The first Enlightenment emphasised the power of reason to enhance understanding of the universe and the human condition. It was the catalyst for scientific advances that made the Industrial Revolution possible. That revolution also marked the beginning of human-induced warming.
Today, scientific advances are critical to the very survival of our species. Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices, the increased incidence of zoonotic diseases – all these problems are interlinked and can only be solved if the worlds of science, technology, business and politics work together with a deep sense of urgency to develop sustainable solutions.
The Natural History Museum in London offered this message to the Braemar Summit: “Our own future is at threat by the pressure our natural systems are under and we must act now. We must act on scientific evidence and we must act together. Biodiversity loss is just as catastrophic as climate change, but the solutions are linked. Stopping further damage to the planet requires a big change, but we can do it if we act now, and together.”
The power of collaboration
The theme of collaboration ran through the Braemar Summit, which opened with three professors from the Oxford Vaccine Group describing how open sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence by the Chinese helped the team to come up with their vaccine in record time. This led to an historic partnership with AstraZeneca to manufacture and distribute vaccines—a harbinger of the many types of collaboration that will be needed to solve the rapidly unfolding climate crisis.
Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, told delegates that many barriers still exist between scientists, technologists and engineers as well as those who lead public services and industry, and that these barriers must be broken down. “We must increase the permeability of both ideas and people between these different sectors. With permeability come innovative ideas and mutual respect, leading to better progress and translating science into useful application. It’s often in mixed up and chaotic circumstances that creative work is done.”
Climate change is arguably the single most important leadership challenge the world has ever faced; it affects everyone and there is no short-term solution. Achieving net zero will require the greatest transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Following publication of the latest IPCC report, no business leader or politician in the world can afford to say, “this is not my problem.”
David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, writes: “If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat is everywhere, and overwhelming, and total.”
The goal of solving climate change and preserving biodiversity will require what Hubert Joly calls “the end of zero-sum leadership.” It will demand vision, ambition, creativity and collaboration far bolder even than anything we have seen during the pandemic. It will test the ability of leaders to operate outside their normal frames of reference. The level of impact necessary to achieve net zero goes well beyond what any organisation can achieve on its own—leaders will have to learn to build broader networks and forge new alliances and partnerships across sectors--with governments, academia, NGOs, regulators and even competitors.
Leading to net zero
Clarity of vision, a strong sense of purpose and the ability to create followership will be essential traits for corporate leaders as they transition their organisations towards net zero.
Change must happen with pace, urgency and involve unprecedented levels of cooperation. CEOs will be expected to demonstrate genuine commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting biodiversity loss. They will need to exercise power in the most effective way and for the greatest collective good while meeting their obligations to stakeholders.
Scrupulously avoiding greenwashing, CEOs will need to harness the energy and creativity of their entire workforce if they are to seize critical opportunities to make a difference in tacking climate change. Larger companies in particular must look beyond the boundaries of their own operations to collaborate across the supply chain, supporting SMEs who have fewer resources at their disposal to finance the transition.
Lord Browne, chairing a discussion on Leading to Net Zero at the New Enlightenment Summit in Braemar, Scotland, stressed the importance of identifying low-hanging fruit and focusing on targets that require action by 2030. “What could we actually do now that would make a specific difference to the world?” he asked.
Speaking on the panel assembled by Spencer Stuart, Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund, said: “We need to solve these problems in an integrated way. We need new configurations of actors coming together. It is fundamentally about leadership and execution. And if you are serious about [climate change] you put it in your executive compensation.”
Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest Group plc, spoke of the need to move very quickly into practical action. “We are not going to do this without collaborating really hard. Big companies have to focus on getting their own house in order and supporting their supply chain. The transition is going to cost money, and we have to be really honest about that.”
Jakob Stausholm, appointed CEO of Rio Tinto in January 2021, stated that “we have to recognise how challenging the transition will be from a leadership point of view. It’s about purpose and values. It’s about how we build our company to be ready for the next decade and the decade beyond that.”
Business as usual will no longer be possible as COP26 approaches and we enter a critical stage in the fight against climate change. The Leading to Net Zero panel were all agreed that pricing externalities, in particular the creation of a carbon tax, will be a necessary intervention. Corporate balance sheets have never had to truly account for the environmental cost of their operations in terms of such things as soil degradation, water use, carbon and methane emissions. Speaking on a different panel, Baroness Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, suggested that we need to tell the cost/benefit story differently. “We are underestimating the costs of the status quo and underestimating the benefits of change.”
The Braemar Summit on The New Enlightenment was organised by Sarah Sands, former Editor of the BBC Today Programme and non-executive director of Hawthorn Advisors.