, to get to carbon zero.

That’s helpful, but a better first step is to define what carbon zero means to you. What exactly is your destination?

As with everything, there are credible, throw away and everything-in-between definitions. Where you land on the spectrum will determine your credibility. Get it wrong and you’ll be trashed for greenwashing, your climate commitment doing more harm than good. Leaders across a diversity of sectors are already announcing targets and there’s growing competition to go further than the last person, further than your competitor. This creates its own anxiety. Do you want to be a wildebeest, safety in the pack company, or a leader?

The most credible carbon zero definition today is to remove from the atmosphere all the carbon your business has ever caused to be emitted, since its inception. You can go further into the realms of carbon negative but getting to zero will be challenging enough for most. For many businesses, in reality, it will be impossible. Impossible or not, setting an ambitious target, even while acknowledging what isn’t possible, is key. At the other end of the spectrum, making vague noises around the need to reduce your emissions and muttering something about tree planting and offsetting isn’t going to fly. Where do you want to be? It’s your journey. You set the destination.

Once you’ve done that, yes, you might then turn to working out your annual and lifetime emissions.

But you might not.

Our need to know our number can get in the way. Working it out is far from straightforward and usually requires investment, not always to hand, in external consultants. If you’re a big company, you’ll likely have that budget. So go for it. You might have an in-house team capable of the maths. But if you’re an SME, well, this might be challenging and again, your anxiety levels might rise, choking your path to action. Company leaders can find themselves getting wound up as they try to fathom just how big an issue this is amidst a high degree of disagreement around what to do about it. The pressure is on the executive – get it wrong and yes, you might be out the door, reputation shredded.

Amidst all the stress, the simple thing to remember is that you do in fact have a footprint. Everyone does. Your business does emit carbon, there’s no escaping it. In that context, getting started shouldn’t be too difficult. The other thing is that there really is an urgency to act. Climate change is here, and in all likelihood its impacts will dwarf what we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. Just not today. We don’t know when, but the time for hand wringing and excusing yourself from taking action while you work out your footprint is over.

What Does Credible Climate Action Look Like?

To avoid catastrophic climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressed in their 2014 Summary for Policymakers report that we need to stay below a temperature increase of 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels. To do that, we need to keep the amount of carbon in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million. Right now, we’re on target to overshoot that threshold. If we think about a bucket of water with a tap flowing into it, we’re filling the bucket too quickly. There’s no outlet to drain any away and we’re heading for a nasty overflow. To avoid a mess of our own making, we need to reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere each year. We need to turn down the faucet – and we need to remove the carbon from the atmosphere that’s already there. We need an outlet. Both actions combined can save our ‘bucket’ from a dangerous overflow.

In this context, your own personal credible climate action means, in very simple terms, doing everything you can to reduce the amount of carbon you cause to be emitted each year AND removing from the atmosphere, as much of the carbon you’ve caused to be emitted over the course of your life, or, if you’re a business, since your inception, as you can. You must do both and there’s no waiting for someone else to do it for you.

You Can Do That With Four Actions: 

The First – R1 – is to Reduce your own emissions. Take less flights (easy during a pandemic, what will you do when things get back to ‘normal?’), use renewable energy, less water. There’s a great number of things you can do. Having your number can help you set targets here, but again, not having a number isn’t an excuse for inaction.

The Second – R2 – is to Reduce emissions elsewhere. There are people in the world living their lives in ways that cause carbon emissions, but they lack the investment capacity to reduce those emissions. You can help them. Funding girls’ education for example is a great way to reduce future carbon emissions. Project Drawdown, in their 2017 book on climate solutions, offers a long list of the things you can do. Choosing your actions here requires careful project selection and must avoid ineffective offsetting nonsense (more on the false promises of offsetting in a future post), but there really is a great number of actions you can take to reduce emissions globally.

The Third – R3 – is to invest in projects that Remove carbon from the atmosphere. Yes, that’s where tree planting comes in, but you don’t need to limit yourself to that. At any rate, the benefits from tree-planting take time to accrue, and there are many risks that impact whether your trees survive long enough to make their carbon removal contributions. Alternatively, you can invest in projects that store carbon in soils, in mangroves, in buildings. You can invest in projects that take carbon out of the atmosphere using technology and directly lock it away. Again, there is a need for careful project selection here, but there is much that can be done on this front today, and with a diversity of co-benefits to people and Nature.

Lastly – I – you need to Inspire others to take action too. If it’s just a handful of us, we’re not going to make it. How do you inspire your colleagues to take action? Your shareholders, customers? How do you scale your leverage?

Taking credible climate action doesn’t depend on having a statistically significant, to two decimal places, number for your annual carbon emissions. It is helpful to have that, sure, and in time, once you’ve started acting, you can invest in getting your number. This helps you communicate how you’re progressing on your journey to a truly credible carbon zero target.

You can step over the threshold of uncertainty to action today just by committing yourself to a range of RRRI actions. Setting targets and reporting your achievements against this simple framework helps build your credibility in the climate space and allows you to progressively close that knowledge gap through learning by doing.

Key is to get started and to keep it simple. RRRI actions can help you remove the shackles and stand you in better stead, five years from now, when you might otherwise have lost your job.