Climate Smart Forestry: Smart for Some

I have been a Chartered Forester for over 30 years. Forestry was my profession until I moved into sustainability roles over 15 years ago. I was more than curious therefore to attend, for the first time in over 20 years, the Institute of Chartered Foresters annual conference, which took place in Glasgow recently. The theme was climate smart forestry. With 2.5-3 degrees of global heating the most likely climate outcome, and the long time horizons of forestry management, forest managers need to figure out how to address the physical and transition risks of climate change ahead of most. I was interested therefore to get some insights as to how the sector is currently thinking about how to build a climate smart, resilient future.

There were lots of excellent presentations and insights from the latest research, and it was also a real luxury to have the time to sit and reflect upon the challenges that a changing climate is throwing at us. I could not help thinking though that the discussions felt at time like my studies 40 years ago, just with a different framing (as one speaker said – its all about diversity, diversity, diversity). Plenty of practitioners are giving plenty of thought and experimenting on their own – with inspiring results. Polls taken at the start and the end showed that perceptions about climate change adaptation had changed over the course of the event, and there was a desire for more immediate action. Credit to the organizers therefore for curating the content that achieved this. 

And yet at the end a few people at least left somewhat doubting as to whether things would change, whether it was possible, necessary, or even possible. Reflecting on this afterwards I realized that these observations illustrate the challenges we face in dealing with climate change given the economic system we are starting from.

We need to talk about the Economic System

To explain. Forestry in the UK in some ways replicates the wider economy. There are four categories of ownership: the government (with 27%), charities such as the Woodland Trust, privately owned estates (which are akin to family businesses), and private investors.

Forestry England (who manage Government owned forests in England) presented thoughtful examples of their work that balances the need for productive timber production, public recreation and biodiversity enhancement, all future-proofed for a changing climate. The charity sector similarly explained its approach to deliver a range of objectives and responsibilities. The private sector, in the shape of family owned estates, also demonstrated their actions to develop the diversity that will provide the necessary adaptability and resilience for the future.

This forward looking view was contrasted by the private investment sector. Private investment in forests has moved on from the stereotypical wealthy celebrity planting trees as a tax break in the 1980s and 1990s. Asset managers now cater for individuals like you and I who can buy shares in investment trusts that invest in forests. As you would expect, the asset managers have all the right words and phrases to demonstrate their ESG credentials for a City audience. Yet the mood in the room clearly indicated that the sustainability performance on the ground was somewhat different. Investors are looking for “a return”, which are much higher than when I started out as a forester. This translates into an interest in one species which grows well – Sitka Spruce. The view from the City is that risk and resilience can best be delivered not by diversifying the forests in the UK, but by diversifying their portfolio into other forests, species and countries across the world.

The focus on simplicity of business model was continued by the biggest sawmilling company in the UK. It was keen to highlight its need to compete in global markets with imports from competitors who were bigger in size, lower cost, and with a higher efficiency. It needed the consistency of the same species, in a narrow range of diameters. There was an implicit warning that growing other species just added complexity for their operations which would reduce their margins, and the prices they could pay for logs.

Now to be clear, this range of approaches and views is not new. It’s not so far off what I recognise from when I last worked in the forest industry 20+ years ago. But when seen in the context of climate change it raises some questions about the structure of our economic system. Duncan Austin has coined the term ‘externality denying capitalism’ as being our biggest barrier to delivering sustainability. UK forestry with its mix of government ownership, charities, family businesses and investment funds brings this into sharp relief.

For those concerned about the future, it’s already being built by the Government managed forests, charities, and those parts of the private sector which bring the unique perspective and role of family business. When you have been around for 400+ years, then delivering a decent return whilst maintaining assets for the next generation is more important than ‘relative performance against the market’.

