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Nature-Based Climate Solutions Are A Key Strategy to Reach Net Zero

The Private Sector Can Make Them Better

The Quick Rundown: 

Nature-based climate solutions are an increasingly utilized tool in the environmental arsenal.  They have also generated a lot of debate. So this week, we’re doing a deep dive into NCS, making the case for why we need them to reach the critical goal of a net-zero economy—one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere. We also look at how three major companies are playing the offset game and offer our ideas on how they can do better.

The Good, the Bad, the Buzz 

Nature-based climate solutions (NCS)—initiatives to use nature for absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere—have attracted a lot of buzz. Much of it is positive. Corporations are relying on NCS to make ambitious climate commitments. VCs are rushing to fund start-ups to boost supply. Mark Carney is leading a weighty taskforce to improve the market for offsets. 

But there’s negative buzz too. Journalists and activists are lambasting projects they say failed. Some prominent academics argue that NCS will never work. And there are activists who say the strategy is one more example of badly flawed “market-based approaches” to address the climate challenge.  

It probably comes as no surprise that I’m bullish on NCS. Full disclosure: I’ve been working on them for a long time. First, as CEO of the Nature Conservancy and now as an advisor to, and investor in, companies operating in this field. There are good reasons to be optimistic about their potential—most importantly, we likely need NCS to reach net zero. But I also recognize that there is room for improvement and important questions to resolve. Private sector leaders can and should step up to help the environmental community improve this climate strategy. It’s in their interest to do so.

My Personal NCS Journey

The USCAP project was already underway when I joined TNC way back in July of 2008, so I began engaging with NCS almost immediately. The goal was to pass a federal cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions. My particular focus was a hard push for forest offsets to be included in the bill. Why? Offsets would lower the cost of emission reductions by increasing the supply of emission reduction opportunities.  There might be better technological breakthroughs down the road that allow for other low or even lower-cost ways to decarbonize let’s hope sobut NCS works right now and, if used at scale, buys us needed time. Lower costs mean less burden on the economy and allow for more political support. Ultimately, the USCAP project was unsuccessful; the bill passed in the House—known as Waxman Markey—but failed in the Senate. We learned a lot from the effort. One key lesson: do whatever it takes to keep the cost of emission reductions low. 

The next challenge I grappled with as CEO of TNC was this:  How could we raise enough money to protect nature on a large enough scale? We did everything we could to increase donations. We took our annual philanthropic fundraising up by about 3X to $750 million per year. That’s a lot of money. (Thank you, donors)  But it wasn’t enough to meet ambitious conservation goals, and we knew it never would be.

Our solution? Highlight the opportunity to invest in nature. Show society that in exchange for protecting nature you obtain valuable “ecosystem services” such as clean air to breathe, healthy water to drink, beautiful areas for recreation, habitat for biodiversity, and—importantly—sequestration of carbon. This is another important rationale for NCS—they raise capital for conservation that not only protects nature but also delivers valuable services to humankind (including carbon sequestration).  NCS makes it easier to build support for addressing climate.

Later in my tenure, I persuaded the TNC board to make the climate challenge our top priority. We asked: What’s the most impactful way for a conservation organization to make a critical difference on climate? And the answer we came up with: Protecting ecosystems at scale. After all, that’s what we’d been doing for more than 60 years. But how much carbon could we sequester this way?  

We put our scientists to work to find out. They teamed up with outside experts. And they published this peer-reviewed paper concluding that protecting nature could achieve as much as one-third of the carbon emission reductions the world needs by 2030.  That’s huge! Some in the science community disagree. But even half this amount would be enormous. Hence, another reason to support NCS—scale.

So, three big initial takeaways for me about NCS: 

  1. They lower the cost of emission reductions.  
  2. They fund conservation.
  3. They can be deployed at a huge scale

But, as with everything else in the climate toolkit, there are complications we need to address. 

First, let’s distinguish between nature-based “climate solutions” and nature-based “offsets.”  

Nature-based climate solutions (NCS) are initiatives that protect, restore or create habitats and natural carbon sinks such as forests, peatlands, mangroves, savannahs, soils, and marine ecosystems. Such carbon sinks also support biodiversity, access to freshwater, improved livelihoods, and other positive “ecosystem services” nature inherently provides.  

Carbon offsets are certificates demonstrating the reduction, removal, or avoidance of one metric ton of CO2e. An offset can be achieved through projects like renewable energy or methane capture, or—our focus here—nature-based initiatives. The idea is that a carbon emitter can pay for carbon reduction efforts anywhere in the world to offset its own emissions. Such payments fund NCS.  Here’s a good overview on offsets from Vox.  

Now, let’s ask: why do we need NCS?

Because we are nowhere close to reducing carbon levels enough to limit temperature increases to the global 2-degree target, let alone the more ambitious 1.5 degrees goal.  We have a very long way to go.

And because we’ll never reach critical goals like net-zero by 2050 without carbon removal.

First, look at the near termthe period between now and 2030. What do we need to do over this decade to be confident we are on track to reach our longer-term 2050 goals? Every year the UN Environment Program prepares an “Emissions Gap Report” (here’s the executive summary for 2020). It’s bleak reading. In 2020, global greenhouse gas emissions were about 52 gigatons (Gt) of equivalent carbon dioxide. Our current trajectory will take us to about 59 Gt by 2030. Not good; wrong direction. If instead we somehow start doing better and achieve the conditional NDCs from the Paris Agreement—a very big if, based on where we are today—annual emissions would settle at about 53Gt by 2030. Again, not even close to what we need to do. In order to reach the 2-degree pathway, annual Gt emissions somehow need to be slashed to 41Gt by 2030. For the 1.5C scenario, we need to be at 25Gt.  We need every carbon strategy we can get—including nature-based offsets and carbon removal. 

What about longer-term goals—say, the generally agreed-upon and critical need to reach net-zero by 2050. There is room for a bit of optimism here. The following G20 countries now have net-zero emission goals: France, UK, EU, China (by 2060), Canada, South Africa, Argentina, and Mexico. President Biden says he plans for the US to join the club, and many companies are making similar commitments. But for these goals to be reached, we need to accelerate progress exponentially. Remember that the “net” in net-zero refers to the fact that fossil fuels will still be used (only where there is no alternative) and other greenhouse gas emissions will occur as far out as 2050, so we’ll need two things: first, no emissions that can be avoided; second, carbon removal to net our way to zero.

Third, we should continue to encourage ambitious corporate climate commitments. It’s one of the best things we have going. While we wait for the sweeping regulatory measures we ultimately will need, voluntary corporate commitments are important.  And companies are certainly bolder about making such commitments when they know they can use NCS. But these voluntary commitments need to improve. Avoided emissions NCS can be celebrated but not counted against a company’s direct emission reductions. Direct emission reductions must be prioritized, supplemented by NCS that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

See Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs released this week: “There is no company whose business model won’t be profoundly affected by the transition to a net zero economy—one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere by 2050…Companies with a well-articulated long-term strategy, and a clear plan to address the transition to net zero, will distinguish themselves…But companies that are not quickly preparing themselves will see their businesses and valuations suffer…”  Companies should listen to the world’s largest shareholder. It’s time to put together your plans to reach net zero.

Fourth, keeping costs down matters. A lot. Some environmental advocates don’t agree that this is important. They think companies and their shareholders should just absorb the higher costs caused by emission reductions. But it usually doesn’t work that way.  Such costs are passed on to customers, hurting them economically—especially the less well off—and eroding political support for climate action. In order to meet the enormously ambitious and politically difficult goal of net-zero, we’ll need to do so in the lowest-cost way possible.

Okay, that was pretty convincing. Now tell me about the challenges for NCS. 

First, any effort to protect and restore nature is complicated. Natural systems are dynamic, managing them is tricky, and getting outcomes right for both people and nature is never easy. We should be humble about such undertakings. But, broadly speaking, knowledge and experience here are strong. Conservation organizations and government agencies have been doing this work successfully for decades. And the state-of-art keeps improving. For the most part, nature-based climate solutions are not controversial and are broadly supported.

But when we declare such conservation initiatives are “offsets,” rather than just “solutions,” concerns arise. By definition, an “offset” means the action is equivalent to another—in this case reducing emissions. For this to true, we need to ensure that offsets: 

  • cause emission reductions that would otherwise not occur. In the offset world, we call this “additionality.” Say an offset pays for the protection of a standing forest (so-called “avoided deforestation”). We need to believe that the forest is at risk and would otherwise be degraded or eliminated. Such forecasting isn’t easy.  It requires making confident predictions about unknowable future scenarios. (It’s easier to establish additionality if the offset pays to restore a degraded forest or to plant a new forest since these actions would not occur without the demand for offsets).
  • are “permanent.” Current thinking is that offsets should endure for at least 100 years. This is tricky because life is full of surprises. 100 years is a long time. Who is to say—especially in a climate-stressed world—that our protected forest won’t catch on fire? If so, goodbye carbon benefits. (Of course, you can buy protection against this risk through buffer zones or insurance, but that raises costs).
  • don’t cause “leakage.” If our offsets stop a timber operation to save a forest, how do we make sure that the same timber activity doesn’t just relocate somewhere else?
  • don’t cause bad side effects. As the “butterfly effect” warns, not all latent consequences can be predicted, such as compromising an ecosystem, hurting biodiversity, or negatively impacting local communities.

