7 take-aways from University of Cambridge’s sustainability course

As the Business Sustainability Management course from University of Cambridge officially comes to a close this week, I want to share just a few key learnings and highlights which should be relevant for any business.

  1. The pace of change that has come alongside population growth over the last 70 years has truly been staggering. From tropical forest loss to fertiliser use, carbon emissions to ocean acidification this pace of growth cannot subsist. Ever-increasing, all-positive, long-term economic growth is quite simply a fallacy.
IGBP’s research on Earth system trends that characterise the Great Acceleration.

2. Our Planetary Boundaries are intrinsically inter-connected — and we should spend time understanding them better. In particular biodiversity loss will affect the resilience of our natural ecosystems in ways we are yet to properly understand. Beyond carbon, companies should start thinking about setting science-based targets for nature (e.g. Alpro recently conducted a study with WWF & Metabolic for biodiversity, land use, freshwater use and nitrogen flows).

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

3. The global risk agenda is truly dominated by the environment. Even those defined ‘societal’ such as water crises or infectious diseases are entirely dependant on how we treat and take care of our natural resources — which brings these risks to a total of 7 /10. Businesses who don’t yet incorporate this thinking in their risk modelling have their heads in the sand.

WEF Global Risks Report 2020

4. The Doughnut needs to go mainstream. I’ve long been a fan of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and it was great to see this visual framework for sustainability prominently profiled in the course. Based on achieving a ‘social floor’ and staying within ‘ecological ceiling’, the ‘safe space’ for humanity is this middle part which makes a Doughnut shape. I was encouraged to see cities and businesses starting to properly implement this in their strategy. Images like these can act as powerful guide.

The city of Amsterdam modelled as a Doughnut.

5. Materiality assessments are a useful tool to understand your impact on the world, however a helpful distinction is to separate reporting from strategy, simply by changing the Y axis (from ‘importance to stakeholders’ to ‘ability to influence or control’). Especially for smaller businesses who may otherwise feel overwhelmed. The scale of the challenge shouldn’t be a barrier to taking meaningful action.

Example: Unilever’s materiality matrix

6. Biomimicry is a great method to inspire more sustainable design. Nature often has the solution to our most complex problems. For instance, with better refrigerant management being cited as the number 1 technical solution to climate change by Project Drawdown, tackling building design with ‘natural air conditioning’ will be crucial.

Biomimicry example: termite mounds for self-cooling buildings

7. Climate change has a communications problem. We need to move the dialogue from visions of hell, and focus on what a climate-positive future looks like (see more in Futerra’s report). Positive, inspiring visions of a low-carbon, sustainable world are likelier to drive action than instilling dread and fear. Perhaps, climate action also needs poetic solutions. A great example of one is the white roofs campaign as advocated by Paul Gilding. Indeed, light colours and reflective surfaces help to reflect back incoming solar energy, which would in part compensate for the warming effect of part of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Bringing reflectivity to other large areas can also be helpful such as mirrors in the deserts. Actions like these will help to capture humanity’s imagination to build a ‘brighter’ future.

“What we do propose for implementation, because it is very low risk, is a “white roofs campaign” to paint white (or cover with highly reflective materials) most upward sloping surfaces in urban areas to substantially increase the reflectivity of the planet.” Paul Gilding.

Head of ClimatePartner UK. Previously at Provenance, Vita Mojo & Crowdcube. Sustainability geek and passionate foodie.