Building Resilience: Accepting Complexity

Which leads me to offer a few observations, not just for the UK forest sector:

  1. The whole value chain needs to collaborate to tackle the physical and transition risks posed by climate change. Obvious to say but evidence suggests that it isn’t happening. Foresters are grappling with physical risks and the need to plant and manage for the future not today. The processing industry will need to learn to accept the complexity this causes and the transition risk associated with it.
  2. iI’s time to have a debate on the types of ownership of production. And the balance of ownership thats appropriate in society to deliver the stability and resilience we need in the future. The action in some quarters of the private sector contrasts with the ‘externality denying capitalism’ elsewhere. Forest investment products that offer shareholders a CPI+5% long term annual return are unlikely to leave any room for diversifying and building resilience for the longer term. If these incumbents are fixed in their views, its time to build a different future. There is plenty of money currently sitting in ISA accounts paying very little. But there are people who would welcome a better return than offered by cash ISAs and wish to contribute to a better society and community. It’s time for some blended finance and impact investors to enter the fray to offer investment products comprised of forests that include productive assets, biodiversity and public access benefits; all built with climate resilience in mind.
  3. Policy makers need to reflect on the public support for private forestry. The view from the stage was that tax incentives are still needed due to the long term nature of forestry. Perhaps. But public money should be aligned with societal priorities, and the need to build a climate smart forest estate. At least one part of the private sector is demonstrating how to do this. The investment sector needs to be made to follow. Continuing tax support needs to be tied to climate smart outcomes.
  4. Government all too often gets a bad rap. But there are successes. For Forestry England, Forests and Land Scotland, and Natural Resources Wales; great job! Keep going.

Cocoa and Poverty: Time for a New Framing

Chocolate inspires Art

In the last two to three years multinational companies have been launching detailed costed roadmaps tackling some of the biggest challenges facing society – climate, plastics, regenerative agriculture… The investments are significant, typically running to several Billion Euros/US$/CHF over a four-to-five-year period. However, we have yet to see the game changing roadmaps and public commitments to tackle inequality and human rights. This is especially important in the sourcing of agricultural raw materials from small-holder farmers.

There are some indications that attention to inequality is shortly due for a major upgrade. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is gingerly working out business solutions to cut through an economic system that has institutionalised inequality. Corporate reporting standards setters are focussing on societal inequalities and others are co-creating a Task Force on Inequality Related Financial Disclosure. Within the cocoa sector, Nestlé recently announced its new human rights framework and roadmap. It promised action plans on its salient issues, including living income.

How things play out in cocoa will be an interesting test case of how seriously a new focus on inequality will be. The last few years has seen the focus in the cocoa industry on child labour and then recently deforestation. Yet underlying these issues, and driving them is the real issue: poverty. The sooner we have an open debate on the pathway of consequences the better: address poverty and progress will be much easier on child labour and deforestation.

Inequality in Cocoa Value Chains

Farmer incomes depend upon cocoa prices which in the last ten years have varied widely but shown no real trend. Livelihoods are desperate for the majority of smallholder cocoa farmers. Yet further along the value chain, executive pay is set at levels that provide a more than adequate guarantee for a comfortable life. For investors, dividends paid by major companies have risen over the same period. Not only are the rewards not delivered equally, neither is the risk.

Traders, manufacturers and retailers that profit from cocoa mostly have boiler plate statements on inequality that hint at a desire to fix the situation. Big companies have their own branded programme to support cocoa farmers, many of which run over a 10 year period. Cocoa Life, Cocoa Plan and Cocoa for Generations all demonstrate a lot of individual and collaborative actions, typically including money spent upon addressing child labour, building traceability and accountability (through eg certification programmes), increasing cocoa productivity, supporting communities, addressing deforestation, and paying voluntary premiums.

The annual amounts invested typically account for about 0.5% of turnover, ie not much. To put them in further perspective, the pay of the CEO and management teams of the major cocoa manufacturing companies is the same (or higher) than the total investments made to support cocoa farmers. Yet whilst there is an ongoing question on the adequacy of the of the funding compared to the scale and urgency of the task, the focus of that funding is also now in the spotlight.

For the last decade these initiatives have focussed on solving inequality through actions on productivity, costs, quality, sustainability premiums and one-off projects in communities. Some academic work by Wageningen University (WUR) and Mondelēz has helpfully synthesised the latest research findings. Yet as Nico Roozen has comprehensively laid bare, industry and academia seem stuck with an out-of-date framing.

It seems that these old-style sustainability interventions have been superb at guaranteeing future supplies for factories whilst keeping prices low. The unintended consequence has been the perpetuation of the main challenge that farmers face: poverty.