As the market gets more active, other important issues are arising: 

  • When should we encourage companies to use offsets? Environmentalists agree that the top priority for companies addressing climate is to reduce their own emissions. Generally, as a company does so, it will start with the emissions that are least expensive to eliminate. As they cut more, costs rise. When on this cost curve is it appropriate to substitute an offset for a direct reduction? Maybe using offsets is a good way to buy some time and achieve emission reductions now that otherwise are not doable. Who should determine this and how? How transparent should companies be about these costs? And how concerned should we be that the availability of low-cost offsets might discourage companies from engaging in additional direct reductions?
  • How should we distinguish offsets that avoid emissions from ones that remove carbon from the atmosphere? This distinction is hugely important and in my view will be getting much more attention in the period immediately ahead.

Take avoided emission opportunities, for example. Shouldn’t we prefer that such emissions be avoided the old-fashioned way— i.e., directly eliminated—rather than through offsets? For example, instead of paying to protect a standing forest, should we instead pursue the same outcome by pushing for more ambitious supply chain management? That higher standard is necessary in a net-zero world.

On the other hand, NCS that removes carbon from the atmosphere—say an ambitious project to restore a badly-degraded forest—seem much better. Easier to establish additionality, less leakage risk, and hard to see how otherwise you can make this happen.  

Ultimately, we need net-zero emissions (most experts say we need to get there no later than 2050, and we should get halfway there by 2030). That means somehow we’ll need to make all possible emission reductions by 2050. In such an economy, there can be no allowance for offsetting emissions by paying for avoided emissions elsewhere.

But even in that very positive net-zero scenario, there will still be greenhouse gas emissions that can’t be eliminated—methane from agriculture; jet fuel; etc. How might such emissions be removed? Perhaps cost-effective direct air capture or other technology-based methods will be ready and affordable by that time. Let’s hope so. But we can’t count on it. We don’t know when these tech dreams will be realized. We do know, in contrast, that carbon removal NCS works right now.  

  • How differently should we feel about offsets when used in voluntary programs vs compulsory regulatory-driven regimes? Today most offsets are purchased voluntarily. You could almost view these purchases as a kind of charitable giving. Hard to complain about that. But when companies make bold claims that their offset purchases are reducing their emissions, do they go too far? Should we be using different terminology? Should corporate offset purchases be called something else— say, “climate positive social investments” or “climate abating social responsibility?” And should environmentalists push less for grand “carbon neutral” statements now and more for longer-term and credible “net zero” commitments? That will mean more detailed plans for direct emission cuts, much greater transparency, and NCS aimed exclusively at carbon removal.  

Looking ahead, with net-zero goals in mind, I hope companies will continue to support conservation-positive and climate-addressing philanthropic projects that, for example, protect standing forests and other ecosystems and avoid emissions at the same time. These are worthy initiatives to support. But such projects and associated avoided emissions—which will be fine to record, disclose, and celebrate—should not count toward a company’s emission reduction goals. Only removal projects should.

And who oversees all of this?

To date, we have relied on carbon offset verifiers to ensure integrity by certifying that offsets will work as promised. The verifiers are on the ground where the offset projects are happening, checking out the sites, reviewing methodologies, determining if the projects are a good fit for local communities and compatible with ecosystem health.  It’s a lot of work, but it will get easier as technology is better harnessed (think satellites to monitor forest cover, as several startups are doing) and more economic as projects grow in size. These organizations also manage registries to make sure offsets don’t get double-counted.

I admire these organizations and think they do a good job. It’s difficult to be on the front lines developing standards for new and complex markets.  

The verifiers are also starting to get help from private sector market participants. See recent announcements by corporate offset buyers Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify. They are pledging total transparency about offset purchases, using external advisors (Carbon PlanCarbon Direct) to vet them, and insisting that they will pay up for high quality. My suggestion to these players – each a leader in the tech sector: acknowledge that nature is another technology that can achieve carbon removal. Indeed, NCS works better today than the products on the drawing board that tech engineers are working on.

As demand for NCS increases, of course, suppliers are responding to these market signals. It’s exciting to see new companies emerge—often backed by prominent VCs—aiming to provide ever-higher quality offsets at good prices. And, as you’d expect, financial institutions are lining up to provide the capital to take the marketplace for NCS to scale.

NGOs will keep playing an important role too. Many of these projects are new variations of traditional conservation initiatives. The NGOs have key skills to make these projects succeed and partnering with private sector players will make them even better.

Finally, of course, we can always also count on critics. (One of our favorite sayings at The Instigator is, “Our critics are our friends.”)  These watchdogs play a role that reminds me of what security analysts, CNBC, and short-sellers do for financial markets. They’ll balk when projects fall short of goals and draw attention to bad practices. They’ll keep the pressure on for high quality. And importantly, I hope, they’ll start focusing even more on the frameworks and rules that we’ll need to guide private sector players on the journey to net-zero.

In sum, I’m optimistic about all of this. Thinking on NCS needs to improve, and I think it will.

Alright, so where do things stand right now?

I write this newsletter sitting in Washington, DC with our newly elected President just having taken office. Early actions suggest improvements in climate policy are ahead.  But not the far-reaching regulatory policy we really need. In this circumstance, as noted, voluntary corporate commitments are important. They add up to real progress in reducing emissions; the example of leaders allows us to pressure laggard companies to follow, and corporate engagement builds momentum for the across-the-board regulations we ultimately need.

Let’s look at some examples of how companies view offsets. I applaud these three companies for being in the game, trying to figure out how they can be climate leaders, and putting forth their plans. I note below ideas on how these programs can be improved, but I want to emphasize that I admire this leadership. It’s hard to get all of this right. But it allows for learning and adds to progress. Bravo to the leaders.

United Airlines: I think it makes sense for airlines to use offsets. After all, other than maximizing the currently limited opportunities available to them—such as using more efficient aircraft and sustainable biofuels—they’re stuck burning fossil fuels when they fly. The airline industry and the UN teamed up and put forth broad plans to address their emissions mainly by using offsets.  

I was interested therefore to read recently how United’s new CEO Scott Kirby plans for his airline to be “100% green” by 2050. He gets the importance of net-zero and says that all of United’s emissions will be removed permanently through direct air capture technology. He also announced that the airline will be an investor in a direct air capture startup. And he talks about the greater use of sustainable fuels. That all sounds good; bold, even.   

But that’s it. United provides no more details. No statement about what United will do about emissions between now and 2050, let alone by 2030. Not even a commitment to buy direct air capture carbon removals (if they’re available).

And—so far as I can tell, for no very good reason—the CEO also makes unnecessary criticisms of nature-based offsets. He calls them “flashy, empty gestures” and suggests that peer airlines shouldn’t be using them.

It’s admirable for United to be ambitious about direct air capture, and it’s great to see the CEO out front leading the charge. I hope his bet on direct air capture works. I also think it’s okay to identify opportunities to improve NCS (as this newsletter seeks to do). But it’s less helpful to just criticize those who use them. After all, unless his direct air capture dream succeeds sooner than many expect, United itself might need to use NCS. 

My recommendation: 

  1. Determine and disclose emission reduction goals to be achieved by 2030, and the strategies that will get the airline there. Do the same for longer-term net-zero goals.
  2. Establish interim milestones for management and outsiders to gauge progress.
  3. Explain more clearly what carbon removal or avoidance strategies you will use. 

Your investors, customers, (and, most likely, your employees too) will insist on this. As for nature-based offsets, go ahead and share your thoughts on how you think they should be improved.

Procter & Gamble: The consumer goods giant recently announced plans to reach carbon neutrality through a number of initiatives including paying for forest protection projects with Conservation International and WWF. It also announced a number of other impressive sustainability commitments. But the company said little about efforts to reduce deforestation in its supply chain (which includes operations in Canada’s precious boreal forest). Of course, critics immediately pounced, calling the forest offset projects “greenwashing,” insisting that the company reduce direct emissions caused by deforestation in its supply system before using offsets. It’s hard to know exactly where things stand here without more information. P&G should address this quickly; if it does, I don’t think it will be too difficult for the company to get on a better trajectory.  

My recommendation: 

  1. Hire a credible third party to determine what the company can do to end deforestation in its supply chain. 
  2. Make this information public. This issue is not going to go away, it will only get worse unless addressed, best to deal with it now.  
  3. Work carefully with NGOs to ensure that the forest protection projects really deliver everything they promise. And celebrate any success here that you realize.  But don’t count these avoided emissions as offsets against the company’s footprint (especially emissions that result from deforestation in the supply chain).
  4. Be as transparent as possible about every aspect of these programs—good and bad—every step of the way.

