She set out to create Chapter Zero, a non-profit organisation all about helping non-executive directors take ownership of climate change.
Julie sees delivering a zero carbon economy as the biggest challenge for business in her lifetime. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But she does believe that businesses can make a hugely positive impact on the defining issue of the decade.
Here’s Julie on her experiences, lessons and hopes for the future.
“I did a Zoology degree at Oxford University. I was very interested in all things ecology and evolution at the time. After university I went straight into industry and spent 45 years in business. My career started in mining, I had my own business, sold it, moved into a big consultancy, and specialised in change management.
For the past two decades, I’ve been executive director of a bank and non-executive director (NED) on a wide range of companies, from building societies and public sector bodies to technology companies and investment trusts. All these experiences have come together for this challenge that I’m now focusing most of my time on.
“If there’s ever been a big business transformation required, it’s responding to climate change. It’s funny how things come full circle in life."
Like many people of my generation, we’ve pursued a growth agenda for as long as we’ve been working. We came through that era of shareholder value being the driving force behind everything. To be completely honest, I didn’t challenge that until I had a lightbulb moment in 2017. I was flying out for a holiday in Greece and read an article by David Wallace-Wells – the forerunner to his book The Uninhabitable Earth – on the plane.
I was blown away by the enormous impact of climate change on our world – both economic and environmental. I realised that everything I’d done and the businesses I’ve worked with had got the world to this point. We’d unwittingly been part of what has resulted in this huge catastrophe, and I wanted to do something about it.”
“I came home from holiday thinking that we couldn’t afford to wait for regulations to kick in or consumers to change their behaviours. The only way to tackle this is by business mobilising – this was a commercial issue, not just an environmental one.
I wanted to find out how much my fellow NEDs knew about climate change. So we did some research with Imperial College and discovered that 85% of companies had never had a conversation about climate change at board level. And it really was an issue for the board, if you think about the scale of change required.
“Once you start asking the right questions – highlighting not just the risks but also the opportunities – it becomes a fundamental discussion for any company.”
So I met up with another NED in the Deloitte Academy and decided to build a network to help this community take this conversation to the boardroom and inspire action. We came across the World Economic Forum (WEF) and their Climate Governance Initiative, all about highlighting the importance of boards when addressing climate change globally. So we took ownership for the UK side and that’s how Chapter Zero was born.”
“We’ve spent the last 18 months or so building our network. As of today we have 1,400 members and we run a huge range of events in collaboration with other organisations – from interactive webinar sessions to smaller knowledge sharing sessions. We also have a whole series of toolkits and educational material. Everything is free. There are no barriers to becoming a member.
As NEDs, we’ve all learnt to do finance, remuneration approval, how to deal with an audit committee and so forth. We’re also used to learning whole new skillsets, for example when cybersecurity became a hot topic. But climate change is different, because the organisations where you’d normally look to get help had not started to really embrace this themselves.
Companies have been willing to admit they don’t have the expertise on this topic yet. How many of us would have done any education on this topic two years ago? There’s no shame in admitting that. When I introduce an event, I’m the first to say I’m not an expert and I’m learning just like them.
The members join as individuals. They don’t sign up their company or board. They do sign up to become better informed and to take that discussion back. We worked with Deloittte and the ICAEW on making the early materials accessible, and closely follow the developments that matter most for business. We’re effectively a channel packaging up the knowledge in the best way for NEDs.”
“When we started Chapter Zero, there were pockets of sustainability specialists in some companies, mainly in sectors like energy and banking. But elsewhere, the conversation never really got near the boardroom. Between then and now, climate change has become a key commercial issue around protecting and creating value.
We’ve spent a lot of time making sure our members are aware of what other organisations are doing so they realise taking action is inevitable. There are some good opportunities out there, for example investing in technologies and looking at your employee proposition. Plus, capital is now being directed towards companies showing they’re committed.
“You’re either going to be a leader or a laggard, but you’re going to be in that race.”
Climate change is not just a UK issue – it’s a global issue. We partner with organisations around the world to make sure we’re all moving in the same direction. There are now 14 chapters globally, from Brazil to Malaysia. We’re fortunate to be hosting COP26 in the UK this November. Many organisations weren’t geared up yet last year, but the momentum around net zero commitments by certain dates has built astonishingly.
2021 is the year of ambition. But all my work on transformation tells me that setting the ambition is only the first step. The real challenge is coming up with robust plans and delivering them to achieve the goal. We want to make sure our members are equipped to facilitate the discussion on the ‘how’ over the next 12 months.”
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is connecting with people on their driving force for taking action on climate change. Some NEDs are fully focused on protecting value for shareholders. Others talk about their grandchildren and being able to tell them they did something about the problem when they could.
There’s a lot of work to do. Emissions have just surpassed 420 parts per million, which is 50% of the way to a 2°C level of global warming. We have to tackle this so quickly to keep it to 1.5°C and unfortunately we’re not seeing emissions fall despite COVID-19. But it’s heartening to see that there’s much more awareness and some fantastic innovation going on all over the world.
“I’m hopeful for the future. I’m convinced that we have the tools we need to achieve this.”
Our main challenge now is to take the outcome of COP26 and drive it through the entire economy in the next two to three years. It requires a lot of investment, but this is not half as big as the cost of not doing it. With conviction, commitment and pace, business can play a key role in creating a more sustainable future.”
Thanks for reading
We hope you feel inspired by Julie’s journey and the mission of Chapter Zero. If there’s one thing we learnt, it’s that business can play a huge role in climate change. It’s not just the necessary thing to do – there’s opportunities too. And you’re not alone – you’re joining a movement.
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