Keep 1.5 Alive – HR’s role in climate change

As the echoes from two weeks of debate continue to reverberate through the halls of the SEC in Glasgow, the debate continues to examine whether the largest climate meeting in history achieved enough.


It was an emotional and frenetic end to COP26 as negotiators from 197 states wrangled over a set of words that formed the Glasgow Climate Pact.


Broadcaster and national treasure, Sir David Attenborough called on the leaders attending the opening ceremony of COP26 to be “motivated by hope rather than fear” as they prepared for their talks to avoid climate catastrophe.


The stakes continue to be incredibly high, and while the arguments around whether the event was a success or not will continue, as The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey outlines, a lot of important progress was made. And this is just the start.


I’ve been worried about the environment for a long time now. While having not been directly impacted, it’s impossible not to be moved by the many deadly disasters on the news that we’ve experienced including the “heat dome” in Western Canada, floods in Europe and China, wildfires in California and the most recent floods in Southern British Columbia.


If implemented, the plans outlined in the Glasgow Climate Pact won’t go far enough to reduce the impact and frequency of these crises. They will result in a (frankly disastrous) 2.4C of heating by 2030 – way above the 1.5C goal. The “keep 1.5 alive” campaign will continue to challenge countries to do more and to do it quicker.


My efforts to diligently recycle and to switch off lights in my house, in a somewhat stereotypical “Dad-way” aren’t pointless, but they’re not enough. I recognise that there is a lot more that I can do personally and there is a lot more we can do collectively. In fact, the collective contribution of governments, NGOs and corporations is where we’ll get most traction.


A recent McKinsey article suggested that COP26 has made net zero a core principle for businesses and encourages them to develop a coordinated strategy to achieve this goal.


For some companies this will be a requirement with the UK government, for example, recently announcing that companies will need to set out plans by 2023 to get to net-zero.


As a former CHRO, this presents (another) unique opportunity for HR professionals to take a lead, but we must ask, how realistic is that?


It’s striking that research on HR’s role supporting climate change is limited. In July 2021, Willis Tower Watson (WTW) reported that 43% of organizations surveyed had a clearly defined strategy to address climate risks (and opportunities) and a further 36% were actively creating one.


They went on to report that 97% of organizations recognised that people have a significant role to play to successfully execute on these strategies. No surprise there, so it was odd that in their North America HR & Climate Strategy Survey launched this month, in over half of cases (53%), HR has minimal involvement in delivering the climate strategy.


Let’s not forget it’s been a busy time for the HR professional with their fair share of crises to deal with over the last 18 months. So adding climate change to the long list won’t likely be well received. But who else is better equipped to inspire, upskill, engage and incentivise colleagues to make a positive difference when it comes to the climate?


As WTW identify, there are many opportunities for HR teams to make a difference when it comes to climate change.


Top recommendations include:


1. Increase the capabilities and focus it comes to the climate by recruiting new talent;

2. Raising awareness on all things green through training and other promotional campaigns;

3. Introduce focused listening strategies to identify the sentiment when it comes to climate change in the organization;

4. Executive metrics have been implemented in 43% of companies according to WTW and provide a great way of incentivising a shift in mindset;

5. Appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer who can act as a figurehead for a new strategy can help build focus and traction;

6. Reviewing your CSR plans to create a more integrated and impactful program for employees, communities – and of course the environment;

7. Introducing green benefits – for example, enhanced benefits for electric vehicles.


Ultimately, the more sustainable (pun intended) approach will be challenging your organizational philosophy to see if you’re, what former CEO of Uniliver Paul Polman refer to as, becoming net positive.


And the stakes can’t be higher. The United Nations Race to Resilience campaign is designed to build resilience of 4 billion people impacted by climate change by 2030. Research from their knowledge partner McKinsey predicts that in a 2.0°C warming scenario, an additional 1.6 billion people could be exposed to heat stress by 2050. That’s 3.1 billion people in total. Or 34% of the predicted population. Or 13x the number of coronavirus cases.


As Greta Thunberg has said:


“There’s one thing we need more than hope, and it’s action. But when we act, hope is all around us.”


It’s, once again, time for HR professionals to act.


Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.