Microsoft:  The tech giant has been a sustainability leader for a long time, and its recent commitments keep the company at the head of the pack. Among many other commitments, Microsoft promises to draw down more carbon than it emits by 2030 and by 2050 to draw down enough to offset all company emissions since its founding in 1975. Read the company’s announcement for yourself—it’s inspiring. Peers like Apple and Google are doing very well along the same lines too. But let’s ask ourselves—can Microsoft do even more? (Remember, we have a long way to go to reach our climate goals. And we need to ask for a lot from our leaders).

My recommendation:

  1. Take it to the next level, Microsoft. Keep ratcheting up your commitments so that it’s harder for lagging companies to sit this out. For example, imagine what would be required if the company’s commitments were not voluntary but mandatory by law. What reporting and disclosure would be required? Do that. 
  2. Also, please tell us more about the costs of direct emission reductions vs offsets.  And think more about your supply chain—can you get your suppliers to match your commitments? 
  3. Finally, consider regulating yourself—can you lock in these commitments in a binding way?

Final Thoughts

I’m very encouraged by all of the activity building in the carbon offset marketplace.  Yes, it’s a bit messy, everything doesn’t work perfectly, and it’s unclear where everything will land. But that’s how new products and new markets get started. And this one is especially important.

My advice for companies that aspire to be climate leaders: 

  1. Set very ambitious emission reduction goals. Report annually on progress. Disclose what you can about the cost of your direct emissions. Present your plans—even if only preliminary ones for now—on how you will get to net zero.
  2. If you use NCS, bravo; now disclose. Disclose everything you can about the projects—costs, progress, and all co-benefits and side effects. Celebrate success. Don’t make bold claims, however, that avoided emission offsets take you to net zero (they don’t). 
  3. Be open to criticism. As we move forward in this area, we keep learning more and keep finding ways to make more progress.

I’ve said my piece. What’s your take on nature-based climate solutions? 

The 10 Best Books on Nature and the Environment

An environmental journey, as told through books

The Quick Rundown: 

Every day it seems more people want to join the environmental movement. This is great news.  My advice? The journey of 1000 miles begins with a few good books. I note below those that had the biggest impact on my personal trajectory, and I hope you’ll share yours so we can all go further together.

A Humble Beginner (With a Lot to be Humble About) 

When I joined the Nature Conservancy in 2008, I expected a steep learning curve. I had been working on environmental matters for a few years on Wall Street, so I wasn’t an absolute neophyte. But leading the world’s biggest conservation NGO would demand much more. So I did everything I could to learn as much as possible, including preparing very carefully for all my meetings. I wanted my new colleagues to have confidence in me. 

Our Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva was an especially intimidating figure. He’s a really nice guy, and he’s also one of those brilliant people who reads and knows everything. It seemed there was nothing he didn’t know about nature, conservation, science, and the environment. So I tried especially hard to be well-informed and smart in my meetings with him.  

I thought I was doing a decent job too, until Peter took me aside after one meeting and said “I see that there are some significant gaps in your knowledge about the work we do.” Whoops — my cover was blown.  

He handed me a very thick stack of paper and said “you should read all of this.” It was the manuscript for his soon-to-be-published textbook on conservation science. “If you read this,” he promised, “not only will you become much better informed, you’ll also be better informed than most of your senior colleagues here and at all of the other NGOs.”

He was right. I was delighted to read his book. I found value in each and every page. I was already in the habit of asking the environmentalists that I admired for book suggestions. Back then, I was traveling non-stop, so I got in the habit of carrying a few books with me everywhere I went in order to keep learning. I continue this practice today.

When I think back now on my transition from life as a Wall Street banker to environmentalist, it dawns on me that great books were a big part of the process every step of the way, so I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that they serve you too. Here are the ten books that made the biggest impact on me.

The Instigator’s Top Ten Books on Nature and the Environment For Would-be Tree-Huggers:

  1. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen

Stumbling onto this truly great book in the mid-1990s was one of those happy accidents. It was long before I had any notion of becoming an environmentalist, but I like to think now that it was a little foreshadowing. I was on vacation with my wife Amy and our two young daughters in Florida and needed something to read. I picked this book up and then I couldn’t put it down. At the time, I knew almost nothing about biodiversity, evolution, extinction or the importance of preserving wild landscapes, animals and plants. This book got me excited about all of these topics and 10 years after reading this book, I ended up working on exactly these matters. I even ended up collaborating with luminaries from the book like Ed Wilson and Tom Lovejoy. Thank you David Quammen — your book changed my life. That may sound a bit melodramatic, but when I look back, it’s the only honest assessment I can give.

Read this book to be inspired and to learn about Darwin, Wallace, Wilson, Lovejoy, and the exciting quest we can all join to protect biodiversity and the natural world.

2. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

A few years later, and I had a bigger family and much more zeal to learn about the natural world, so we took an eco vacation to Belize. As we explored incredible ecosystems, our stellar tour guide, Max, kept chatting and taught us so much about how nature actually worked. I asked a lot of questions — maybe too many even for high-energy Max. Finally, he handed me Jared Diamond’s book and said, “Read this.” It worked. I stopped bugging Max. Instead, I devoured the book. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one because it went on to be a bestseller and to win the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe you’ve read it too.  

The book aims to explain all of human history by focusing on the environmental, geographic, biological factors that drive it. I know some scholars dispute some of this big thinking book’s conclusions, but none of that matters if you ask me. What’s great about this book is its reach and ambition. It’s truly inspiring. It’s what got me thinking that there might be more to life than Wall Street.

Read this book to think hard about the sweep of human history and how we interact with all other species and all ecosystems.  

3. The Condor’s Shadow: The Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America by David S. Wilcove

By the mid-2000s, I was very interested in conservation, but still a Wall Street banker. It was time to diversify not just my reading but my network. I started making an effort to get to know NGO leaders. One was Kent Redford, the Chief Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Kent recommended this book. It’s a very readable study of what has been done very successfully to reverse the damage humans have caused to wildlife in North America.  

The pages are replete with fundamental explanations— how ecosystems and wildlife interact, why and how this gets damaged, and how we can turn this around and get back on track. I started to think that some of the business skills I had developed might also work in efforts to protect nature.

Read this book to build some optimism and to strengthen your ethical commitment to protecting all habitats for all species.

4. The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable by Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison

Now several years in, my efforts to learn more about environmental matters started to pay off. In late 2005, Hank Paulson put me in charge of Goldman Sachs’s nascent environmental efforts in 2005. He gave me this book too. It builds on Gretchen Daily’s pioneering academic work concerning natural capital. Together with journalist Katherine Ellison, Daily persuasively argues that we should invest more to protect “green infrastructure” to capture the ecosystem services that nature provides. It made sense for a Wall Street environmentalist like me to be attracted to this investment-oriented approach to protecting nature. 

Later, to my delight, I got to work closely with Gretchen as we served together on the board of TNC and worked jointly on the Natural Capital Project. Gretchen’s work also influenced the book I ultimately ended up writing (along with Jonathan Adams) — Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Nature Thrive by Investing in Nature

Read this book to learn about the economic value of nature and inspiring examples of big conservation wins that have been achieved on this basis. 

5. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman 

With every new enviro-person I met, I kept asking for book ideas.  Gretchen suggested this one. It’s a real page-turner — almost a thriller. It grapples with the following crazy question — what would happen to the natural world if humankind suddenly vanished?  Weisman is a brilliant writer and journalist. His book is a fascinating read and turns the way we tend to view environmental challenges inside out. 

Read this book for a very dive deep into human interaction with the planet.  

Weisman later wrote another great eco book, Countdown, which focuses on the global environmental challenges arising from population growth.   Gretchen herself is featured as a leading character in this book.

6. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization and World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester R. Brown

When I joined TNC in 2008, the financial crisis was just getting underway. My team and I really had our hands full as we grappled with various challenges. We worked very long days, were under a lot of pressure, and had to make a lot of tough decisions. I would return home exhausted and take solace in these books. 

Lester Brown is a hero in the environmental field. He is also a superb writer, analyst, problem solver, and policy wonk. The two books almost felt like memos advising me on how I should set priorities and make decisions about the work TNC would do. 

Read these books (or any of Lester’s other great ones) for a very clear assessment of the daunting environmental challenges we face as well as a game plan for how we can address them.  

7. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary by Stewart Brand

I was a fan of The Whole Earth Catalog back in my high school days. So when Stewart Brand, who led and co-founded that effort, put out an environmental book in 2010, I was eager to read it. The financial crisis was behind us and the TNC team was working hard to determine the best ways to scale and accelerate the organization’s achievements. This great book was enormously helpful, providing us many exciting ideas, provocative challenges, and real inspiration.

