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Climate Leadership Series: Michael Gillenwater and “All-Country” Capacity Building

Rebecca Fay | 13 June 2018 |

Jonathan Shopley speaks to Michael Gillenwater, Executive Director and co-founder of the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI), to discuss the global professionalisation and standardisation required to deliver the Paris Agreement commitments across developed and developing countries.

In this Climate Leadership series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practice, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. Find out more about Michael at the bottom of this article.

Jonathan Shopley (JS): How would you describe the mission of the GHGMI and how does it relate to the future of climate action?

Michael Gillenwater (MG): In its most abstract form, the aim of the Institute is to generate the social or human infrastructure required to limit global warming to 2 degrees, as required by science. There are treaties, regulations, market exchanges and all that mechanistic infrastructure which enables climate action and mitigation. However, social infrastructure is key to ensuring that the Agreement does what it says it’ll do.

We need a technically-trained and well-respected professional class of people to run effective carbon markets and help implement climate policy. Without that, passing laws and regulations is almost pointless. Professionalisation relates to having people in institutions with the competencies to implement climate action. At the forefront of that is the Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) expertise, including mitigation analysis, basic management and implementation skills, but also the ethical and professional practices and norms that go with technique. We started the GHGMI in 2007, and now have over 3,500 alumni across more than 160 countries.

Professionalisation is a powerful tool, both to enable climate action and to give policy makers and the public confidence that if they enact new policies, there is the capacity to implement them effectively and without corruption. This is especially important in the developing world. In all countries, experts with the proper technical skills need to infiltrate institutions at multiple levels to ultimately achieve zero emissions.

JS: How does your work support that vision?

MG: Climate change is inherently a global issue, which leads to the conclusion that there does need to be a global minimum level of collective action to address it. For example, we need technical experts around the world, operating under appropriate guidelines, to go in and check that a country is reporting its emissions truthfully.

In the early stages of my career, I was leading work on the national GHG inventory for the U.S. government; this preceded the Kyoto Protocol and continued throughout the negotiations. I was fortunate to be at the forefront of building the systems for the first national inventories, and the U.S. was one of the leaders. That experience of thinking through how to build this sort of infrastructure—what kind of skills it took and the components of what we now call a “national MRV system”—was a formative experience. That later led to work with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat to develop the training and certification programme for the UNFCCC compliance process. You can think of it in terms of setting up compliance inspection teams.

Our purpose at the GHGMI is to do something that has a longer-term impact by working outside of the roller coaster ride of politics and policy, to enable deeper, long-term change.

JS: What needs to happen to ensure that countries meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement?

MG: One of the major new aspects of the Paris Agreement, compared to Kyoto, is the “all countries” element. Every country is now making some kind of mitigation commitment and taking action.

In the past, there were not many developing countries making the same level of investment in MRV systems that OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries had been, for structured reasons that made sense under the earlier framework of the Kyoto Protocol and convention. Doing their GHG inventories and reporting and tracking the progress of mitigation actions was not something developing countries were investing significant time nor energy into, with some exceptions. Kyoto had a bifurcation between developed and developing countries, and there’s still that bifurcation, but less so on issues of transparency.

If you look back, there’s been a focus on capacity building going all the way back to the first Conference of the Parties (COP) in Berlin in 1995. And most COPs said a similar thing - that the Parties agree it’s important, and developed countries are encouraged to support capacity building in developing countries. And then next year we hear the same thing, yet little gets done.

That’s no longer deemed sufficient. Under the Paris Agreement, all countries need to start putting in place the infrastructure – those MRV systems, systems for implementing mitigation action, as well as a whole range of other things including adaptation planning and responses. As a result, there’s a clear need for capacity building across all nations. We’re now seeing a much stronger focus on support for developing countries to build out the capacity and infrastructure for participating and reporting fully in the international system.

JS: What do you think are the biggest challenges in delivering the Paris Agreement?

MG: This “all-in” mentality is good. The challenge with it is ensuring the capacity to do the right thing.

