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Climate Leadership Series: Professor John Murlis, Women’s Empowerment, City Mayors and Taxes

Rebecca Fay | 13 February 2018 |

In this Climate Leadership article, Jonathan Shopley speaks to John Murlis, visiting professor at University College London, to discuss the science behind climate change policies and how businesses and city mayors are discovering the wider benefits of taking climate action now.

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 John Murlis at the bottom of this article.

Jonathan Shopley (JS): John, it’s my impression that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have challenged the supremacy of climate concerns by saying everything is interconnected: gender, energy access, oceans, health, biodiversity and more. Do you believe in a holistic approach to climate change?

Professor John Murlis (JM): A holistic approach is helpful as it enables people to connect where they can. Not everyone can connect to the huge planetary sweep of climate change, let alone the whole universe of sustainability, but they can connect to local initiatives on the environment and health, hence the emphasis on air pollution in cities. It’s always very important to engage people’s imagination as much as you can, and language matters: you can talk about “ecosystems,” but most people would better understand “landscape.”

Another tremendous resource, which we’ve barely scratched the surface of, is the empowerment of women. We know from a development point of view that educating women is the single greatest investment you can make; it transforms the passage of finances for social progress across many different dimensions, including protection of the environment, climate and communities. The SELCO carbon finance project in India is a wonderful example of that.

JS: On the theme of language, a lot of complex science has been distilled into action to keep us below 2 degrees of warming. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is going to come out with a report in 2018 focused on the 1.5 degree world. As a scientist, how do you feel about this message – does it adequately explain what’s going on?

JM: The first thing to say about “2 degrees” is that it’s a negotiating device highlighting the need to limit further global warming. The purpose is to focus decision makers’ minds. It also captures the popular imagination. An important question is whether it really delivers what is required in terms of emission reductions right across the board, and it doesn’t, which is why the 1.5 degree report is coming up.

JS: So what’s the latest on the science?

JM: One of the concerns that has emerged recently is about the response of the biosystem as a whole to climatic changes. We rely on the natural environment to take up about half of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere but nature’s capacity is itself impacted by climate change. I’d like to see the 1.5 and 2 degree scenarios backed up by more intricate models that account for the sensitivity of the climate to feedback effects of this kind.

I’m also concerned about the loss of tundra and permafrost. As permafrost melts in a warming climate, it releases large quantities of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. I’ve also been watching the studies coming out of the Arctic and Antarctic about the fate of ice. We know that much of the land ice in Greenland seems to be disappearing and there seems to be a darkening in general of the northern hemisphere and Arctic Ocean. Water is darker than ice and so it reflects less and absorbs more of the sun’s energy, heating the planet further. In the Antarctic, the loss of sea ice is a problem because it acts as a buttress against the loss of land ice. The extent to which this is happening is shown in models but it seems to be happening quicker than we expected.

Changes in the oceans, for example slowing of the Gulf Stream or the bleaching of coral reefs are other impacts researchers are watching closely. They matter because they affect and indicate changes to life in the ocean; we rely heavily on plankton and other flora and fauna in the oceans to absorb carbon.

JS: Are there differences between the northern and southern hemisphere in terms of landscapes’ uptake of CO2?

JM: The Mauna Loa CO2 measurements, which are taken in the southern hemisphere, give clues to this. They have a generally upward trend as we know, reflecting the increase of CO2 emissions. But also, in any one year, they have a kind of saw-tooth form. This is because CO2 is taken up in the growing season, mainly by the great forests in the northern hemisphere. And, in the Northern winter the process slows or stops. The long-term study of this has led to the conclusion that the northern hemisphere may have already peaked its carbon absorption capabilities, with the possibility of there being a tailing-off of capture and consequential acceleration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The best estimates I have seen are that it will peak by 2030. In addition, insect pests, including a bark beetle which thrives in warmer climates, are now ravaging European trees. When you have multiple threats on an ecosystem, fragility in one part of it can produce a vulnerability in another.

It suggests that even though policies around “2 degrees” are a temporary measure, we really are going to need to take more significant measures in both hemispheres to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

JS: And what do you think of Paul Hawken’s Drawdown technologies?

JM: I feel that we do have to take that stuff very seriously now. The Royal Society report some years ago concluded that geoengineering was feasible but costly. The technology didn’t make much sense at the time but with new and cheaper materials, things like artificial trees and geological processes to absorb CO2 become more attractive propositions.

We get very excited about techy stuff but we don’t think so much about the social engineering required to deliver carbon reductions. I think transformation would accelerate if we connected consumers to new energy generation and thought imaginatively about energy services and the pricing of lower emission vehicles. I’d like to see carbon thought about as a social cost too.

JS: I know you’ve been deeply involved in tracking policy progress at the nexus of greenhouse gas emissions and ground air pollution. Can you give an update on that and how you see it evolving?

JM: I see it evolving in very interesting ways.