I looked at my copy of this book the other day, as well as the two Lester Brown books noted above. I see that they really connected with me; I managed to highlight almost every paragraph in all three books.

Read this book for a no-nonsense, engineering-like, reality-based approach to addressing environmental challenges. It’s a fascinating read, and Stewart is a great writer.

8. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser 

Glaeser is an economist who brilliantly makes the argument you’d expect from the book’s title. Yes, COVID-19 has thrown a curveball at cities right now, but I doubt pandemics will disrupt the long-term and mostly very positive trend of urbanization.  I’m a city boy. I grew up in Cleveland and spent most of my adult life in cities — Tokyo, NYC, and Washington, DC—so I was very receptive to Glaser’s notion that cities are a force for good, environmental and otherwise. Glaser’s view is good news because half of the world’s people live in cities today and soon it will be two-thirds. This book helped persuade me to launch a cities initiative at TNC.

Read this book to understand how cities are an engine of human progress and a solution to enormous challenges to the natural world.

9. Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson

No one has been a better champion of the need to protect nature at scale in order to protect biodiversity than leading scientist Ed Wilson. He is also a prolific author of many superb books on nature. I’ve read and loved most of his books. It’s difficult to single one out. I pick Naturalist— his memoir — because it’s a moving firsthand account of his own journey as a scientist as well as the evolution of the fields he developed.

Read this book to be inspired by one person’s extraordinary personal journey in the world of science, conservation, and large-scale problem-solving.

10. Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet by Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

One of the most frustrating aspects of being an environmentalist is watching society’s very slow engagement on climate change. Doing nothing or moving slowly makes absolutely no sense from a business or economic perspective, period. The cost of dealing with climate is not zero, but it’s much lower than the cost of doing too little. Somehow this gets lost in all of the debate, politics, ill will, and obfuscation that characterizes so much of the dialogue about climate. Sigh.

Read this fun, brilliant, sobering, and very clearly argued book by Wagner and the late Weitzman to see how climate policymakers should start thinking more like homeowners do every day when they purchase homeowners insurance. Managing risk makes sense!

I know I said just 10 books, but it’s the holidays. Here’s a bonus book for you!  

11. Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature by Peter Kareiva & Michelle Marvier

It’s probably not every day you read a textbook. But this book doesn’t read like one. This is the book that Peter, TNC’s Chief Scientist, gave me. Kareiva and co-author Marvier answer practical questions about how best to achieve progress in protecting nature right now. All of the thorny tradeoffs, controversies, and messiness of conservation management is well-considered here. Saving nature and running an NGO is not as easy as it looks. Peter was being practical when he gave me his not-quite-finished manuscript. The book provides just what you’ll need to know if you’re ever suddenly appointed CEO of a big conservation organization.

Read this book to think hard about how humans and nature best share our crowded planet.

Me with top ten authors Ed Wilson, Gretchen Daily, and Peter Kareiva

The Coda

Peter Kareiva ended up moving on from TNC a couple of years before I did. As he made his farewells, he was complimentary about my leadership, which meant a lot to me coming from him. Even better was his specific choice of words. He pulled me aside, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Mark, my friend, I want to pay you my highest compliment.” I leaned in, anxious to hear what he thought I had done so well. “You are a geek.” 

Peter credited me for my learning above all else. I certainly don’t want to be immodest, but I kind of agree with Peter. To the extent that I’ve had any success at all, I attribute it mostly to trying to learn, staying curious, reading everything I can get my hands on, and continually trying to figure things out. I know,  I know — I still have a very long way to go. Good. I’m enjoying the journey. 

Over to You 

So there you have it. The books that shaped my environmental journey from knowing next to nothing to writing The Instigator and everything in between.  

As I’ve mentioned here before, if you’re interested in making a change — whether it’s a career switch or just becoming a more environmentally responsible citizen — one of the best ways to begin is to learn as much as you can. Books are an easy way to do that. How do you pick from the abundant choices? Ask for recommendations from everyone you talk to and never stop. 

On that note, dear readers, let’s start helping each other out. What are the environmental books that moved you

I come to praise Bezos, not to bury him

The Bezos Earth Fund May Be Just What NGOs Need to Reach the Next Level

The Quick Rundown: 

The Instigator champions private sector environmental leadership. But we also believe that NGOs are critical players. For NGOs to achieve their full potential, they need two things.  First, they need more and better funding. Otherwise, NGOs take the “lean and mean” concept too far. Second, NGOs need to offer greater disclosure so that their performance can be better understood. The Bezos Earth Fund can address both of these needs.

(Full disclosure: I served as CEO of The Nature Conservancy — an Earth Fund grantee — from 2008 to 2019.)

Last week, I wrote that I was excited about Jeff Bezos’s initial Earth Fund grants. Looks like I might be in the minority. Or maybe it’s a silent majority.  Either way, the Twittersphere was ablaze, and it wasn’t exactly praising his decisions about where to allocate capital. What I read was surprising to me for two reasons. First, the criticisms were pretty weak. Criticism is valid and important. But we can and should do better. Second, they reveal a lack of appreciation of NGOs as capable and important organizations. 

When Jeff Bezos originally committed $10 billion to a new climate-focused philanthropic fund, environmental journalists and podcasts immediately began to discuss and debate where the money should go. (See herehere, and here).

While lots of interesting and cool ideas were proposed—investments in education, new far-out technologies, ambitious R&D programs, efforts to build stronger, bigger, and more diverse political coalitions—none of these smart and well-intended commentators (so far as I could find) suggested that the money go to funding the big NGOs so they could build on their success and do more of their important work. 

But that’s just what Bezos did.  Bravo, I say.  

Unsung Heroes 

NGOs are the “essential workers” of the environmental movement. They know and can do things that neither the government nor the private sector know or can do. So why is their value so underappreciated? 

Back in 2005, after 20+ years as a mainstream investment banker, I was asked to lead Goldman Sachs’s brand new environmental initiative. I immediately did what we always did at GS. I reached out to the world’s best experts to ask for help. That meant calling environmental NGOs. My colleagues and I were amazed. The people and organizations we turned to were great—smart, creative, full of ideas backed by strong science and substantive experience, savvy about evaluating our new environmental business strategies. In short, they knew their stuff. Even us arrogant Wall Street bankers knew right away that the NGOs would help us get off to a much stronger start than we would get to on our own.

What the NGOs had in smarts, however, they lacked in capacity. They had a difficult time keeping up with us. Their teams were too lean and had too much work. In hindsight, we should have provided them more funding. And the NGOs should have asked for it. We’ll come back to this point. As for me, I was so enthusiastic about what NGOs could accomplish, I decided to leave my comfortable perch on Wall Street and join the fray.  

Target Rich, Short on Troops  

I was enormously fortunate to serve as CEO of the Nature Conservancy for 11 years.  Being there gave me a front-row seat into how talented and productive the staff of NGOs really are.  

Hands down, the hardest part of my job at TNC was saying no. We were overwhelmed with worthwhile project opportunities—opportunities that would have had a big impact and that aligned with our capabilities. 

For better or worse, there is just too much to do for environmental organizations. As military types like to say, it’s a “target-rich environment.” The limitations are on the supply side, not the demand. 

Even at TNC, the largest of the environmental nonprofits, we had to painstakingly prioritize and do our best to maintain laser focus. We didn’t want to spread our resources too thin. Just because a project looked worthwhile, and just because we probably could execute it well, didn’t mean we should do it. 

Our Board supported us in this effort, but it was difficult to sustain. Sometimes even they got excited about new, attractive but off-plan opportunities. I remember one Board member urging us to tackle the e-waste challenge— a noble cause, but definitely not on our priority list. And this happened immediately following a full Board discussion about the need to stay focused. I declined (politely, I hope).  It was right to say no but difficult. NGO leaders always want to please their supporters.  

 Sometimes project-specific funding would be offered for the new opportunity, making it even more tempting to say yes. But the incremental funding was usually insufficient to cover the full organizational cost of taking on a new initiative.

I admit, I often made the same mistake too. I’d come back to headquarters after a business trip excited by many great ideas and initiatives. My excellent and more disciplined team would stop me by quoting me. “No,” they’d say. “Remember what you said—we need to stay focused.” 

Why does this matter? It’s simple. Environmental NGOs are under-resourced relative to the huge, important, and urgent opportunities they face. And they stretch their resources too far too often.

Along Comes Bezos . . . and the Critics 

NGOs may be under-resourced in many respects, but one thing they don’t lack is critics. There are lots of them.  And that’s a good thing.  

When I was at TNC, I always said:  “Our critics are our friends. They usually want the same environmental outcomes that we want. If they see something they don’t like about how we are going about our work, let’s pay close attention to them. They might see something we miss. We might learn something.” 

But this time around, I think it’s the criticisms that can be improved.  

Let’s look at the initial reactions to the recent Earth Fund grants. Take this commentary from The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer.  Meyer is a very good environmental journalist. I subscribe to his excellent newsletter, “The Weekly Planet.” But I’m underwhelmed by his arguments against Bezos’s grant allocations. 

