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Addressing Climate Change on Boards: An Intergenerational Perspective

As part of the University of Cambridge Alumni Festival on 28 September 2021 Hughes Hall’s Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) hosted an intergenerational discussion on how corporate boards can address climate change. The discussion was moderated by Emily Farnworth, Co-Director of CCE, and included four panellists, each with different perspectives but a shared interest in tackling climate change. 

This recording of this event is available to watch here.

Our intergenerational panel

Ismail Sami is a current PhD student at Hughes Hall with a keen interest in sustainability whose research focusses on energy storage. When asked about how younger generations are thinking about climate change, Ismail highlighted that young people are often unsure about how to live comfortable lives while minimising their impact on climate, and are increasingly bringing sustainability into their professional lives.

Dr Emily Webster is a postdoctoral researcher in law working with CCE to explore how legal regimes can help solve climate change. Emily explained that while voluntary measures do have a role to play in the climate crisis, regulation is vital to making changes quickly and effectively. She emphasised that boards must be compelled and empowered to take climate action through consistent legal standards.

Herman Betten is a senior director for strategic partnerships at Royal DSM who works closely with corporate leaders to address climate issues within companies. Herman was asked about key trends and observations over the course of his career. He noted the need for a shift away from thinking about companies as vessels for making money towards emphasising the broader purpose and responsibilities of businesses.

Helen Mahy CBE is a highly experienced director who currently chairs The Renewables Infrastructure Group, and also sits on the board of SSE and is an Equality and Human Rights Commissioner. Reflecting on changes in business and sustainability during her career, Helen explained how climate change now features heavily in corporate decision-making, and that COVID-19 has made companies more aware of their social responsibilities.

How companies can address climate change

Panellists discussed how recent scientific reports, which warn of potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, might influence businesses. Ismail highlighted how these reports can often lead to a feeling of ‘eco-anxiety’ in younger people, and that businesses should demonstrate accountability and leadership in light of these warnings. Herman suggested that these reports highlight companies’ duty towards a wide range of stakeholders, and Emily added that strong scientific evidence can provide a legal basis for taking climate action. Helen agreed that companies must consider impacts outside of their primary duty towards their shareholders and noted that governments should take decisive action without putting up barriers through overregulation. Herman added that standardising non-financial reporting would improve investors’ ability to understand companies’ climate impacts.

When asked about how individuals might make a difference, Emily suggested that acting collectively is vital, and that voting can often be an individual’s most powerful tool. Herman added that people should ‘walk the talk’ and try to promote sustainable initiatives within their professional lives. To influence companies, Helen suggested tying executive remuneration to climate targets and Ismail argued that a carbon tax is one of the most effective ways to compel businesses to reduce their emissions. Emily agreed about the importance of carbon pricing but noted certain issues with implementing emissions trading systems in the past.

Key recommendations

To finish, panellists offered one specific recommendation for tackling the climate crisis. Ismail suggested that companies listen to their shareholders, and that individual shareholders actively consider climate change in their decision making. Emily recommended applying net zero provisions of the Climate Change Act to private actors in order to compel corporate action. Herman suggested that businesses should reduce their own emissions, address emissions within their supply chains, and encourage other businesses to do the same. He added that governments need to end fossil fuel subsidies, put a price on carbon, and support innovators. Helen explained that the government needs to support businesses that are deploying the right initiatives and technologies in the private sector, in particular low-carbon heating and electrified transport.

Overall, this discussion gave some insight into the wide range of perspectives through which businesses can address the climate crisis, but also highlighted that enthusiasm for climate action is shared across all generations.

Illustration by Tom Mclean

7th October 2021