The problems of the current corporate approach seem to boil down to four things:

  1. A faith in productivity increases
  2. A failure to take into account system constraints and context
  3. A focus on deflecting discussions on prices
  4. A fixation with an inappropriate income threshold

The research by WUR/Mondelēz importantly concludes that structural changes in the industry are indeed needed. But it does not interrogate enough the other areas. So what would a new framing look like? How should a new generation of corporate approaches to cocoa and inequality be built?

Farmers, not Cocoa Farmers

Living income has been promoted for some time as the best chance to address poverty. And whilst companies proclaim support for the concept, living income has always been seen as a Trojan Horse for a discussion on price. Companies use a counter argument that the only levers that they have available to raise incomes are productivity, costs, quality and voluntary premiums. They have largely decided to put their faith in productivity.

The opportunity to increase productivity of west African cocoa farmers by a factor of two or four sounds fantastic for the casual reader, and the farmer. Yet concentrating upon productivity locks farmers into a negative supply-demand feedback loop. Unless there is a corresponding doubling or quadrupling of demand it generates an oversupply of cocoa and keeps a lid on prices.

The WUR research has provided the evidence for what has long been understood – that growing cocoa alone, however successfully, is not a route out of poverty for many farmers. For those farmers with small land areas, lack of ability to make the necessary investments, or lack of interest to develop their farm into an ‘agribusiness’, alternative development routes and crops should be the focus.

In parallel, macro-economic approaches to manage global cocoa supply and demand will also be necessary, as will Governmental approaches and interventions on land ownership and rural development.

The new framing therefore needs to put farmers, their community and national food and nutrition security first. Rather than seeing farmers who grow cocoa as ‘cocoa farmers’, they should be seen as farmers.

This needs to be seen in the context of a huge necessity and opportunity. Most countries in Africa import basic foodstuffs and wish to increase their availability of nutritious food. Development banks have significant funding programmes designed to build food and nutrition security. Targeted programmes such as the GAFSP, run by the World Bank, distribute funds to improve the resilience of smallholder farmers and improve local food availability, as well as investing in the value chains, storage facilities and routes to market to serve urban markets. Typical programmes run for five years or more and require investments of several hundred US$ per household.

To be clear, this is not just a task for the cocoa sector to lead. It needs leadership by national governments through their agriculture, economy and health departments, and carried out in partnership with communities. But it needs to be supported by the cocoa sector. Cocoa companies can play their part through a segmentation of farmers, targeting their support programmes and redesigning their commercial relationships based upon that segmentation.

Futures Contracts: Or Contracts that have a Future?

Whilst companies like to focus upon productivity, civil society and governments focus upon price. The question is what price? Cocoa prices today are determined by ‘the market’ – as reflected in futures contracts. Futures contracts reduce business risk by providing certainty of prices for manufacturers and retailers. But this transfers that risk and volatility onto the farmer and hinders the same companies own farmer support programmes. As the WUR paper indicates, futures contracts and commodity markets do not care about human rights or environmental degradation. They break the connection between the practices on the ground and the consumer, destroying any attempt by the market to adequately fund measures to address externalities such as child labour or deforestation.

So, if prices have little relation to the costs of production, the costs of doing the right thing, or the costs of delivering a decent livelihood for farmers, what’s to be done? It’s hard to escape the logic of Fairtrade’s model – a guaranteed floor price and a premium which at least puts some boundaries upon a pure market-based approach. Companies have by and large rejected these limited strictures, preferring their own voluntary approach, through which they are typical paying premia of 2-3% of the cocoa price. That is: not much.

The major manufacturing companies are all committed to source 100% of their cocoa directly from their own programmes by 2025. However, none have so far discussed how they expect to determine the mechanism by which they will set prices. In due course, regulations may force due diligence and the costs of externalities into futures contracts. Alternatively, technology may allow social and environmental externalities to be embedded into a differentiated commodity grade.

But in the absence of these developments, for companies to be credible in addressing inequality and issues such as child labour, they will need to explicitly address pricing. This may involve reducing their dependency upon commodity futures contracts for both purchases and for setting the baseline price; speeding up buying more directly from farmers producer organisations; and finding a mechanism to address actual farmer costs and externalities. Potentially, companies could adopt the same approach they use for critical raw material ingredients – a cost-plus contract-growing approach that ensures a fair return for the farmer where externalities are adequately accounted for.