“Bezos’ gifts indicate that he isn’t trying something new on climate so much as boosting an ancien regime“ [emphasis mine]. 

I’m not sure exactly what he means, but my Google dictionary says “ancien regimes” are “political systems that have been displaced typically by one more modern.” Ouch.   Is there any evidence that’s true here?

Meyer goes on to write: 

“…these first grantees represent an older and some would say [ed. nice hedge;who in fact says this?]— outdated [emphasis mine] approach to the problem of climate change.”

Outdated?  Really?  

Take another look at some of the Earth Fund’s grantees.  

  1. The Environmental Defense Fund is getting $100 million to launch a satellite to monitor methane emissions. Sounds like a cool project to me. Perhaps there are some shortcomings, but I don’t think we can reasonably call this strategy “outdated.”  It’s never been done before.  
  2. The World Resources Institute is getting $100 million to develop a satellite-based network for monitoring carbon emissions, as well as changes to forests, wetlands, and farms. Sounds worthy to me.
  3. The Salk Institute is getting $30 million to advance work in plant genetics to increase the ability of crops to capture and store atmospheric carbon via their roots in the soil. Who thinks that is an outdated approach?  

Does Size Even Matter?

Meyer is not an outlier. Turning to other journalists, many emphasized that some of the grant recipients are the biggest NGOs. They imply that’s a bad thing. But before we address whether their size should be a disqualifier, let me first ask the question, is it even true that they are so big?  

Yes, by the standard of NGO size, some of the Earth Fund grantees are big. But by almost any other benchmark, these organizations are not really big at all.

For example, compare the size of the biggest environmental NGOs to the companies that they engage with on the climate front.  It’s tricky to do this comparison because good data is not readily available when it comes to NGOs. And, of course, it’s somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison. But it doesn’t matter. Take a look at these bar graphs in comparison to corporations. NGOs are by all measures tiny.  

(per Charity Navigator) vs total revenue for the biggest companies (per Fortune 500)

Think revenue is the wrong way to assess relative size? Okay. How about the number of employees? That’s who does the work at both companies and NGOs, right?  See below. Again, NGOs are not big.

Are there too many NGOs?

People also complain that there are too many NGOs and they all do the same thing.  This really seems silly to me. NGOs are very few in number relative to companies, not to mention the size of the planet they are trying to protect. And they each have their unique strengths and areas of focus. Of course, if some of them were to consolidate the field by merging, they’d be vulnerable once again to the critique that they are too big. They can’t win. 

Wait — I Thought You Said that The Instigator Welcomes Criticism

We do. I don’t want to overstate this pushback. And I will also note that there were other balanced analyses about the Earth Fund grants.

Critics and analysts of NGOs have a valuable role to play. But they need to play it fairly. Criticism should be based on facts and careful analysis, not hearsay, or rumors, or general impressions. In fairness to the commentators, their task is not easy. Good information on NGO performance is lacking. See for yourself. Try doing some Google research to determine which of the environmental NGOs are most effective.  You’ll be frustrated. It’s not easy to do. You’ll find some opinions, but not much based on rigorous analysis on who gets what done. We need more data and more accurate information on who is doing what.

Therefore, One More Ask of Bezos

The Earth Fund can help us solve this problem. What if  Jeff Bezos and his team committed to a new level of transparency? They could set a new standard for NGO disclosure.  Here’s my ask. Please report publicly every year on how each of the grants is doing. 

  • What’s going well?  
  • Where are the NGOs behind schedule and why?  
  • What can we learn from any setbacks or better than expected progress?  

Please guide the grantees to report on a standard basis so that: 

1) we can compare progress on one Earth Fund recipient’s project to another; and 

2) other philanthropists can use the same format for their grants.  

This should be easy. It’s exactly the kind of information that Jeff Bezos must be asking for when monitoring his businesses, whether it be Amazon, the Washington Post, or Blue Origin. It may not be quite as easy to report on NGO progress as it is in business. But there are many ways to measure progress. Start— say—with five-year goals and clear annual milestones to assess progress along the way.

By requiring his grantees to track and disclose this type of information, Bezos would be acclimating these organizations to a new way of tracking and reporting on their work, while paving the way for others to follow. And it would not only help ensure he gets a better return on his investment, but it might also help NGOs more clearly demonstrate their value. 

Put Me in Charge — How I’d Make My Private Equity Firm A Climate Leader

The Quick Rundown:

Companies and investors are starting to make big things happen — and fast — to address the climate challenge. The private sector is investing in climate solutions, mobilizing talent, innovating, committing to GHG emission reductions and better climate disclosure. This is just what we need for climate progress.  But one large, talented and influential sector can and should be doing more: private equity.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

As my fellow Dale Carnegie acolytes know, salesmanship is a key success factor for building a bigger environmental coalition. More on that in a moment. But first, some background.

Back when I ran The Nature Conservancy (2008-19), I worked hard to persuade business leaders to prioritize environmental problem solving.  Thanks to capable colleagues at TNC and courageous partners in the private sector, CEOs across diverse industries and all over the world stepped up and made bold commitments to address climate change. 

How did we sell this idea?  We showed that doing the right thing for nature was not just good for the environment, but it was also good for business.  Well-designed, ambitious environmental initiatives make business sense.  They create new opportunities to grow the top line, reduce costs, lower risks, make better long-term decisions on things like capital spending, and inspire key constituents including employees and customers.  Just as importantly, they also please the growing number of shareholders who now care deeply about environmental strategies.

I tried to make the same argument with the titans of the private equity (PE) sector. PE firms have enormous influence on markets, control a huge number of companies, employ brilliant people, manage large sums of capital, and enjoy extraordinary profitability. Their very modus operandi — buying companies, investing in improvements, and selling them at a profit —  is a massive opportunity for environmental leadership.

Alas, my sales pitch here was less successful.   

To be sure, we had some nice victories in the broader financial sector.  We persuaded a number of individuals, and one PE firm, to donate generously.  We built an innovative nature-focused technology accelerator in partnership with the VC firm Techstars.  With JP Morgan, we launched NatureVest, a hugely successful first-of-its-kind initiative to catalyze donations funding important conservation deals with billions of investor-provided dollars. And near the end of my time at TNC, we co-launched and were a full partner in a $1 billion investment fund with PE firm RRG that is a game-changer in water conservation investments. That’s a lot to be proud of. 

But still . . . I thought we would do much better than that.  I’d been optimistic that we could persuade PE firms to pursue environmental opportunities with the same bold approach they took to managing their everyday business. I thought I was a good salesman, and I knew that I had a superb sales pitch. And yet, I wasn’t making the headway I expected. 

WWDCD? What would Dale Carnegie Do? That’s easy. He’d advise the following:  “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.”  “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”  “Appeal to nobler motives.”  “Throw down a challenge.”  And so on.  Perfect, right?

So, I urged PE firms to team up with my organization in order to tackle together some big environmental projects.  These would be initiatives that would draw on their sophisticated financial engineering skills, bolster their reputations, and improve their standing with key constituents like national governments and multilateral banks.  I suggested that they lend us some of their talented staff to boost our creativity and to give their younger deal-makers new problem-solving opportunities to accelerate their career development. I pointed out that capital is now abundant and increasingly seen as a commodity, therefore if an investment firm wanted to differentiate themselves and improve returns, they needed another angle — and what better one could there be than addressing societal challenges like climate change? (See examples here and here).  

I had plenty of proposals, rationales, and ideas.  I think Dale Carengie would have approved how I pitched them. But I didn’t close any big partnerships along these lines.

Why? A combination of tunnel vision and habit. Maybe I was ahead of my time. And while maximizing returns is still (and will always be) the highest priority for PE, what that requires today is different than in the past. True, if a deal-maker views the world only through an IRR (internal rate of return) cash flow model, anything that raises costs, requires more capital spending, or delays the exit will by definition lower returns. But certainly the PE business is more complicated than that.

What does success look like for private equity firms in a world transitioning to net zero emissions?  

As an outsider, I see PE firms engage in five essential activities: 

  1. Fundraising  
  2. Purchasing good companies at the right price  
  3. Helping these companies improve performance 
  4. Selling these companies at attractive valuations, and 
  5. Recruiting and retaining talented people to keep the cycle going 

Now ask yourself:  

  • How will succeeding in each of these five areas look different in the years ahead as the major economies are forced to truly confront the climate challenge?  
  • What will cause my PE firm to stand out as a global business leader? 
  • What can we do to be viewed as a preferred partner to prospective selling companies? 
  • How can we improve our appeal to LPs, employees, and recruits?  
  • How can we ensure our portfolio companies don’t get left behind in a rapidly decarbonizing world?  
  • And, most importantly, where can we find new breakout investment opportunities?

