Jeremy Oppenheim - Founder and Managing Partner, Systemiq
Climate change weighs heavily on the minds of most business leaders. However, despite the urgent need for risk mitigation, many companies are moving too slowly. Some are struggling to embed climate considerations into their culture and strategy, to obtain enough buy-in to effect meaningful transformation. It’s an incredibly daunting - but not impossible - task. So believes our latest guest speaker, Jeremy Oppenheim.
The CEO/MD Forum was incredibly excited to welcome Jeremy, to discuss what he calls “The Net Zero Disruption” and how business leaders need to reorient every aspect of their company around the climate challenge.
Jeremy spent more than 20 years at McKinsey, where he developed and led its Climate Change Special Initiative and its Sustainability and Resource Productivity Practice. He also served as a Senior Economist at the World Bank and a Research Fellow at the Harvard Institute for International Development. Jeremy is driven by one simple idea: that tackling the biggest problems of our time requires urgent structural change and thus demands new levels of collaboration across business, investors, government and civil society. Some of his fascinating insights on how best to do that are summarised below.
The challenges ahead
At Systemiq, we’ve built something to be proud of, but now we want to make it great, which echoes the task ahead of all of us. In order to build a set of sustainable economic principles, we have to look beyond our own businesses. Systemiq is attempting to identify the key systems holding us back and turn them on their heads. Doing that within a single generation is unparalleled. For example, in 2016 around 80% of our energy system was based on fossil fuels. By 2050, at the very latest, fossil fuels should only make up 20% of the system. Let that sink in for a moment.
All the way back in 2015, we established the Paris Agreement, in which governments settled on limiting global warming to less than two degrees. In the same year, the even more ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals were announced. What came next was a period of civil, political and economic disruption. We had Brexit, the Trump Administration, COVID-19 and now major conflict in Ukraine. This is what happens when we try to hold on to the past or push for “business as usual” - we lose sight of the future. So, let’s learn what we can from the challenges we’re facing, because there’s absolutely no time to lose.
The key pillar necessary to driving system change
When combining the theories of economists, political scientists, engineers and technologists - there’s always something missing. Evidently, we do not put enough emphasis on people.
We are simultaneously the problem and the solution to this predicament.
When you look at the heart of successful system change, you’ll see individual people who are fundamentally dissatisfied with the way things are and want to make things better. If you’re one of these advocates, you’ll find yourself wrestling with the question of how to unlock the extraordinary potential of people - across all generations - to be a force for positive transformation. So, continue to ask the hard questions: What are we trying to build? What constitutes a better society? Who will it benefit? That’s the only way we’ll make real progress.
One of the topics I care deeply about is social justice. Climate action cannot be at the expense of social justice, or we will create another system unfit for purpose.
Change inevitably involves winners and losers. We have to make sure the people who’ve already lost so much to our current system will have every chance to succeed in the next. We cannot fail them again. I recently spoke to the Head of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) who shares this concern. The African continent is going to suffer greatly from climate change but also from unfettered system upheaval. We have to find a way for everyone to benefit from the new economic principles we create.
The priorities every business leader should consider
Creating new marketplaces
System change is about building new markets - something that all business leaders should be excited about. Even Systemiq was created to disrupt the sustainability industry because it simply hasn’t achieved enough.
However, it is your duty to consider the impact of disruption beyond the intended target market. People will be left behind by technological advancement unless we acknowledge exactly what we’re disrupting. We have to bring everyone into the new system. If we can’t find a way for everyone, in this generation or the next, to benefit from the new economic model, we’ll never unlock enough human potential to make what needs to happen actually happen.
Engaging Millennials and Gen Z, and letting them lead
They will keep us honest. What else can we expect from digital natives who’ve grown up with greater access to information and a burning desire for change? They represent the largest proportion of consumers and aren’t fooled by greenwashing. So, make sure your business is part of the solution rather than the problem.
End-to-end system change and “Scope 3”
In a net-zero world, it's a systems game. You won’t just be just responsible for your business's emissions. You’ll also be accountable for what’s happening upstream (manufacturing) and downstream (the product's use). That level of responsibility will have a profound impact on how we structure our economy, and completely change the way any business should think about their operations, products, services and customers.
More engagement with policymakers
Business leaders often shy away from policy engagements. It’s slow-moving and bureaucratic. However, the speed at which we need to implement these strategies means that we have to engage with policymakers at both a national and local level, even if that simply means preventing policy from becoming a barrier to change.
System change is, after all, far from simple - it’s not supposed to be. Nevertheless, if leaders want their organisations to stay competitive and build something great, they need to start somewhere.
Stephen Rosenthal is a Partner at Founders Keepers and the facilitator of the CEO/MD Forum, a global virtual meeting for senior leaders of the world’s most dynamic businesses, across every asset class, sector, and geography.
If you would like to join the CEO/MD Forum or learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact Stephen on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 7725 144 124.