Thresholds of Decency

It speaks volumes that cocoa companies and academics are still using the extreme poverty line as the baseline to talk about inequality. It gets worse – even living income is defined as what a family needs to get by on. The ambition needs to be beyond ‘getting by’. Just as executives in companies and asset managers have come to expect a decent salary and bonus, so should cocoa farmers.

The World Bank is now trying to distance itself from the extreme poverty line (US$1.90/day), using two new poverty baselines of $3.20 and $5.50 per day. The ambition of the cocoa sector should go beyond thresholds of ‘poverty’ and aspire to creating ‘decent’ lives, which suggests a daily figure closer to US$10. Clearly, paying (typically) premia equivalent to $0.20 per day is not in any way a serious attempt to address farmer incomes. Neither are ‘proud’ claims of supporting the LID of US$400/T – equivalent to about US$1/day for most farmers. Rather than premia being seen as a ‘top up’ they need to be seen more like a universal basic income. Payments for cocoa production are then ‘on top’. Not unlike the (virtually guaranteed) bonuses on top of the guaranteed salaries enjoyed by those employed by companies.

A word on carbon markets. These are seen by some as an opportunity for cocoa farmers. They are, but not at the expense of making the economics of cocoa cultivation stand on its own two feet. Carbon payments (for soil carbon or trees standing) need to be seen as a one-off bonus for farmers. A windfall, over and above what cocoa cultivation can pay them. They deserve an upside for once.

Such changes indicate a cocoa sector that needs to recognise the need to work on a ‘just transition’. This is unlikely to be a win-win. Reducing risks for farmers will not be without its costs for companies. But this is coming anyway: the transition risks associated with addressing or not addressing livelihoods are building. The continued industry focus on productivity and narrative on prices is increasingly looking like diversionary tactics to avoid taking those hard decisions.

The Next Wave of Corporate Commitments

So back to corporate programmes on human rights, inequality and cocoa. If the ambition of a new round of human rights action plans mirrors that on climate and regenerative agriculture, then a significant corner could be turned.

The typical 0.5% of turnover per annum spent on cocoa programmes will need to increase to somewhere in the order of 5%. Possibly more. The cocoa programmes of the future will fund a universal basic income for cocoa farmers, contribute to farm & food diversification, as well as renewed efforts on tackling child labour, deforestation etc.

How to pay for that? Well that’s for the company management to think through. Margins on cocoa manufacturing are in the range of 10-17% and clearly offer some room for a downward reset. As does pricing. The price range of the same or equivalent products in my local shops is 10-20%. So much for ‘price points’. Right now (January 2022), with inflationary pressures in the economy and food value chains, it’s an ideal moment to increase consumer prices to adequately fund new programmes.

This will of course present challenges for companies: corporate cocoa agronomists will need new skills to help farming communities and producer organisations grow new crops and access new markets; finance teams will need to ensure that the annual accounts can reflect the restructuring and investment that’s needed; marketing departments will need to consider how to move chocolate more up-market; and investor relations teams will need to provide investor guidance on these value enhancement/risk mitigation measures.

Above all, companies will need to evolve their reporting away from input activities (eg number of farmers trained, number of trees planted) and rather discuss and report upon outcomes and impacts. Particularly, the numbers of farming households in cocoa areas that have a decent standard of living, how they have remedied poverty and inequality in communities they are sourcing from, and the contribution they have made to solving the system level challenges holding back cocoa growing communities.

Net Zero becomes Not Zero

‘The world’s first net zero coal mine’ is the new corporate branding trick of West Cumbria Mining (WCM) for its proposed mine near Whitehaven. Launched on the first day of the public inquiry into the mine earlier this week, it attempts to align the investment with Government policy. But in attempting to reposition itself WCM has hastened the end of net zero as a credible concept?

Where we have come from

‘Net-zero’ gained traction in 2019 following an IPCC report warning of the grave danger of global warming above 1.5°. To ensure that we stay below 1.5° rapid reductions in fossil fuel use are needed, though some limited fossil fuel use will be necessary by 2050. So it has been accepted that any remaining fossil fuel use can be compensated by carbon removals such as tree planting or carbon capture and storage. Hence ‘net-zero’.

Since 2019, over 700 companies have signed up to ‘net-zero’ pledges. More than 130 countries have or are planning to have a net-zero policies and legislation in place, including the UK.