It turns out that the co-creation of policies around climate and cleaner air does two things. First, it creates extraordinary synergies in cost-effectiveness. The measures that derive from one policy contribute to achieving aims of the other and vice versa.

Second, it helps avoid conflicts and confusions. A classic example of that is the promotion of diesel cars; good for climate but bad for local air pollution.

There are two very significant institutions here. The first is the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CACC), which is actively demonstrating that action on air pollution also generates climate action. The other is the C40 group of mayors. City mayors are very important in the global drive to address climate change and C40 is supporting activities that play to their strengths.

Mayors ask where their city is in the Economist Intelligence Unit or Monocle Liveability Rankings. Often the things they need to do to improve liveability are good for carbon, because promoting walking, cycling and enjoying lovely fresh air delivers health benefits while avoiding car use.

Mayors have particular powers, too, and these can get around blockages at a national level. A Scandinavian city mayor decided to pedestrianise the centre to address air pollution while tackling the city carbon budget, but national government told him it was not within his power. However, parking was, so he produced a total city centre parking ban instead. This had the same effect and he was able to bring it in within one year instead of three.

JS: That’s a great story, but is it applicable beyond Europe?

JM: I recently came across a fascinating piece comparing American and European cities in their planning disciplines. Planning in European cities is very much about trying to live and work in historic space, and an uneasy alliance with the motor car has led to tremendous congestion and excess fuel consumption. So locking transport out of the centre makes sense.

But American cities don’t have the benefit of this; they’ve always been very spread out and it’s an enormous challenge for them to row back from where they are now. It’s been interesting to see how cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are handling the problem through improved logistics for working and living hubs.

JS: And how do you see countries like China fitting into this?

JM: China is doing some impressive things to address both air pollution and climate change through innovation. I’ve noticed a staggering growth curve in new technologies. One year there will be the odd electric bicycle and the next, everyone has one. Their ability to scale up is astonishing. There’s also an amazing range of Chinese electric cars.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that China has been quite innovative in recognising innovation, and that’s not a tautology! They run the BlueTechTM Awards, which anyone from around the world can participate in. The winners are announced in a ceremony in Beijing attended by important political and business figures.

JS: The signatories of #WeAreStillIn represent the same GDP as China, and we might find that policy plays a smaller role in getting us on the right track. In our Q&A with Dr Alan Knight of ArcelorMittal, Alan asked whether we would have made more progress if climate action had been framed around sectors rather than countries.

JM: Actually, I think we would have done and I think we are. I’ve been delivering presentations for a couple of years now on how to implement air quality measures without policies, for example by better town planning or through consumer choice. It’s about thinking about what can be done now instead of waiting for regulation.

JS: That being said, do you think carbon pricing and tax remain important tools?

JM: Given that the main way we get energy is still by burning fossil fuels, there is no question that carbon has to have a price. It’s absolutely fundamental to me – if you don’t understand the cost of something, how are you ever going to manage it?

Treasuries worldwide are keen to ensure that tax-take is well managed, for example, one of the guiding principles of the UK treasury has been that measures should be broadly revenue-neutral. This made it possible, in introducing unleaded petrol to start the ball rolling, by adding a small extra tax to leaded petrol (by far the majority of consumption), which produced a sizeable incentive to be spread among the far smaller number of unleaded users.

There are many countries where vehicle fleets are old, energy inefficient and polluting. Taxing the pollution would give resources for promoting the switch to cleaner vehicles.

Tax is a sort of blunt instrument, though. It’s attractive in some ways when you don’t have enough information to price market incentives or when you’ve got enough information but want to implement something rather quickly, but I’ve always been very supportive of the idea that you should think of carbon in a trading sense and should seek to offset. As an ancillary, you do need to do continual work to understand the costs of carbon reduction. There is a lot of inertia in the system and there are always special interests exaggerating costs to frighten policy makers!

JS: We’ve always retained our commitment to markets because of their ability to cost-effectively deliver environmental outcomes.

JM: Indeed, and I think that’s one of the main benefits of them. In previous and more enlightened times the US decided to have a trading system for sulphur. The original trading price was going to be something like $1,000/tonne and the power companies were moaning and groaning. But the engineers quickly worked on sulphur abatement and before you knew it, the actual price was going to around $120/tonne. Similarly, I think the price of carbon permits needs to be kept high, as this will sharpen creativity in finding low cost reductions.

Overall, I think the answer is that there’s more to be done.

About Professor John Murlis

John Murlis is an environmental scientist with more than 35 years of experience of the practical application of evidence-based policy, with particular expertise in the fields of environmental sustainability, air quality and climate change. Trained as an engineer and in atmospheric physics, he has held posts in the public services including Chief Scientist and Director of Strategy, Environment Agency for England and Wales, Visiting Professor in Environmental Strategy at University College London and Director of its Institute for Environmental Policy. He was Scientific Advisor to Natural Capital Partners and is now an independent environment strategy consultant with a wide range of public and private sector clients.

Keep an eye out for the next article in the Climate Leadership series in the coming weeks.

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