We have good guidelines for developing basic inventories and reporting absolute emissions. But while the Kyoto framework led with hard, possibly too rigid, targets based on national and technical guidelines, the Paris Agreement allows flexibility for countries to interpret and formulate their targets in almost any way they choose. Sometimes these are not even based on absolute reductions from a well-understood fixed baseline or base-year. From the perspective of short-term politics, this flexibility was helpful in getting the original Agreement over the line, but now it presents an analytical challenge to evaluate and determine compliance for each unique country. This points to the need to move a little further towards global standardisation.

JS: So, how do you mobilise people to address the challenges of capacity building and standardisation?

MG: We need an open platform for anyone interested in committing themselves to this space professionally.

Part of our unique focus at GHGMI is that we don’t typically try to engage at the normal policy/advocacy level by lobbying countries or companies. We instead work with individuals, and in some cases institutions, at the implementation level, for example with the Ministry of Environment of Turkey which is working on developing its national MRV system.

We ask individual practitioners “what do you need to do to do your job better?” We offer more than 20 courses focused on the fundamentals of GHG management, in person and online, which I think is unique in its global reach. Our first courses came out 10 years ago and they are still relevant today, because the way we designed our curriculum was not based on the policy or protocol whims of the moment, but on the fundamental technical and economic skills and knowledge professionals need to have in order to operate in this space.

The curriculum continues to grow and we’re translating it into more and more languages. At GHGMI, we want to give access to everyone and address the kind of resource limitations that people working in the GHG management space often have, particularly in the public sector and developing world.

JS: You’re a small organisation and you cast this amazingly long shadow. How do you bring 190+ countries on board?

MG: A lot of our projects are with partners who we help teach and mentor so they can run courses themselves. A core of our work is doing capacity building work in other countries – we might be coaching partners in developing an MRV plan or an inventory for a company, country, or project.

We’ve built a global peer group of practitioners through our alumni and members. Our role is to foster a sense of professional community and shared norms among them. We do this in a few ways, including sharing relevant thought leadership pieces. We recently put out a piece on different ways a country can think about structuring NDC compliance using GHG indicators to provide standardisation. We founded and edit the Carbon Management journal, which is the first peer-reviewed academic journal specifically tailored to research and issues related to practitioners in this space.

JS: What do corporates need to focus on when building climate responses into their business strategy?

MG: Running their own corporate sustainability programmes, reducing their emissions and reporting to disclosure platforms all helps.

It would be nice to see companies engaging more in technical dialogues around implementation and environmental disclosure, whether it be how corporate inventories should be done or how mitigation disclosure should operate. In this way, businesses themselves can help define good practice within the corporate space.

In my opinion, we’re not seeing that sustained intellectual engagement yet. We see many companies spending a lot of time and energy figuring out what’s the right thing to do, which programme to report to, how much research to do, what’s the right way to make investments in terms of carbon offsetting and renewable energy. There are ways to make that strategic decision-making process less burdensome across companies. I’m not one to advocate having one standard that will solve all problems – the one protocol to rule them all - but there are some things we can do that would both ease this burden and improve the efficacy and relevance of the work. For example, we can look at how companies evaluate and value different mitigation choices between reductions on site, out in the community, offsets, and the wide range of different types of green power purchase claims. If everyone pitched in, we’d come up with good practices around it – it’s more of a process of continually thinking through it, practicing, and then revising it.

So, our work in the private sector is similar to that in the public sector - giving both communities the confidence that the human infrastructure is there to implement policies and business strategies that will secure a stable climate.


GHGMI is a non-profit focusing on professional development and international capacity building for those working at a technical level on carbon management. From greenhouse gas emissions accounting to mitigation and everything related to trying to control and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

About Michael Gillenwater

Michael Gillenwater is the Executive Director and Dean of the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, a non-profit organisation which he co-founded to train and develop experts in measuring, accounting, auditing, and managing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Michael has worked on GHG emissions and climate change policy since 1995, and is the lead author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, whose work was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize, and is on several United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) expert rosters. He supports both the Clean Development Mechanism Executive Board, and the Joint Implementation Steering Committee as a methodology expert, and is also a core advisor to World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) on the revised edition of the GHG Protocol. Michael has taught courses on GHG management at Princeton and the Harvard University Extension School.

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