Behind these pledges are a set of rules administered by the Science Based Targets Initiative. A solid net-zero commitment would halve emissions across Scopes 1, 2 and 3 by 2030 and then to close to zero by 2050, offsetting the remainder. A credible commitment would have a public plan of tangible actions for the next 24-36 months.

Where we are

But this is where it gets murky. Looking at the different net-zero targets of companies, there are a range of assumptions, baselines and scopes that make it hard to compare the promises of different companies even within the same sector. Mixing GHG removals with reductions is further compounding the confusion. What once looked simple is actually full of loopholes. Someone closely involved in the process once confided with me that there is more speculation than science when it comes to some of the calculations.

The original intent of ‘Net Zero’ – to create corporate action to push for government action has been captured by corporate marketing departments. This is diverting attention from what is really needed.

Rather than ‘net zero’ pledges, companies should set a timetable and dates for being free of fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (formed to guide industrialised countries energy policy) has illustrated this urgency by stating that the world needs to ensure there is ‘no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects’.

Where we are going

A few companies understand this, and are changing their communications – Unilever is committing to electric trucks, Maersk is investing in ships that will run on methanol, and steel companies are working hard to replace coal with hydrogen. Quietly, a change is underway.

So beware those that cling to the net-zero narrative.

Which brings us back to West Cumbria Mining. A company owned by a private equity firm with a complex shareholder structure that ends in the Cayman Islands. It’s a safe thing for them to rebrand themselves as net zero. It aligns them with UK Government Policy and positions them within the mainstream of the corporate world.

Yet a serious company would make a net zero pledge having done some due diligence to know that they can get there. There is no evidence that WCM have the first idea, or the intention. Their marketing partner is a global coal trader owned and financed by coal companies.

West Cumbria Mining has achieved one thing though. It has drawn attention to an unintended consequence of the success of Net Zero: its become the latest overused meaningless corporate buzz-phrase. We need to face the fact that Net Zero has been captured by companies which really believe in Not Zero.

 

Rethinking the Conventional Sustainability Wisdom

José Lopez, who died recently, had a fantastic capacity for turning conventional wisdom on its head. He had the knack for inverting phrases in a way that shone a blinding light on the reality, provided a simplicity of vision, and pointed us all in the right direction. Once asked what was the factory of the future, as quick as a flash his response was “the factory that has a future”. 

At first glance a flippant answer, yet on reflection its actually deeply insightful, if a little philosophical. Apply that to many current questions, such as: “what’s the future of capitalism?”, and you immediately have the answer. And the way ahead.

There are a few phrases that I believe need to be put under the spotlight. Here are a few that have shaped conventional wisdom, but are holding back progress on sustainability.

Think Local, Act Global

A phrase that needs a reboot is ‘think global act local’. The sustainability movement has dug itself into a hole following this globalization mantra.

Coming up with a global solution and then implementing it locally in one or two places has led to some nice sustainability stories for annual reports and conference speeches. Yet the continued calls for “solutions at scale” suggests that something is wrong with our thinking. 

We need to think local, design programmes that are appropriate for communities, and that make an impact on the ground. Then we need to replicate this repeatedly to roll it out globally. We need to think local, act global.

That’s the conclusion of recent research from a recent Foresight4Food paper on smallholder farmers.

And also the conclusion reached by the FSG team who stated that “Local solutions are the essential to tackling global problems” in a paper about how global leaders should think about solving our biggest problems.

Build Back Better

Thats right. I’m not sure we want to go back to anything, or backwards for that matter. The existing societal and economic foundations are exceedingly suspect, and our management theories are outdated. Quite frankly a U-turn is more appropriate in many areas.

Michael Liebreich ran a poll recently where only 3% voted for ‘build back’. 71% voted for ‘build forward’. Interestingly 26% preferred ‘embrace degrowth’. Degrowth is certainly what we need in some parts of society, though there is also no doubt that we need to deliver equality and equity in many other parts. We need growth; but differentially.

So can we please retire ‘build back better’ immediately, and replace it with something more appropriate and visionary? My own preference would be to include ‘transition’, ‘forward’ and ‘faster’ in the formulation.

A Fork in the Lake?

Somehow in the sustainability world we always seem to be at ‘tipping points’, have ‘windows of opportunity’ or be at ‘forks in the road’. This stretches the credulity of the accompanying messages, because we rarely are.

