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Climate Calculus Series: Where maths fall short, ecology offers clues

Jonathan Shopley | 03 December 2020

Climate leadership is not just about being in the lead. To drive change, leaders must nurture an entire business ecosystem. In this final article in our Climate Calculus series, Jonathan Shopley describes how new networks and connections are strengthening climate action.

Climate Calculus Series: Where maths fall short, ecology offers clues

When the COVID pandemic was kicking off in earnest in March of this year, it prompted me to explore the question of how we might tap the power, speed, and impact of viral change to alter the trajectory of climate change. And so, I kicked off a series of articles considering the how the exponential rate of change and complexity in our world is shaping our climate response. Applying the principles of calculus, I was curious to understand when and how we could reach the inflection point of climate leadership and breach the net zero emission goal articulated in the Paris Agreement. Put another way, how do we get the ‘climate R-factor’ way above 1?

Later articles in the series looked at that challenge through different lenses: the power of goals and objectives, such as carbon neutrality and net zero; pricing carbon to make markets more effective in addressing climate risks; the effectiveness of the political process driving the Paris Agreement; busting out of the sustainability echo-chambers; and inspiring the fast followers.

Staying true to the concept of calculus, these articles sought evidence of our ability to measure and mind our impact on climate. In our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, there is comfort in the certainty of quantification—staying below 1.5oC, achieving net zero emissions, hitting peak oil, putting a price on carbon, and the spectre of breaching 450ppm atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. Calculus shows climate impacts are cumulative and the longer we wait to take meaningful action at an international level, the harder and more urgent it gets to fix.

Now, after eight-plus intense months under the influence of COVID, I have to admit that the comfort of numbers is wearing thin. I was in that frame of mind when I picked up Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures” (Bodley Head, 2020). It’s a fascinating book, and one which opened up a different and illuminating perspective on our response to the climate challenge. Rather than the analytical approach of calculus, the author offers a more organic world view of climate connectivity.

Mushrooming ideas that reshape the world

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear fungi. They are just the fruiting body of the networks of fine tubular structures (hyphae) that branch, combine and tangle into webs (mycelium) that constitute fungal organisms.

Neither plant nor animal, some fungal species account for the largest organisms on record. They give us bread, alcohol, and medicines; some have the ability to digest plastics, pesticides, oil; and, others have the strength to break through asphalt and turn granite to soil. And the most remarkable thing they do is connect plants through underground networks—the “Wood Wide Web”—through which water, nutrients, and chemical and electrical currents surge to nourish, shape and reshape our natural ecosystems.

So how do these characteristics of mushrooms relate to climate change?

Unentangling our climate response

As witnessed by the dizzying array of announcements during Climate Week 2020, the ever-increasing number of corporate and public sector initiatives offer renewed ‘build back better’ hope. Commitments to net zero mushroomed to 1,500 companies, triple the number that had made those pledges by the end of 2019. And new species fruited in parts of the private sector where little had been done before—for example, a coalition of investment banks pledging to stop financing fossil projects. Our own research shows that 30% of companies in the Fortune Global 500 have delivered a significant climate milestone or are publicly committed to do so by 2030.

The power of these actions and commitments may not be revolutionary when viewed individually, but just as mycelia branch out from fungi to connect, fuel, and expand, there is now a healthy and robust ecosystem of corporate climate action. Dig a little deeper into recent developments and there is hugely encouraging evidence that those mycelia are penetrating a disorderly tangle of political, economic and social strata to make connections that are unique and transformational.

Rise of the radical labyrinths

In late summer, retired central banker Mark Carney launched the Taskforce on Scaling the Voluntary Carbon Market. It’s an initiative seeking to ramp voluntary climate action by a factor of 15 or more by sparking stronger market links with the investment sector. While it’s too early to say whether that spark will fuse the system or deliver the desired quantum leap in impact, it’s a remarkable example of multi-sectoral networks emerging to drive rapid growth in climate action.

Similarly, the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) is ramping up its impact by engaging ever more sectors (most recently oil & gas) in its mission to deliver economy-wide alignment with the science informed objectives of the Paris Agreement. That’s somewhat old news but the really interesting development is how their approach is being replicated for companies to set science-based goals for land and freshwater use, biodiversity and ecosystems. This hints at a whole system approach that aligns the SDGs into a more united, if somewhat tangled, response.

A third initiative to watch is the World Trade Organisation’s recent efforts to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers in environmental goods and services. There is talk about reforming inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; promoting a global circular economy by facilitating trade along supply chains; and, strengthening the links between trade and climate action and helping the smallest and poorest countries secure green financing.

How companies build stronger connections ​

The obvious question for companies is how to plug into these transformative networks? In 2018, we worked with 61 companies to explore how to create a net zero economy as a contribution to the UNFCCC’s Talanoa Dialogues. The result was the ‘Imprinting Net Zero’ model (see figure below) which identifies seven ‘prints’ that companies can use to contribute meaningfully to a net zero economy.

The three on the left focus on carbon neutrality across a business’s operations, suppliers and products. Rooted in calculus, this is all about the numbers and proper left-brain rational thinking. It’s about how to keep a company ahead on climate risks and opportunities.

The four on the right build on that platform of action to extend a company’s influence and impact through new business models and advocacy. Rooted in the messy world of mycelia-like networks—this is classic right-brain creative thinking. It is about the company you keep to ensure maximum impact beyond the boundaries of the business.

When all the prints are in play in and across the companies and trading relationships that make up the global economy, we’ll drive the ‘climate R factor’ way above 1 to infect the entire business ecosystem—in a good way.

The next series of articles by Jonathan Shopley will kick-off in January 2021, with a focus on how the fruiting bodies and mycelia are fairing in advance of COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.

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