These may seem like disparate questions but they all have an answer in common. Focusing on an enormously challenging global issue like climate is one likely way to guarantee your place in a future economy and realize major opportunities. And that’s even before we get to the moral argument: What climate-addressing actions should we take to be a responsible member of a society that seeks to transition to net zero? 

Climate change is happening right before our eyes and with deadly consequences. Customers and shareholders insist that their companies do something about this crisis. And most governments and companies are prioritizing this challenge. 

Forward-thinking PE firms should jump in and help lead the climate transformation.

I was whining about all this with a friend over the weekend. She finally became exasperated with me. 

She asked: “What would you do if you ran a big PE fund today and wanted to really go after the climate challenge?” 

Now that’s a great question, I thought.

Here’s my answer:

What My Private Equity Firm Would Do to Address the Climate Challenge

One obvious step is to study what leading companies are doing on the climate front right now.  Why would I want my PE firm to lag behind top companies?  

My PE firm commits the following:

1) Align with the Paris Climate Agreement 2050 goals

First, we will sign up to be members of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTI).  We’ll commit not only at the parent level, but we will also include all of our portfolio companies.  Why not? As of today, exactly 1052 companies have signed up for SBTI.  If they can do it, we can too. 

The SBTI recognizes that different companies and industries face different challenges and therefore allows different levels of ambition. My PE firm, since we choose to be leaders, will set targets for our portfolio companies that are consistent with the 1.5 C goal that is aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement.  Since some of our portfolio companies are very carbon-intensive now, we’ll take the next two years (as SBTI allows) to set and validate appropriate and ambitious targets for each of them.

2) Set ambitious interim goals to be achieved by 2030

In the PE business, we know that “what gets measured, gets managed.” We need to ensure that we are on track to meet our long-term goals.  Since SBTI targets are goals for 2050, we’ll also set ambitious interim goals to be achieved by 2030. 

3) Disclose climate risks 

We are aware that financial regulators are calling for all climate risks to be fully disclosed. As a sophisticated financial organization, we think we can add a lot to the efforts underway to get this right. We will pledge to collaborate with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and other initiatives to determine the best way to make this happen. 

4) Prioritize direct emissions and offset the rest 

Our top priority will be reducing direct emission reductions. But we will also use nature-based offsets to get beyond what we can do firsthand.  We will comply with the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting.

5) Launch a philanthropic conservation fund 

We’ll support NGOs with a mission to protect important intact ecosystems and also to improve climate equity and environmental justice outcomes.  We’ll do this because we recognize that we are drawing on these organizations’ great work, and therefore, we owe them and need them to be well-funded.  We’ll look for opportunities to partner with NGOs too, as we know the two sides can learn a lot from one another.

6) Establish GHG reduction committees: We will form advisory councils for our investors, firm employees, and portfolio company teams to generate new ways to address GHG emission reduction and other climate addressing opportunities.  We want to hear from all of our key stakeholders.  This is not a “feel good” move.  We’re excited because we know these key stakeholders have great ideas, they want to be heard, and facilitating this will strengthen our culture and improve outcomes.

What’s Missing? 

The focus of this essay is on addressing the climate challenge.  But I want my PE firm to be a leader across the spectrum of ESG challenges.  So expect us to take parallel steps on that front. [The Instigator will address these important opportunities in future posts].

But Aren’t PE Firms Doing Some Good Things on the Climate Front Already?

Yes, there is positive momentum underway that PE firms can build on.  Many firms have launched “impact funds” and are also emphasizing investments in clean energy and other climate addressing businesses. Some firms are also acknowledging a need to lengthen investment horizons. And there are probably other worthy initiatives that I’m unaware of (disclosure can be improved).  

This is all positive but insufficient.  To reach our climate goals, we need a concerted effort that binds these tactics together. We need across-the-portfolio bold and transparent commitments to get to net zero by 2050, along with robust milestones along the way, period.

We can see how to do this by looking at any number of corporate climate leaders, like this humble yet bold statement by Microsoft’s President Brad Smith. Here’s another good one — this time from Walmart.  There are many others 

It Can’t Be As Simple As You Suggest? 

I suspect that’s right.  I’ve learned in all of my collaborations with the private sector on environmental projects that it’s always more difficult to run a company than it looks. And, likewise, it’s also more complex to set up and achieve the right environmental initiative than an outsider might understand.  That’s probably even more true for PE, given the diversity of companies they control.  

But I’ve also learned this: the key is to get started. That’s the only way to make progress. My checklist will work well — as a starting point.  Maybe some of the goals will need to be revised, which is fine.  Maybe we’ll learn that there are other initiatives for PE firms that can make a bigger difference.  All of this is new and everybody is learning as we go forward.  The best way to develop an ambitious, but doable plan is likely through some good back and forth between PE firms, outside advisors (including NGOs), and other key constituents (investors, employees at both the parent and portfolio companies). But we still need to start somewhere. 

Start A Race to the Top

The upside here can be very significant.  All we really need is for a few PE firms to step up and take on this challenge.  Stakeholders will inevitably encourage the rest to hustle and catch up.  The reward for doing so will be two-fold: progress in achieving our climate goals, and PE firms that are more successful in a rapidly changing world. 


Take the Leap: How to Launch Your Own Personal Environmental Game Plan

The quick rundown. 

It’s been a tough week. We could all use some leadership right now. The Instigator usually focuses on organizational strategies — how companies, investors, and NGOs can tackle environmental challenges. But personal strategies matter too. To achieve the change we seek, we need more people across society to step up, get outside their silos, think big, and devise personal engagement plans that will work in the real world. The best way to do this is to start now, play to your strengths, and find ways to reinvent yourself.

Think Big

In 2016, I was speaking in front of a huge audience at the Paris climate convention.  And I’ll let you in on a secret. 

I thought I was killing it. 

At the time, I was the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, and I was speaking on a panel about food, agriculture, and climate change.  Just as I was making what I thought was another absolutely brilliant point about sustainable ranching, another panelist interrupted me.

“Sustainable ranching? That’s like saying you’re in favor of making torture less painful.”  

His line got some laughs from the crowd. Ha ha. But not from me. Who is this jerk and why is he disagreeing with me?

It turns out that it was Pat Brown of Impossible Foods.  Neither Pat nor his company were well-known at the time.  (Today both are world famous giants in the booming plant-based meat business). 

Onstage in Paris I tried to defend myself.  I elaborated on my point, ticking off the many benefits and practicalities. To demonstrate my unbiased stance, I even mentioned that I was a vegan.  Pat — quite the showman — didn’t miss a beat. He immediately had one of his colleagues bring out a mini Impossible Burger, right there on  stage so I could try it before the big crowd. 

I had to admit —  the burger was delicious. 

Long story short, it turns out this guy wasn’t a jerk at all. He was a real leader.

Pat told me his story afterwards. An accomplished (and arrogant, as he put it) Stanford professor of chemistry, he was about to take a hard-earned sabbatical a few years earlier.   He thought he should do something very important on his break.  Pat thinks big. He decided he should try to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges. He picked climate change.   

Even Pat recognized it made sense to narrow his focus a bit.  So he set his sights on meat consumption. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Pat understood that if people in China, India, and other economically rising countries chose to eat burgers and steaks like Americans, we were (pardon the pun) cooked.  Pat decided to do something about that.

Where others (like me) focused on the need to improve agricultural practices, Patrick viewed the challenge as diet.  He decided to make a delicious burger entirely from plants for people who love meat. He was certain that consumers would prefer his plant-based meat substitutes —  not for lofty environmental reasons (although he would have no objection to that) but because they would taste better, cost less, and be healthier. 

So how’s his little project going? Impossible Burgers are showing up on menus everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan to value meals at Burger King. They have raised more than $1.5 billion in equity funding and attracted high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Temasek, Khosla Ventures, Jay-Z, and Serena Williams. (Not me — sigh —  I wasn’t smart enough to ask Pat to let me buy some shares back in 2016.)  The company also sells plant-based sausages and soon will offer plant-based chicken and milk too.

I can tell you firsthand that the Impossible Burger lives up to its name: they are impossible to stop eating. I hosted a fundraising event at my house in DC a short time after meeting Pat.  The burgers weren’t on the market yet but Pat sent a big supply for my event. Our guests were mostly fancy Washington, D.C. bigwigs. We had planned a lofty conversation about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better agriculture, ranching, and conservation practices. But we couldn’t get guests to focus on our speakers — they were too busy scarfing down their plant-based patties. 

Fast forward to today: Pat’s burgers are a household name. There are many other great meat substitutes widely available, such as  Beyond Meat. The alternative protein food business is booming, and no one thinks plant-based foods are weird anymore. Real change can happen faster than we expect and make a very big difference.  All it takes is leadership.