The latter is meant to be for those deciding moments in life. Yet it has become a metaphor for taking any kind of decision. Which of course devalues it’s meaning and weakens it’s impact. 

Yogi Berra skewered the phrase best, saying “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”.

So I have. I decided last year to take early independence, and my last day of salaried life is at the end of this month. This blog will continue. As will my contribution to sustainability and society – just in a different way, and on a different road, and a different lake.

I will be swapping Lac Léman for the Lake District where I will be thinking and acting locally, to help individuals and local communities. I will also focus on a few things globally that I believe can help society to transition to a better place. This will not involve building back better.

Art, Science and Context Based Targets

I saw this slogan on a wall at EPFL in Lausanne recent, and it got me thinking. “We have a science based target” is the only phrase that needed to be uttered in climate circles for the last few years. Everyone nods in agreement. You are one of us. So its no surprise that the “Science Based…” bandwagon is moving onto biodiversity, water, land and more.

I have written before about complex issues and the notion of quantum sustainability. Yet before we jump headlong into science based targets (SBTs) we need to realise the unintended consequences of trying to navigate this complexity and uncertainty with a simple tool. It may well divert attention from the real issues that we need to be working on to tackle the climate emergency.

Science or Art?

The concern about SBTs is the artistry that goes into the whole process. There is a flexibility to choose the baseline year, the climate scenario and which parts of the business to include. This leads to a lack of comparability across companies. Then there is the question of Scope 3 emissions.

A few years ago, a colleague pointed out that science based targets for scope 3 emissions are “pure speculation”. The point being that you can’t have science based targets where there is no science. It’s a good line, and essentially true. Calculating scope 3 emissions is a fraught process that relies upon a range of methodological estimates, assumptions and dodgy data.

1.5 Degrees to the Rescue?

Thank heavens therefore for the IPCC 1.5 degrees report. This states that to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees we need to halve GHG emissions in the next decade. This has just simplified the whole SBT process and saved companies a whole lot of consultancy fees.

However, a new angle in the climate discourse has come onto the scene. The TCFD (Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures) introduces a new type of science and artistry into the climate debate. Companies reporting to TCFD have to show their resilience under different scenarios.

This is where things get really interesting for some industry sectors. In thinking through the scenarios it turns out that transition risks become arguably as significant as the physical risks that we are used to talking about. And more immediate, as business decisions and responses are needed now. Which got me reading up about game theory.

SBTs bump up against Game Theory

Game theory can help us work out likely strategies and actions to address climate change (and even other sustainability challenges such as plastics). However, applying game theory to climate change produces some sobering results. As an article in Wired magazine highlighted, climate change is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.

SBTs might even make the situation more painful for those companies that have signed up to them, in good faith. There are currently close to 600 companies signed up to the SBT initiative. That leaves tens of thousands who have not. Despite those 600 managing their operations to achieve a 2 degrees of heating, we are still heading for 4-5 degrees. Which means that the next round of SBTs have to get stricter. Game theory suggests that this cycle will repeat itself. Potentially repeatedly.

Yet with the easy stuff now done, signatories to SBTs will soon be required to implement disruptive business models and make significant investments that will pay off if the climate stabilises. But if the majority maintain their business as usual approach the climate will still head for 4-5 degrees of heating.  Those investments will then be completely lost, and those companies will need to invest all over again to adapt to an outcome they tried to avoid. Investors will not be so forgiving regarding these transition risks. Which suggests its time to focus more upon context.

Context Based Targets

Context Based Targets reflect systems thinking, taking into account not just thresholds, but allocations, and adjustments for changes in the world. A few years ago Mark McElroy wrote a good description of the difference between science and context based targets. I would go further and suggest that the context needs to include the actions of competitors, government and society (especially investors and consumers).

Which starts to explain the commitment recently made by the UK Government. It committed to “net zero emissions” by 2050, but said that it would revisit this commitment (and its consequent actions) every 5 years. Given the current unknowns regarding the actions of other Governments, under a game theory this looks entirely logical*.

The New Climate Leadership

The difference between “business as usual” and “1.5 degrees” scenarios is now dramatic. Once companies understand the actions needed to halve all value chain emissions, transition risks will become the primary consideration for many. This means getting a handle on the actions of others, and the consequences of “free riders”. Getting too far ahead of mainstream society will need to be weighed up against the bragging rights of being “a climate leader”.

