Sustainability: how Boards can – and should – contribute to net zero

COP26 is only a few months away, and is – quite rightly – focusing our collective minds globally on how we can move to net zero as soon as possible. Just in case anyone is still vague about the concept of ‘net zero’, this refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gases produced across the world, and the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere – we reach net zero when the amount produced is equal to (or, ideally, less than) the amount taken away. And we can’t just keep waiting, because the world’s climate is changing in some quite scary ways (just ask the residents of western Canada), and we have to work out how we can (at least try to) limit the impact. Doing nothing is not an option any more.

Sitting in the Board room, however, dealing with the usual strategic stuff that comes up, it can be easy to allow sustainability to slip down the agenda; I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past. A typical Board agenda is packed with discussions on finance, on improving quality, on opening new markets, of aligning personnel structures to strategic directions, and, currently, of the impacts of Covid. Where is the room for discussions on sustainability and net zero, especially as they are often accompanied by the realisation that any strategic moves towards these goals could be expensive and involve different ways of working?

Reframing the question, we might however ask ‘how can we afford not to place sustainability and net zero on our agendas?’. ‘Expensive’ has different interpretations; arguably, the consequences of doing nothing towards net zero are likely to be hugely – perhaps even impossibly – expensive in the long run … and if we think that an acceleration in climate change will allow us to keep working as we are, then we really do have our heads stuck in the sand.

There is no room for complacency in thinking about sustainability from the perspective of the Board room. A tick box ESG culture can deceive us into feeling that we are doing our part, but the danger lies in doing the minimum, or in finding loopholes. Fundamentally, though, if we are caught cheating in our homework on this issue, we will indeed be letting ourselves down, and letting everyone else down too …

Where to start? Put it on each agenda as a standing item. Read this article by Fran van Dijk on 5 mission-critical shifts in ESG which Boards need to know about. Learn and think about how you can measure your organisation’s carbon emissions, and then how you will do something about reducing them. Work out what you expect from your executive, and make sure that together you set real, effective targets which will motivate without encouraging skewed reporting.

Together we can make a difference – let’s not waste a moment longer.

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