Not everyone can drop everything and take on a completely new and enormous challenge like Pat did.  But you don’t have to.  We need engagement at all levels and in all fields.  Further, we can all learn from Pat’s example.  Pat thinks big and plays to his strengths.  He went from being a prominent, successful and big-thinking professor of chemistry at Stanford to an iconoclastic businessperson who argued that everything responsible for making a burger taste, feel, and smell like a burger could be recreated with ingredients from the plant world. As a chemist he was sure he could pull this off.  So he went for it.  What can you do in the same way? 

* * *

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.

When it comes to a huge challenge like climate change, the more strategies the better. That’s why people like Pat — and fortunately there are many of them — make such a huge difference. Long-term projections for climate change rarely include huge unpredictable breakthrough scenarios like transforming diet patterns. 

Examples abound of folks in varied fields who leave their comfort zone and follow their passion toward world progress. In the weeks that follow, we’ll be discussing them (and talking to them!). You’ll meet my friend Jacqueline Novogratz, a banker who wanted to reduce poverty. All she did was create a global leadership development and micro financing network called Acumen that has now invested some $125 million in 126 companies tackling poverty in 14 countries. (Check out Jacqueline’s great new book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution to learn more).

Podcasting for Progress

Here’s another cool example of bold leadership.  When COVID struck last winter, I was stuck at home like many of you, and looking for a good podcast to listen to while I worked out.  I discovered “My Climate Journey” and was immediately hooked.  The podcast is hosted by Jason Jacobs, a former startup guy who was wondering what he could do to address the climate challenge. He decided to learn everything he needed to know by interviewing key players in the climate space. He shares what he learns in real time, conducting his inquiry over the podcast.  

His program is outstanding for staying current on climate matters and hearing directly from a diverse group of players. Jason talks to clean-tech entrepreneurs, atmospheric science professors, grassroots activists, elected officials, NGO leaders, and various others in the climate world. I’ve been a professional environmentalist for more than 15 years and theoretically know my stuff, but I still learn a lot from every episode.  

One of the really smart things Jason does is acknowledge that there is a lot he doesn’t know about how to address the climate challenge. He’s like most of us.   So he does the work. He lines up the experts, asks all of the questions we would if we could, and he makes us all much smarter.

It turns out that as a former startup guy, Jason is very good at stepping back and thinking about the big picture, assessing different strategies, and networking so he can talk to all of the right people. He’s not shy or afraid to ask obvious questions. And he is in a hurry.  Just what you would expect.  Note: Jason is playing to his strengths.

Jason’s impact goes way beyond his weekly podcasts. He’s also formed a superb climate-engaged community on Slack for his listeners. I joined the group and right away I started hearing from various people working on promising climate projects.  I’ve made some great friends and even a few new business partners.  The back and forth dialogue between a very diverse group of people all trying to figure out their personal climate engagement plan is really exciting.  Looking back, it seems like an obvious initiative to launch.  But it takes someone like Jason to make these things happen.  They don’t get started by themselves.

More recently, Jason has launched a start-up investment fund focused on climate solutions. One good thing leads to another.

All of this is happening because one more person decided to step up, reinvent himself a bit, and engage in a way that would likely make a big difference.  More of us should do the same. 


Start now but know that it’s okay go slow and lay the groundwork. 

Not everyone is ready to make a giant leap like Pat and Jason did, and that’s fine! The truth is, most of the time, it’s only hindsight that makes it look like people made drastic moves to become climate activists. That’s because you’re only seeing the highlights. The reality usually involves much more legwork. 

My own case might be a good example. My resume reads as if I seamlessly transitioned from Goldman Sachs to CEO of The Nature Conservancy.  But that’s not really what happened.  For the prior 15 years, I volunteered with several NGOs, ultimately joining their boards, and even serving as chair of two. These were much smaller organizations than TNC, but size doesn’t really matter.  They faced the same kinds of issues and challenges that big non-profits like TNC must confront. I learned a ton.  I also went out of my way to make friends in the environmental community.  It was fun and —  again — I learned so much, especially about how the different NGOs do their work. I had also been teaching finance courses at NYU’s business school, so I shifted gears and co-taught a semester-long program on environmental strategies for business. These different activities led to me running Goldman’s first environmental initiative, which of course was another extraordinary learning opportunity.  I even persuaded my wife Amy and our then school-aged children to go on various environmental-themed and rather geeky vacations with me.  And so on. 

When I showed up at TNC in mid-2008, there was still a huge amount that I didn’t know (just ask my colleagues). But all of my prior environmental experience helped me make a pretty smooth transition. 

Now obviously, I realize that I was very fortunate to be in a position to do all of these things. But I want to emphasize that one way or another most people can lay a foundation for meaningful action from whatever position they are in.   

Some Ideas:

  1. A number of my friends recently volunteered to be on the front lines of Get Out The Vote efforts in connection with the election.  What a great way for them to see how politics works firsthand and really make a difference.  It’s easy to stay home and criticize politicians with whom you don’t agree. But it’s so much more effective (and fulfilling) to roll up your sleeves and engage. They all returned home energized and excited about new ideas they now have on doing more going forward.
  2. Many college students are doing a nice job on the climate front too.  Often they start by pushing for their colleges to divest of fossil fuel stocks. That, in turn, leads to campus-wide ghg emission reduction campaigns; efforts to add more on climate to the curriculum; and engagement with local communities on renewable energy. All of this activity not only makes a difference in their schools; it positions students to make a real difference after graduation.
  3. Employees of companies can and should push for more ambition on the climate front. The Instigator has already noted how employee leadership made a big difference at Amazon.  It’s a good idea  to keep a close eye on climate leaders in your company’s sector. Encourage your employer to match such efforts. See if you can spark a “race to the top.”
  4. Volunteer for your favorite NGO (like I did).  It’s fun, you can help the organization a lot, and the learning opportunities are huge.  (Also, please support them financially.  All gifts, including small ones, are hugely appreciated.)
  5. Learn as much as you can. It’s easier than ever to do so now. Find your favorite podcasts and newsletters.  Look for inspiring role models too and imitate them. See the links below for some suggestions.

There’s a common thread here. 

We need more people to step up and make things happen on the climate front.  This might even mean you.  Think about how you can make an impact.  Don’t feel stuck in a silo.  Don’t expect the “experts” to get the job done.  Don’t think blaming others is a good substitute for sticking your own neck out.

Maybe that means speaking up at your org, pushing for change like the Amazon folks did.  Maybe that means edging up your engagement in your day-to-day life, like many of the folks on the My Climate Journey Slack community.  Or maybe it means diving all the way into something new and transformative, like Pat Brown or Jason Jacobs did.

You don’t have to figure this out all at once — none of these folks did.  Take your time.  Ask for help.  Reach out and make new friends. Learn what you need to know.  But please, get in the game. It’s up to you. It’s up to all of us.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: How Business Leaders Can Help Us Get the Climate Policy They Say We Need.

There’s much we can learn from the USCAP experience in 2008. 

The Quick Rundown: 

Most business leaders today say they favor strong climate legislation — the kind that works both for the environment and the economy.  But talk, as they say, is cheap.  We need these business leaders to walk their talk. We can learn from the lessons of USCAP’s near success in 2008.  We showed then that business leaders can lobby effectively for climate policy.  But this time around we’ll need a more diverse coalition, stronger policy proposals that will drive innovation and results, and better efforts to build broad political support.

The Good Old Days (Almost)

It was 2008 and both presidential candidates — Barack Obama and John McCain — had made addressing climate change centerpieces of their campaigns.  Mainstream environmentalists saw their opportunity and joined with Fortune 100 industrial leaders to form a climate policy coalition. It was called USCAP.  

Why did business leaders team up with environmentalists? 

CEOs recognized 3 big things: 

  1. Climate policy would inevitably come; it was just a matter of when. 
  2. Command-and-control regulations would be more costly than market-based approaches.
  3. Better to engage and try to shape the policy as a coalition than be on the sidelines or lobbying on your own.

What about environmentalists?  Why did they team up with polluting industrialists? 

Simple. The enviros reasoned it would be easier to pass legislation with the full support and engagement of business leaders.  What better way to demonstrate that reducing greenhouse gas emissions made economic sense? 

Okay, so what happened?

I got involved in USCAP when I joined The Nature Conservancy as CEO in mid-2008.  It was exciting but hard work.  We weren’t just writing another white paper or making some kind of grand statement on policy. The group of us were trying to reach an actual consensus on detailed regulations. That’s not the kind of task you can delegate.  

I was a brand new CEO and enjoyed being on the USCAP team. Our rule was that all of the participating CEOs had to show up in person for every meeting. The meetings were frequent.  They were also long and often heated.  

Big time CEOs from companies like GE, GM, Ford, Dow, PG&E, Dupont, Caterpillar and Duke Power weren’t used to getting pushback like they did in our meetings. The same was true for the environmental CEOs like me. We debated almost everything. Several companies and one NGO dropped out along the way.  It felt like the whole coalition could blow up any minute — and several times it almost did — but we kept hanging in there.  It was worth it. We were learning a lot from one another and we seemed to be making progress.

