Emily Farnworth, Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall (University of Cambridge):”It’s much more powerful when people can hear from their peers”

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Emily Farnworth, Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall (University of Cambridge).

I grew up in North Wales, in the UK. It’s a beautiful place, with mountains and lakes and stunning coastal areas. I had a personal desire to protect nature from an early age. As I got older, it seemed to me to be lacking in common sense that businesses would do anything to damage nature. I had a very practical approach to things.

I worked with different environmental consultancy firms early on in my career. I remember going into a manufacturing plant where they refurbished big power turbines. It was a traditional heavy engineering crowd of older guys who had been working for their entire lives in the same factory. They were a bit puzzled about me checking on where their waste and wastewater was going.

Making it personal

As I was chatting with them, I discovered one of them liked to fish. We started talking about wastewater drainage at the site – this contained oils and other pollutants. I think this triggered a connection between what he was doing and where the wastewater was going and how this might impact the local river where he and his friends would go fishing.

After that, he was my biggest advocate. When I went to talk to them about what changes needed to happen, he was a complete convert. I needed him because he could work with his peers in a way that I could never do.

What stuck with me is if you’re living and breathing and dealing with environmental issues all the time, you forget that not everyone has the same perspective as you – you  need to connect with people to make it personal to them. You need to empower people who can influence their own community.

Influencing boardrooms

It’s the same with the work we’re doing now, in boardrooms and with the legal community. They need to hear from one another rather than somebody in an academic institution or NGO. We can create the information and convene these conversations. But it’s much more powerful when people can hear it from their peers.

It’s been an amazing couple of years. Thanks to the IKEA Foundation, we’ve been able to grow phenomenally from a very small starting place. One of the initiatives that we run is called the Climate Governance Initiative in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. When we started, we had three networks of non-executive directors in the UK, Italy and Malaysia. We now have 30 chapters working in 72 countries around the world.

We’ve only been able to grow like this because we have so many incredible trusted partners around the world who are helping to make it happen. Now it’s about working through boardrooms to make sure the right conversations are leading to the changes we need.

Difficult conversations

It’s not always been easy. I used to work at the Climate Group in the early stages of developing the RE100 campaign. This aims to get companies to commit to 100% renewable power. Renewable energy was not where it is today, and it was a tough ask.

These were big international businesses. There were quite a lot of conversations where they were saying: “You have to be crazy. This is not possible. There’s no way we can sign up to such a bold commitment.”

We needed to get to a certain number of companies on board to make it come to life. And we wondered if we were going to get it across the line. In hindsight, we did get those initial companies to commit. Now, the conversation around renewable energy commitments from corporations is phenomenal. It’s really good to see how that’s evolving.

Boardroom dynamics

In 10 years’ time, we need the biggest businesses around the world to have the governance structures and people driving them that are going to affect the change. The non-executive director community is gaining more understanding of these issues. The learning curve that they’re going on is incredible.

As we’re seeing that change in those people, we’re also seeing them realise they need to bring different skills and experiences into the boardrooms. Boards have an interesting dynamic. It’s not just about a couple of people championing this issue. Everybody’s got a role to play.

In Europe a huge wave of regulation is coming in. We’re seeing the climate litigation space bubbling up. We’re looking at how we can build capacity within the independent director community and how we support other board members to make some quite brave decisions. For some boards, really difficult business model-changing conversations need to happen.

Hopes for the future

If I would have had two minutes to speak at COP28 – if I was in my natural, pragmatic state – I’d say that this is a huge mountain that we’re climbing. We can do it. We have all the tools at our disposal. Engage with your peer group who is leading on this. Work with them to find solutions.

On a more emotive level, I would have said imagine yourself in 10 years’ time, talking to your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, your closest younger friends and family. Tell them what you did to make sure that they were going to have a bright future ahead of them.

My personal hope is that we can have conversations about the transition in a way that engages everybody. There’s lots of finger-pointing going on as to who is right and who is wrong. I hope we can all be kinder to one another and listen to people who have different views from us. Creating divides won’t help us reach our goals. We need to truly move forward together.

Emily Farnworth is Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall, one of the colleges at University of Cambridge. This is part of The Bridge at Hughes Hall, which is about bridging academic insight at the college, at the university, and more broadly from academics all over the world through to boardrooms. Emily’s team has a particular focus on building effective climate governance in boardrooms. They bring context into how governance is evolving and how company law is driving different requirements around fiduciary duties and how regulation, policymaking and new frameworks can be translated into short briefings for board directors.

The IKEA Foundation is partnering with the Centre for Climate Engagement because we believe effective climate leadership within businesses is vital to transition to net-zero emissions economies and protect our planet from climate change.


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