If the world is to survive and thrive, we need a paradigm shift. Here’s what I’ve learned from working with businesses on climate solutions for 22 years.
The daily news of floods, heat waves and fires in Pakistan, the U.K., Europe, the U.S. and China make it clear that we are not stemming the tide of ecological collapse and social inequity. We are, in fact, at a tipping point.
I have spent the past 22 years working in the NGO sector as a policy advocate and engaging with businesses on how to be better corporate citizens and reduce their environmental footprint. Sometimes the best way to do that is through shaming. Other times it’s by engaging and partnering with businesses around how to address serious climate and sustainability challenges through the lens of corporate self-interest. There are even occasions when businesses support better regulation that encourages the corporate sector to step up and actually drive change.
But let’s be clear: We are not winning. If we are to survive and thrive, we need a paradigm shift in the way we go about structuring our economic systems and problem-solving. NGOs cannot do it alone. Governments and corporations cannot do it alone either.
In reflecting on my past nine years at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Australia, I have supported and initiated three programs that give me first-hand knowledge of the how and what of the paradigm shift we need. We need to bring systems thinking into practice to understand the complexity of the issues we face. And we need to focus on the intervention points along the pathway of action that are necessary to achieve the paradigm shifts.
We need to bring systems thinking into practice to understand the complexity of the issues we face.
For the first time, companies are being asked to set greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets based on the science of keeping within a carbon budget of 1.5 degrees Celsius. And they are expected to set targets not just for emissions in their direct control but in their indirect control as well. What was voluntary in 2015 has now become mainstream and in a growing number of countries, they are now mandatory.
The logic of companies not setting arbitrary targets but having an objective science-based approach to target setting towards a 1.5C trajectory has been a game changer.
Companies that set science-based targets (SBTs) have quickly found they must also look at their supply chains and require companies across different supply chains to talk with one about reducing their footprint. This has been transformational.
So far, 3,670 of the biggest companies have set SBTs across the world, with over half of them doing so this year. By having companies across different sectors speak to one another, they are setting expectations and collaborating around emissions reduction plans, and helping each other solve their challenges. This has seen many companies step up to lead, share information and give one another the confidence to act.
Out of this program came another two initiatives I have established, the Renewable Energy Buyers Forum, which became the Business Renewables Centre Australia (BRC-A), and the Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance (MECLA).
By having companies across different sectors speak to one another, they are setting expectations and collaborating around emissions reduction plans, and helping each other solve their challenges.
Both look to solve the challenges companies and organizations face to reduce their emissions by fostering markets for large-scale renewable energy and low-carbon materials for building and construction. Both are set up to intervene in a system by bringing different parties together to solve underlying system-wide problems, noting that none of the system participants can achieve the sizable changes they need on their own.
Two recent reports about the role of corporate sustainability at this time – Enough written by EY and the need for systems thinking All Systems Go by Deloitte – also identify the role of systems thinking to support Australia’s response to the key climate challenges and opportunities. This collaborative approach to change in Australia is quietly springing up in other countries and other regions around the world.
Here are a few ideas on the ingredients of a successful radical collaboration:
- Shift to systems thinking and mapping – Understanding the whole ecosystem you are working in gives businesses the ability to solve multiple problems concurrently.
- Find the right partners – Use your networks of trusted people and seek out those on the same journey.
- Timing is everything – Make sure you are ready for each step of the journey. Don’t skip ahead too quickly, and remember to bring willing people and organizations with you.
- Have a vision and a purpose – An idea is good, but you’ll need to set specific and achievable goals to get anywhere.
- Find expert partners – There are great organizations that can help you. Use them! A few suggestions: Climate-KIC, RMI, the Green Building Council, Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Lendlease, Multiplex, ARUP, Holci and WSP, to name a few.
- Resource up – You’ll need to be well-resourced to succeed, but in my experience, keeping it simple and nimble is critical.
- Set up an alliance model – By forming an alliance of like-minded businesses with structure and transparency, you can make it possible for competitors to collaborate. There is power in the collective.
- Build a brand – Give your alliance a positive brand worth being part of and watch your business participation surge.
- Highlight the commercial benefits – Acting on climate is the right thing for businesses to do but taking action also has to align with businesses’ purpose and vision, including making a profit.
- Use technology and develop a common language – Thanks to project management technology and the magic of Zoom/Google Meets/Teams, we can now work collaboratively with people and companies all over the world. To succeed, you’ll need a common language to ensure clear communications across sectors and countries.
Radical collaboration is easier said than done. It takes a lot to be successful, including time, trusted relationships, patience, a willingness to embrace complexity and uncertainty, and, most of all, passionate commitment. I have had the privilege of working with amazing people across the NGOs, industry and governments who are deeply committed to solving the climate crisis. While we have a challenging decade ahead, speed and scale are essential, and there are plenty of people willing to collaborate radically for a better climate-safe future. Find them and get to it!