This is not a fatalistic justification for inaction. It is clear though that legislation will be the only way forward, and so corporate leadership will be demonstrated as much through advocacy as from actions. And context based targets, with their rationale clearly communicated will say more than SBTs can.

As for the end game, Extinction Rebellion look to have nailed it.   

*I do accept that the commitment is pretty hollow when put against the actions of the UK Government that recently approved a new coal mine and continues to push for a new runway at London’s main airport. But that just emphasises the context that companies need to factor in.

Quantum Sustainability

A different perspective on the rigging of the Cutty Sark

The sustainability world used to be so simple. There were a few topics, such as climate, water, forests, oceans, and some commodities. They all operated in their own silos. If you wanted insights and guidance then WWF (in Europe) and Conservation International (in North America) could help. It was then just a case of getting the commitment of management to act, and the rest was easy. You could almost call that the classical theory of how to approach sustainability.

Continue reading “Quantum Sustainability”

How many complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle?

This question was front of mind earlier this year as my daughter received her masters degree. For her thesis she analysed the international climate change process from Copenhagen to Paris. She wanted to understand what changed between these two meetings that allowed the global community to move from complete failure to modest success. Then she related those insights to the efforts to get an effective implementation of the global compact on forced migration and the rights of refugees.

It’s an interesting comparison. There are many similarities between these two topics in terms of the challenges of getting an international agreement and action to tackle them*. Both climate and migration/refugees impact large numbers of countries; those being harder hit are usually not countries where the international media are based; there are different opinions on the subject, often not informed by facts; and there is the concept of “responsibility sharing”. The community addressing forced migration and refugees is passionate, determined, and morally and ethically right. But it’s struggling to get governments to put in place an effective legally binding instrument.

* Just to be clear I understand that the issues are somewhat conflated: climate change can drive migration, but there are very many causes of migration.

On climate change, scientists, the media and civil society, (comprising indigenous peoples, communities, citizens, personalities and NGOs) all played their part in keeping the issue front and centre. And yet progress really took off once roles, responsibilities and contributions were included not just from governments but from businesses, regions and cities. And it was the combination of voluntary pledges and legally binding agreements made up the package of measures that constituted the Paris Accord.

It’s a blueprint that could equally be applied to solving the refugee and migrants challenge, a conclusion reached in my daughter’s thesis. A summary blog can be found here.

Extreme lengths

In discussing this with my daughter, one thing struck me – the effort needed to change the circumstances that allowed the world to get from Copenhagen to Paris, and to get the agreement in place. It wasn’t just the meetings, the reports, the science. It was the constant attention. Everything became framed in terms of climate change. This went to extreme lengths when scientists even started blaming Arctic Ground Squirrels for contributing to climate change

Far be it from me to blame the Arctic Ground Squirrels, but the article does illustrate how climate change was the lens through which everything was framed. It still is, often to the detriment of other subjects.

No more than two or three

It made me wonder. If this is what is needed to get a global agreement to tackle a global problem, then how many other complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle? It’s hard to imagine governments and stakeholders building up the same momentum as was needed for climate change, to tackle more than two or three global challenges. 

“What about plastics?” I hear you say. It’s true that plastics became a global issue of public concern very very quickly. Like climate change it mobilised opinion across the world, not just in the west. And we are now seeing an impressive array of interventions from governments and companies across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Yet it hardly required much media or civil society pressure to get there.

I had some correspondence with Sam Vionnet recently about sustainability challenges. He remarked that only two things have ever changed our world – disasters (disruption) and social movements (linked to public opinion). I would add that both are needed together. Plastics fits this hypothesis well. The disaster of plastics is well illustrated by the multitude of photos and videos of plastics polluting the environment. And that’s before David Attenborough starts his voice over. We have yet to see a social movement, but public opinion is firmly against plastics. Aside from a few material scientists, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a positive view of the stuff. OK, there was that cucumber 

So plastics had the perfect storm. Climate didn’t (pardon the pun). Neither does forced migration and refugees, how ever much outrage and injustice there may be on the issue.

