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Climate leadership series: What shade of planetary rockstar are you?

Thomas Popple | 07 February 2020 |

Does climate policy, or the lack of it, influence community and corporate action? Or is it the other way around? We spoke to Tara Shine, Director of Change By Degrees, about the “planetary rockstar” countries, companies and people aligning their vision towards a common goal: net zero.

In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practices, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Tara Shine and her work at the bottom of this article.

Tom Popple (TP): It would be great if you could start by outlining your career to date and what you’re focusing on now.

Tara Shine (TS): I’m an environmental scientist by training and I’ve worked my whole life in the areas of climate and sustainability. I worked with the UN, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank before focusing on climate justice advocacy. Most recently, I have turned “entrepreneur,” setting up my own business - Change by Degrees – and I’ve authored a book, which is coming out in April. I also dabble in a bit of TV presenting.

TP: And with more than 20 years of experience in the climate space, can you share some of your most inspiring moments, or most inspiring people that you’ve met along the way?

TS: In terms of people, you might expect me to say the big names, be it Al Gore or another well-known climate champion that impressed me when I met them. But actually, the people who have impressed me most have been indigenous leaders, local leaders, and particularly women leaders who have stood up for the communities they represent and fought for their voices to be heard at the national and international level. Women like Agnes Leina of Kenya and Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of Chad, who have found strong voices when the context they were brought up in wouldn’t have naturally given them that chance to promote the needs of their communities. They are definitely the people who have inspired me most.

I lived through the failure of Copenhagen, and I strongly believe that multilateralism is the only way we can solve the climate crisis. So, one of the most inspiring moments was being in the room as we were progressing towards the Paris Agreement. Seeing what we had worked so hard for - the world coming together around a legally binding agreement that would put all countries on some sort of equal footing around the requirement to take climate action, to report on what they are doing and to incrementally increase ambition over time - that was a huge moment.

TP: You have worked at the international level shaping environmental and climate policy that is ambitious and fair. How do those frameworks influence decision making?

TS: Climate policy can seem distant to a business or individual, but in fact, these international frameworks influence business decisions and impact our daily lives. When the Paris Agreement says we have to strive for 1.5 degrees, it has a knock-on effect on national legislation and policy. We have countries around the world, such as Costa Rica, the UK and New Zealand, making legally-binding commitments to achieve zero emissions by 2050. We have some of the biggest investment firms in the world asking what a 1.5 degree target means for them, and what the climate risk associated with 1.5 vs. 2 degrees warming means for their exposure to risk as an investor.

Top-down policy helps set the direction of travel for businesses. They think, “if the countries I operate in are committed to a zero carbon future, I know that investing in climate action or creating a carbon neutral product is going to make sense because it’ll fit into that world.” When business looks at policy, it often sees regulation and constraints, but business also needs to look to policy for opportunities. If the future is circular, where everything that’s created will have another purpose, then it’s going to make sense to set up a company that’s going to produce sustainable, circular products.

In turn, policy trickles down into our daily lives through carbon taxes, or access to grants to enable households to be more climate-friendly.

TP: You’ve touched on how business can influence policy – are you seeing any good examples of that?

TS: I think business often underestimates the power it can have. I certainly don’t think we would have got a Paris Agreement as ambitious as it is without the pressure of business saying to governments – “we want you to do more, we want you to commit to higher targets, it’s in our interest as well.” Businesses can influence policy – they don’t have to wait – they can drive ambition by communicating what they are doing and what they need.

TP: We’re seeing more and more brands generating new commercial opportunities relating to climate, which is repositioning them to survive in the long-term. What do you think companies need to do more of to respond to consumer demands for climate action?

TS: As we’ve seen in the last year, whether it’s single use plastics or people looking for alternative choices to meat and dairy, businesses are having to respond to new consumer expectations. They need to maintain loyal customers, attract new customers and to stay legitimate and relevant in what is a fast-moving marketplace.

I think what can challenge businesses is how to make those new commitments part of their DNA, part of the whole of their business. It starts with a Sustainability Strategy - not a tag-on, not a CSR policy, but an approach that actually refocuses and reshapes their business to deliver sustainable goods and products. Businesses need to approach sustainability from every angle, from their employees to their bottom line. They need to be ready to ask “are we fit for purpose the way we are? If net zero is the new vision, do we need to quite fundamentally overhaul the way we do things?”

TP: What tips do you have for engaging people around climate action?

TS: It’s important to engage people on sustainability where they’re at, where they already gather, around an issue that’s already of interest to them. Then we can tailor the information, context or event style to appeal to them. We need to rethink traditional community engagement to be fit for purpose in our current, fast-changing world.

Sustainability is about balancing the social, environmental and economic aspects of development and realising that the 17 SDGs are all integrated and linked. At the same time, companies should bring their employees along with them, through powerful, two-way internal communications strategies. Organisations tend to separate what they’re doing on diversity and inclusion and women, for example, from the environmental part of sustainability, whereas to me it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. We can’t achieve our ambitions on climate action without addressing gender equality. Real innovation needs a mix of people, minds, perceptions and attitudes in order to get the right kind of decisions we need.

TP: Talk to us about your trip to Antarctica with Homeward Bound and what that meant for you.

TS: This is a continent without a human population bar a few research centres. It’s owned by no country, yet is critical to our collective future. Alongside the Arctic, it’s the fastest warming part of the planet, yet bears absolutely no responsibility for causing the problem. It’s quite humbling to be in a place where you’re face to face with the impacts of climate change, yet so far from its causes, with the time to pause and think. We started to think about how to lead differently, how to use our skillsets to create positive change through climate action. I am renewed in strength and determination and have a stronger set of leadership skills as a result of being on that programme.

TP: You mentioned you had a book coming out, so tell us about that.

TS: The book is called “How to Save Your Planet One Object at a Time” and it’s coming out on the 16th of April. It’s set out in chapters on everyday objects in your house, office, garden shed, garage, or gym bag. It tells the story of those objects and what their environmental impact is and then gives practical tips to change your habits or the way you use that object to reduce your impact on the environment.

It’s very much focused on personal actions. That’s partly because when I speak to rooms full of business people around the future of their professional area in relation to climate change, most of the questions I get at the end are around what they can do in their own lives. It is important we marry individual action with the things we do through our work, the way we vote – it’s all linked. Acting differently and changing habits and behaviours can change your attitude and how you vote for change. You can pick one or two actions from the book, or knock off 40 of them; it depends on the planetary rockstar status you’re looking for.

About Tara Shine

Dr Tara Shine is an environmental scientist with over 20 years’ experience working at the international level on climate change and sustainable development, as an adviser to governments, world leaders, businesses and international organisations. She is Director of Change by Degrees, an award-winning social enterprise that helps organisations identify sustainability solutions that work. She is co-founder of Plastic Free Kinsale, a community initiative to reduce single use plastics in her town and a host of She is Sustainable Cork. Tara also presents wildlife and nature documentaries for the BBC and RTE. She was the first woman living in Ireland to take part in Homeward Bound, a global leadership programme for women in science, which involved an expedition to Antarctica in January 2019.

Dr Shine holds a BSc in Environmental Science and a PhD in Geography from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. She is the incoming chair of the Board of Trustees of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

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