Meanwhile, Obama won the election. That added some momentum and optimism to our effort.  

We continued to plug away and . .  . Hooray! Our coalition finally reached a consensus. Next,  the CEOs went to Capitol Hill together to aggressively push our detailed proposal. The House dubbed it the Waxman-Markey bill (known formally as “The American Clean Energy and Security Act”). When it passed in June 2009, we were thrilled. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in the Senate. 

One brief shining moment.

Three senators championed our proposal: John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham — a Democrat, an Independent, and a Republican. I remember their press conference vividly. It was a great display of bipartisan collaboration. “The green economy is coming,” declared Graham. “We can either follow or lead.”  Kerry and Graham even co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times strongly supporting the legislation.

But then the Repbulican base went after Graham, accusing him of supporting what they framed as a tax, and his support dissipated. 

Perhaps more importantly, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s then Chief of Staff, had seemed uncommitted from the beginning. He kept challenging us:  “Where’s your political support?” I was naive. I thought that was his job. 

Either way, by the time our proposal was making inroads, so was Obama’s other main initiative — reforming healthcare — and doing so much more rapidly. The administration decided where to place their bets. The whole thing unraveled, and it went down in the history books as a complete failure.  

But I have a different take. 

We came close to achieving landmark climate legislation.  That should give us some confidence to try again, not to mention some important lessons we can draw on. But of course, we’ll need to be smarter this time around and do some things differently.

What went wrong last time?  

We didn’t have the right bill, and we didn’t garner enough political support.

The environmentalists on the left didn’t like Waxman-Markey. Most of their criticism was directed toward the NGOs for letting their guard down and allowing big business to write a bill that worked too well for them.  It wasn’t nearly ambitious enough, they said. That’s probably right.

Many on the right didn’t like it either. Critics called our proposal a tax in disguise. Others complained it was overly complex. I remember Senator Bob Corker saying, “I can’t believe you would bring us a Rube Goldberg scheme like this,” referencing the cartoonist known for depicting simple mechanisms in stupidly convoluted ways.  Ouch.

There will be critics on all sides this time around too, which is fine. Critics will see things we miss. We probably should have engaged more with them last time. Also, any broadly supported climate plan will include compromises and tradeoffs that upset purists on both sides. Such criticism will probably mean the coalition is doing something right.

But one lesson from USCAP is very clear: the business community can be an effective champion for environmental policy and, by flexing its muscle, get serious attention on Capitol Hill. 

Here’s How We Do It in 2020

1) Let’s start with what we’ve got. As of right now, things are looking pretty good that Biden will be our next President. (Please don’t be overconfident — go vote and get out the vote).  The Biden campaign has put a very strong climate policy framework on the table. Business leaders might not agree with all of the Biden plan, but they don’t have to. It’s the opening gambit and can be treated as such.  

Business leaders should understand that policy ideas to accelerate climate progress have moved far beyond relatively simple plans for a carbon tax or cap and trade program. We can expect much of the climate ambition in a new administration to be expressed in big green infrastructure programs, rigorous clean portfolio standards, efforts to involve growers and others in regenerative agricultural, regulations requiring huge improvements in energy efficiency, and a real — but belated — focus on vulnerable communities.

Business leaders will be making a mistake if they don’t engage on these specific proposals. For example, consider the Business Roundtable’s recent climate statement. After years of silence on climate, it’s good news that the Roundtable is finally speaking up. Better late than never.  And the  statement says some nice and important things (the benefits of market-based approaches, the need to minimize social and economic costs on those least able to bear them, the importance of government-led R&D, etc.)  

But all of this could have been said — indeed, was said — more than 10 years ago. More importantly, the statement stands wholly apart from the actual proposal Biden has now put before us. Further, the Roundtable says nothing about what the group or its members will do to bring about such policies. It’s not too late.

2) Time to step up. How about digging into the Biden plan and other proposals out there and trying to shape the policy agenda in a way that benefits the climate and the economy? How about getting in front of Congress and making sure policymakers know what you think? That would be real climate leadership.

Maybe that’s too big of an ask for the entire Roundtable. The group is huge, diverse, and likely includes some climate resistors. Maybe their recent statement is as far as they can get on a consensus basis.  But the Roundtable includes some real leaders on corporate climate initiatives. Shouldn’t we ask them now to step up and do more on the policy front?  The leading CEOs could form a coalition of the willing to speak up for the policy they champion.

I’m reminded of a lesson I learned right after President Trump was elected. You’ll remember the moment in time when we thought (alas, mistakenly) that we could talk him out of dropping from the Paris climate accord. Most environmental leaders, myself included, did everything we could to get business CEOs to tell the White House that quitting Paris would be a big mistake — bad not just for the climate, but for the economy too. The CEOs were very responsive and sent letters, signed ads, and issued big proclamations about why the US should stay the course.  

I was really jazzed about it and advocated my heart out. Until two Senators took me aside and said “Mark, it’s nice that you and your peers are getting CEOs to speak up about Paris. But you should know that when the same CEOs show up in person on the Hill with their various requests for favors and policy, they never talk about climate change. Until that changes, their statements, letters, and ads won’t matter very much. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. It’s not enough to get climate policy on the list of business wants. Until it ranks high among business needs and priorities — and CEOs treat it as such — their statements alone won’t mean much on the Hill.

3) To get anywhere, everyone involved will need to be less self-interested. Back in 2008, companies participated in USCAP in order to guard their interests. The spirit was reflected in the overtold joke, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” This time, any coalition will need to forsake short-term interests for the long-term goal, or it won’t go very far. Is that too much to ask?

This also means business people and left-leaning civil society leaders will need to  negotiate with one another in good faith. This is rarely easy, but I remember dialogue along these lines as a real highlight of USCAP.  Some relationships were awkward or contentious at the start but they developed into positive ones. This was essential to ultimately get everyone on the same page. Of course no one got everything they wanted. 

4) This time, we’ll need a broader coalition than USCAP. Joe Biden seems to get this. Take a look at who’s advising him. You’ll see a diverse group, including representatives of environmental justice orgs, labor, the Sunrise Movement, and moderate members of Congress. Biden’s approach can guide recruitment for the coalition. If CEOs have learned anything in 2020, it must be the need to have a dialogue with broader cross-sections of society.

So What’s Next? 

For the Business Roundtable, member companies or other corporate leaders who seek progress on addressing the climate challenge:  

Recruit a diverse coalition of companies and NGOs (not just environmental ones).  Participants should commit to trying their best to find consensus on a comprehensive climate policy — one that engages the proposal on the table and where no one gets everything they want.  It won’t be easy but it’s not impossible.

Next, get to Capitol Hill and start lobbying for it the way USCAP members did back in 2008.  We all know that big business is very good at fighting for the policy they want. (Maybe better than we like.)  But this time these resources and capabilities can be put to very good use. 

And in the meantime, when elected officials say things about climate that are contrary to science, business leaders should speak up and set the record straight. 

For readers of The Instigator

Speak up and use your clout.  You’re business leaders, employees, customers,  shareholders, students and activists. It’s clearer everyday how much corporate management teams now listen to you. Tell your corporate leaders you want them to fight for the policies they say they support.

Stakeholders have much more clout today than ever before.  This is a very positive development.  Let’s take full advantage of it. As an encouraging case study, let’s consider Amazon. About one year ago some employees started talking about organizing a walk-out to call attention to what they viewed as the company’s inadequate climate position. Amazon has been announcing strong new climate commitments ever since. Lesson: smart companies listen to their employees.

NGOs will listen to all of you too. You are their supporters, volunteers, and key constituents.  Speak up. Encourage NGOs to join this fray.  

Remember, our politics these days are even more divided than they were in the Obama era.  We can’t count on 2020’s edition of Lindsay Graham (even briefly) showing up. We have real work to do in building and sustaining a strong coalition focused on climate policy.

Think this is pollyannaish?  

Think again. We did this in 2008, and the urgency is much greater today.   

Take a look at the economic impact COVID is wreaking. In hindsight, don’t smart business leaders wish they had publicly supported scientists’ calls to address such risks? Wouldn’t it have been good business to push harder for pandemic preparation? 

Worse, consider the likely climate outcomes ahead. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination. Just look at the news: fires, floods, unhealthy air, and heat waves that thwart outside work. And in the not-so-distant future, this will be followed by cities underwater, huge numbers of climate refugees seeking sanctuary, an inability to rely on global supply chains, horrific health outcomes, and a complete loss of confidence in government or big business. 

If all of that comes to pass, we’ll ask ourselves why we let each of our particular interests hinder progress, because any would-be savings from arguing for our parochial concerns will seem miniscule in comparison to the destruction.   

Lastly, remember Rahm Emanuel’s advice from last time

No matter how worthy the cause or how righteous your position, without enough political support, it doesn’t mean a thing. So let’s start talking — and working — and move as quickly as possible. Like our lives depend on it. Because they do.