We’d better choose wisely

Which highlights the phenomenon that was the climate change agreement. Clearly the constant wall-to-wall attention, and just the threat of disaster was enough to get the world to move. Climate change had not just a global reach with different cultures engaged in different types of activism but it focussed upon systems change. So far the responses to plastics are rather superficial (banning straws, plastic bags etc), but there are signs of more systemic responses. Whether these will go far enough in addressing the root cause of our linear society remains to be seen. This would require consumers to start making choices on a big scale – something that has not even happened with climate change.

So what chance is there of creating a similar unstoppable momentum to tackle some of the other complex challenges? And how much bandwidth does the public have? How many issues can rise up in the public consciousness to rival climate change and lead to global coordinated action? 

I suspect only one or two more. So we probably need to choose them carefully.

I’d cast a vote for food systems. However, having learned a little about the topic I’d also suggest migration/refugees. Forced migration is perceived as quite a eurocentric problem. It has yet to break out and be recognised for the global issue it is. And the outrage is not there yet. Those working on it would do well to connect it to other issues to spread the understanding. Ironically (given my daughter’s thesis), at some point climate change will connect these issues all too well.

 

 

ESG? No, its Time to Become Activist Investors

About 20% of all assets are now managed using some form of ESG principles. You wouldn’t know it though.

According to the Economist there were 70 activist campaigns in Europe last year. It feels like there will be more this year. The impact upon the progress of more sustainable business practices is notable.

ESG to the Rescue?

Meanwhile ESG is becoming more mainstream – McKinsey has published a blog claiming it the new normal. The Economist has also just pointed out that those with a millennial mindset are far more interested in ESG investing. There are however many shades of ESG.

At its simplest, a passive filter is applied which excludes a few sectors, whilst allowing investments in a range of companies and sectors that might surprise many. More active strategies introduce different levels of rigour. Then there are themed funds that focus upon specific sectors such as renewable energy. Finally impact investors concentrate on companies that explicitly deliver upon social outcomes as well as financial ones.

As a recent FT article points out though, there is not enough consensus on exactly what ESG is or how to measure it. It seems that all our efforts to fill out the questionnaires for DJSI, CDP and BBFAW et al are making little difference.

Activist Investors March On

Meanwhile, activist investors have cut through the fog with a very clear and simple narrative of margins and share prices. Lets face it, for those of us with pensions and savings, who would not want higher share prices and bigger pension pots.

Well actually not me if it is at the expense of the company and thus society itself. As I have argued before, activist investing is an extreme, that is “changing the circumstances”. The expectations on companies to make money for shareholders is drowning out the need to contribute to society. The important advances that have been made in recent years are under threat.

It seems to me though that the issue is not with activist investors, but the passive ones.

Asset Owners and Asset Managers

Passive funds are starting to have an important impact upon the market. Whilst their popularity is based (largely) on reducing the costs of asset management, they are weakening governance in companies. Index funds have no voice and do not talk to companies. This just amplifies the voice of the activist investors who do.

Asset managers of course do speak to the management of companies, but I wonder if they really speak on behalf of the asset owners. This is especially the case for pension funds.

Twelve years ago I set up my own self managed pension fund and transferred several of my company pension funds into it. I started to manage it and invest in companies that I wanted to invest in, according to my own beliefs. I became activist – putting my money where my mouth is.

Until recently however I was passive when it came to the pension fund managed by my employer. So I have decided to start asking a few questions and become more activist there too. Its worth doing, and sends an important signal.

We can all be Activists

There have been some concerns that ESG managed portfolios do less well than “traditional” assets. Yet there are plenty of studies that now show that assets managed with an ESG filter perform as well as or better.

Assets under management using ESG principles now total US$20-25Tn (trillion). Meanwhile activist hedge funds account for just US$150-200Bn. To give some perspective to this, the top four UK pension funds are valued at more than US$200Bn.

Its not too hard therefore, to see how relatively few pension fund members can easily make an impact, so we can all make a difference.

Its time to all become activist investors. We all need to ask our pension fund managers about their strategies regarding ESG. The more they hear interest, the more they will invest our money based upon these principles.

But we need to go even further. If we are to truly respond to the activist investor narrative, then we need to be activists for the other extreme of the investment spectrum – social businesses and impact investing. This will offer the alternative narrative to help change the circumstances again in the direction of creating shared value – for our pensions and for our society.

We need to ask our asset managers to increase their exposure to “impact investing”. My own self managed pension is seriously “overweight” (as they say) to deliver societal impact.