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In this Climate Leadership article, Jonathan Shopley speaks to Mark Kenber, Chief Executive of Mongoose Energy and former CEO of The Climate Group, to discover what leadership means to him, and how we can get to a zero emission future that works for everyone.
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 Mark Kenber at the bottom of this article.
Jonathan Shopley: Mark, you have been in this industry for 20 years. How do you think the world will look in 10 years time?
Mark Kenber: In 2030, I think we will be in a world that is, to all intents and purposes, renewable powered. I think we will have intelligent electric vehicles as a road congestion solution. We will have cracked the carbon footprint of the ground transport and freight sectors, while existing industrial processes will be as carbon efficient as they can be. Although policy is and will continue to be important, we’ll be in a much smarter world, technologically speaking, and that may give us the courage to take the next steps, which will inevitably involve structural changes to our economies.
I believe that offsetting, insetting and market-based instruments will continue to be important tools in the toolbox, because companies will continue to need that sort of flexibility in their portfolio of solutions.
As humans, we’re always over-optimistic about how quickly we’ll get to the outcome, yet we also underestimate the speed of change once things get going; we’ve seen this already with technology. It’s probably fair to say that if we tell people what to do about climate change, we will meet resistance – the natural resistance to change that people tend to have – and get next to nowhere. But if we encourage people to do the best they can, and create the collaborative mechanisms that help them to develop in a cleaner way in the future, we’ll be astonished how quickly we get to where we need to be. For decades we talked about renewables being cost-competitive in the next few years and were consistently disappointed. However, once we put the right incentives in place, deployment boomed and, as we know, wind and solar are now the power sector investments of choice.
JS: In your view, what are the biggest barriers to this vision?
MK: There is an issue around how to think about progress and the cultural issue. Certain things remain as symbols of progress in many parts of the world, for example smoke coming out of chimneys and eating meat. It’s much more efficient to live in well-insulated, efficient blocks of flats, but as people become richer, they want to live in big houses further out of the cities. They also want to have cars, more meat in their diets and all the other mod cons seen to be typical of prosperous modern societies.
There are going to be some difficult decisions to make and society has to be prepared to accept them. A “clean growth plan” is not just about installing more wind turbines, it’s about changing how we live and behave.
Food production is possibly the single biggest business challenge we don’t have an answer for yet. The optimist in me says we’ll have highly efficient synthetically-produced proteins which will be, in many ways, indistinguishable from their animal counterparts. The technologies for low carbon agriculture and low carbon food consumption exist, but the question is: to what extent are we prepared to accept the cultural change of switching away from the traditional “meat and two veg” and its international equivalents?
JS: What do you think has been the most significant change over the last two decades?
MK: The single biggest change over the last 20 years has been the shift in discourse around global warming. It has gone from being an environmental problem that we have to deal with in order to minimise damage, to a driver of growth, innovation and opportunity. It’s quite hard to make the case for taking unilateral action when the impact is the result of collective emissions. So it’s important to identify and emphasise the domestic economic benefits like increased market access, better health and sustainable development.
The Clean Development Mechanism put “carbon” into the vocabulary of some of the developing nations which subsequently signed up to the Paris Agreement. So it’s really this new economic narrative, plus the non-climate benefits of climate action, which have been key to bringing countries like China on board to begin the transition to cleaner energy and EVs.
JS: And how did that change come about?
MK: In 1997, at the time of the Kyoto negotiations, there was a sense of urgency around global warming, but we didn’t quite realise how urgent the action needed to be. Few businesses were engaged, and the feeling was that polluters should pay. It was very antagonistic, there were clear battle lines, and it was all or nothing.
Former chief executive of BP Lord Browne’s famous Stanford speech in 1998, in which he essentially declared that climate change is real and we really need to act now, was pivotal, coming as it did from the boss of one of the biggest fossil fuel producers in the world. By 2004, The Climate Group was working hard to change the narrative and push the business case for emissions reductions. This was supported two years later by the clear cost-benefit analysis in the Stern Review that took global warming from an economic perspective and demonstrated that the costs of action were far outweighed by the costs of inaction, and by McKinsey’s greenhouse gas abatement cost curve in 2007, which showed that there were net zero or net negative cost options for taking action.
And I think by the time of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, this had started to sink in; most large businesses had an in-house climate team and the question was no longer “is there going to be a climate agenda or not?” but rather “what’s the agenda going to look like?” In Europe, this was largely driven by the Emissions Trading Scheme.
