Given what we know about climate change impacts, employees with sustainability know-how will be essential to decarbonizing our economies.
“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated in his opening address at the press conference following the release of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability last month.
“Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a condemning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals that our people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone, now; many ecosystems are at the point of no return, now; and unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction, now. The facts are undeniable; this abdication of leadership is criminal,” he continued.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Guterres’ words, with some alterations, belong to the leader of a besieged state, such as Volodymyr Zelensky — the former actor and President of Ukraine, who since the invasion of Ukraine has addressed parliaments around the world pleading for more substantial acts of solidarity. But the message of Guterres’ ‘war call’ is one that those working on climate change impacts have known for a long time.
What stands out, however, is just how impatient the message has become since the IPCC was established in 1988. We no longer live in a world where ignorance, if not cognitive dissonance, about the immense suffering climate change will cause is credible. Clutching at the podium, emboldened perhaps by the impotency of his own words given the primacy of media coverage on the war in Ukraine, Guterres concluded by saying “it’s time to turn rage into action,” which is much the same as Zelensky’s message to European parliaments.
More ambitious sustainability goals are urgently needed in the private sector
Fast-forward a month to the IPCC’s release of its follow-up report on climate change mitigation, and accusations that governments have watered down the report’s findings abound. And what of the private sector? While most of us have become sensitized to corporate sustainability branding in the form of windmills, waterfalls, and polar bears in recent years, the sustainability ambitions of much of the private sector continue to disappoint, with many companies still achieving only modest carbon emissions reductions in real terms. According to the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2022 report, which assesses the climate strategies of 25 of the world’s biggest companies, only three — Maersk, Vodafone, and Deutsche Telekom — have clearly committed to deep decarbonization of over 90 percent of their full value chains. The report argues that, of the companies surveyed, emissions reductions pledges — what companies claim to be committed to achieving — are often ambiguous and that “targets for 2030 fell well short of the ambition required to align with the internationally agreed goals of the Paris Agreement.”
While of the major technology companies, Microsoft continues to pursue sustainability goals that are strongly grounded in the climate science of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, even their most recent sustainability update reports an increase of 23 percent in Scope 3 emissions, which are the indirect emissions generated throughout a company’s value-supply chain, including the energy consumed by customers using their products. Microsoft attributes the rise to an expanded data center offering cloud services and the growth in Xbox sales during the pandemic.
For the same period, however, their Scope 1 and 2 emissions — those directly generated through business activities and as result of direct energy consumption — reduced by about 17 percent. While we might want to question whether high-energy consumption tech products like Xboxes will even have a place in a future energy-constrained consumer market, Microsoft’s commitment to the climate science and transparent environmental reporting, even when the results are less than hoped for, sets a type of benchmark for other large technology companies to follow. With transparent reporting, we can at least gain some understanding of how and where emissions reductions are being achieved and which areas need further incentivising or investment for greater change.
But what about small-to-medium size businesses? My anecdotal experience is that despite wanting to contribute to sustainability many organizations simply lack the practical know-how to design and implement strategic plans for achieving sustainability goals. And yet those joining the workforce today expect that company managers are knowledgeable about sustainability and have a plan for ensuring that it is part of the company’s DNA.
Businesses need employees with sustainability know-how
The workforce therefore needs employees who possess sustainability know-how, which starts with employee training on what things matter when it comes to reducing environmental impacts. It’s a given that this isn’t always easy, particularly in high-energy sectors, and that effective measures might take some time to implement if not also some trial and error, as Microsoft shows.
But climate change literacy and practical sustainability know-how are key future skills that as the climate crisis deepens will be essential to the long-term prospects of business. In this context, literacy refers not only to knowledge about climate change — and the enormous challenges it presents — but also to the factors that enable sustainable business models to flourish. At the behavioral level, it’s also about understanding how all of our activities contribute to a sustainability profile.
But sustainability doesn’t have a one size fits all solution. In fact, it frustratingly lacks even a consistent definition that applies evenly to different domains of activity. And that’s why sustainability goals within the business context require both leadership from the top as well as the creativity and commitment of everyone else within the organization. Sustainability innovation will most likely be multidimensional, combining old and new tech — the things we’ve forgotten we once did with new things that feel so intuitive it’s as if they’ve always been around. It’s because of this that sustainability know-how can’t be reduced to the ability to calculate carbon emissions and implicitly carries broader implications for the way we view the natural world and the ongoing development of our societies and economies.
Both the words ecology and economics derive from the ancient Greek term 'oikos,’ which roughly means household. The household is both a home and an economic unit. There is simply no longer any time left to delay transitioning our household economies in order to remain at home on Earth based on a drastically reduced carbon budget.
If we truly want to avoid waking up to a different world, to a “Hothouse Earth,” as the prominent climate change scientist Will Steffen terms it, we need to start decarbonizing our economies now, which means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a massive 43 percent by 2030, according to the IPCC. That means it’s either this decade or never.
Banner photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.