While hundreds of the world’s largest global businesses have committed to The Climate Pledge of producing net-zero carbon by 2040, more can be done to ensure that businesses large and small are taking the most effective steps possible toward reducing their carbon footprint.
To better understand how businesses can accelerate action on climate change, we spoke with Ken Bruder (HBS MBA 1991), co–founder and managing director of The Climate Board and a member of the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle. The Climate Board works with companies to generate financial returns from meaningful climate action.
How would you summarize what you do?
We help businesses execute climate action plans by teaching them which solutions are available and offer a good fit for them.
What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
Executives need guidance in planning for and implementing practical, high-impact solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt their organizations to climate change-related risks.
What is the solution?
The Climate Board’s approach to addressing this problem is building shared-cost research programs dedicated to climate change solutions. Members identify common executive pain points. The Climate Board finds practical, implementable answers by (1) analyzing current approaches and their quantifiable results, (2) identifying industry and cross-industry best practices, and (3) offering implementation tips, data, and software products filling gaps that members identify themselves. The result is that executives quickly learn the nuances of different approaches and can accelerate the implementation of solutions.
What inspired you to start your venture?
It’s interesting to think back on the formation of The Climate Board because it seems so natural. It was the logical outcome of many informal interactions with the co-founding team. All of us had successful career experiences that focused on expanding the use of renewable energy, and we were all interested in accelerating that change more broadly. We all wanted to leave a positive legacy for future generations.
However, we were increasingly troubled by three observations. First, many organizations were making multiple sustainability-related pledges without guidance on how to achieve them. Many executives described “pledge fatigue” and increasing pressure not to over-commit. We didn’t want this kind of frustration to derail climate efforts in the first mile of this critical marathon.
Then, we noticed that the government was not a consistent player in formulating climate-friendly policy. If significant change was to happen, it needed to be led by committed corporates with accelerated pathways to implement new, innovative solutions.
Finally, we noticed so many companies trying to reinvent the wheel as they scrambled to put solutions in place. We knew that our structured multi-company analysis with step-by-step implementation guidance would significantly accelerate the transition from idea to actual practice.
What impact are you hoping to achieve?
We hope to empower leaders to make climate-change decisions more confidently and build ownership in the solutions. Many people think tackling climate change is someone else’s job. Research has clearly shown that organizations that silo climate change and sustainability issues lag in reducing emissions. The organizations achieving success are engaging and challenging all employees to reinvent their business to reduce greenhouse gas emissions daily. One company we worked with set an aggressive carbon goal for a new line of products that led to multiple conversations between product design, manufacturing, financing, sourcing, logistics, brand management, and their supply chain to enable new ways of generating the product at a fraction of the carbon footprint. It takes a village, not a mastermind.
What’s the hardest part about building your venture?
When we first started, we thought our customers would act as an organization’s sustainability team because they often coordinated the climate change effort. What we found was the exact opposite: Organizations’ existing sustainability teams were usually well-educated but frequently not empowered to make the necessary changes to lower emissions. The natural customer for The Climate Board turned out to be C-suite executives searching for ways to integrate emissions reductions into their functions. For instance, CFOs are dealing with new funding requests that defy traditional ROI analysis; COOs are looking to climate-proof operations and nurture low-carbon supply channels to scale without breaking the bank; CHROs are searching for KPIs to reward those that make long-term, climate-related improvements while protecting shorter-term commitments to profit goals; Chief Counsels and CPAOs are trying to understand the company’s obligations to multiple stakeholders; and, CEOs must educate board members on the net effect of committing to climate goals and mobilize their support.
Have you always been involved in climate work?
I’ve always had a keen interest in environmental issues. My undergraduate senior thesis focused on reducing chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions to minimize the hole in the ozone layer many moons ago. After college, I dabbled in low– carbon technologies as a nuclear submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. I’ve always been fascinated with energy and how it can be created from many sources—and transformed from one form to another. This background came in handy after HBS when I joined another HBS alumni-founded startup called New Energy Finance. Scaling that enterprise and ultimately selling it to Bloomberg showed me how quickly low-carbon ideas can take off. It was gratifying to witness annual investment in renewable energy grow from a tiny fraction of overall investment to the majority of investment. I believe we played a part in that transition and I’m confident that The Climate Board can spark a similar transition to broader low-carbon technologies.
What’s the craziest (or most unexpected) moment so far?
We interviewed 40 companies in the fashion and textile industry on the techniques they were using to improve their consumption of low-carbon raw materials. One company had a reputation as an environmental leader with a history of significant environmental gains on multiple fronts. We expected them to be confident of their game plan to continue reducing carbon emissions. But instead of conveying confidence that their progress would continue, they talked about their nervousness that they might have difficulty achieving future reductions while growing their business. What was interesting is that they knew every environmental detail of their value chain. It reminded me of the statement by Intel’s Andy Grove: “only the paranoid survive.” I am confident that this company will continue to be an environmental leader because “they know what they don’t know” and can obsess over the right things in order to come up with new solutions.
What’s been one of the coolest moments in your journey?
One of our members (a large Fortune 150 company) invited us to brief a C-suite executive and his staff to bring them up the learning curve for climate change science and to introduce some best–practice insights. This group had a reputation for not seeing the urgency of addressing climate change. We were nervous that we would have to deal with a hostile audience. It surprised us that once they had the issue laid out in terms they could understand, they “got it.” They went from reluctant participants to motivated advocates.
What lesson have you learned that you wish you could save future folks from having to learn themselves?
Beware of seductive detours. It would have been very easy to be pulled into one-off consulting gigs in our earliest days. However, our goal is to accelerate scaling solutions at multiple companies, which requires sticking to our model of building a broad membership focus on scaling solutions at numerous companies.