JS: And where are we now?
MK: In one sense we are worse off. Action has become more urgent, and yet we are making slow progress. We are starting to accept that we are already locked into a minimum of 1.5 degrees warming, but are not really getting prepared for the implications. On the other hand, we are much better off. All but one country in the world is committed to the Paris Agreement, solar power is cost-comparative with fossil fuels, the transport sector is going electric. Policy has driven technological change, which has brought down the cost of low carbon alternatives, and this in in turn has encouraged politicians to make decisions that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
Many corporates now have ambitious climate targets and cities and regional governments across the world have realised that well thought through carbon and clean energy policies are a good way to attract investment and talent. However, although ever-increasing numbers of people accept climate science and expect their governments to take action, very few are taking concrete actions themselves.
JS: What are the main drivers for action?
MK: I think the three main drivers are regulation, reputation and economics. Regulation, whether it be carrots or sticks, has been the single biggest driver in the OECD countries. Businesses, particularly those in the energy sector, are driven by incentives stemming from government-led targets. Secondly, particularly for consumer-facing brands, reputational risk and brand value is significant. The third driver is economic.
This is about companies recognising that, by taking action, your business can do better, you will attract smarter people, and you will seize new, sizable market opportunities. Genuine concern about the state of our world is also important, but this – sadly – seems to a less important driver than the others.
JS: Action on climate change is often defined by leadership, but these leaders probably only represent 2% of the business population. Perhaps now it’s more about the actions of the “smart followers.” What can help bring more companies on board?
MK: In cities, states and regional governments, it is framed as leadership because governments and MPs want to be seen as leaders and the green economy and low carbon innovation are seen to be good choices to lead on.
The big multinational companies have taken a leadership position partly because they’ve had to – they are the most well-known brand names, they’re listed, they’re public, there have all sorts of reporting and transparency requirements, and they are obvious targets for campaigning NGOs. There’s an increasing sense that if it’s not in your company’s annual report, you are not taking it seriously, so it needs to move from the side-line to mainstream business.
However, these leaders are having a knock-on effect in their supply chains, as their suppliers want to please them by helping them to lower their footprint or, in some cases, are required to. Some larger companies have even set up financing systems to help their suppliers become more efficient lower carbon producers. There’s a big opportunity for engagement between the so-called leaders and followers.
JS: You’ve been instrumental in a number of notable initiatives that have enabled corporate climate action – from the Clean Development Gold Standard to the Verified Carbon Standard through to the RE100 programme. Which do you feel most proud to have in your legacy, and why?
For much of my career, my work has focussed on creating tools that enable businesses, governments and people to go outside what they think are their comfort zones and do things that are good for the planet, good for the economy and ultimately good for themselves. That’s why I’ve often looked at economic incentives – pollution charging in Ecuador, carbon trading – and leadership platforms, supported by powerful communications that help people to decide themselves to “do the right thing” rather than relying on a sense of moral responsibility and regulation. What most of these “carrots” show is that once organisations get started or set themselves stretch targets, they often achieve much more and find a whole bunch of other benefits than they ever imagined they could.
For example, many people saw the demand-side energy efficiency and renewables focus of the CDM Gold Standard as being too restrictive and therefore unlikely to get much traction, but since it was launched 15 years ago, nearly 1,500 projects have been Gold Standard certified. Similarly, there are now more than the original target of 100 influential companies signed up to obtaining 100% of the power needs from renewable sources under the RE100, and many of them have either achieved their goal already or are on track to do so ahead of schedule. Perhaps more importantly, it is now seen as “normal,” rather than just good CSR, for companies to source the energy needs from renewables.
About Mark Kenber
Mark Kenber is Chief Executive of Mongoose Energy, a UK community energy business. Prior to this, Mark was CEO of The Climate Group for five years.
Mark is an expert in climate policy and, while working for The Climate Group, Mark advised former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in the joint policy initiative Breaking the Climate Deadlock (2007-2009), which produced a series of high-level reports outlining the economic and technological rationale for a global climate deal and its key components. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Verified Carbon Standard , RE100 and the We Mean Business coalition. Before joining The Climate Group, Mark was Senior Policy Officer for WWF’s International Climate Change Programme, where he led the creation of the CDM Gold Standard, Director of Planning and Policy at Fundación Natura , Ecuador’s largest environmental NGO and climate change advisor to the Ecuadorian government.
Keep an eye out for the next article in the Climate Leadership series in the coming weeks.