Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK’s powerful Committee on Climate Change, talks about charting the course of business and society toward net zero and a healthy planet. By Brunswick’s UK Director for Energy Transition Charles Malissard.
By the age of 7, John Gummer knew that he needed to be a leader in public life—to defend the colors of train carriages.
“I distinctly remember arguing with my father about the nationalization of the railways,” he told the Brunswick Review. “I believed that if you had a national railway, you would lose the diversity of shapes and colors of coaches from all the different companies. That would be a shame. I remember thinking, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do something about that.’”
Now 81, he is Baron Deben and has dedicated his entire career to public service, including as a Member of Parliament, Conservative Party Chairman, and Secretary of State for the Environment in John Major’s cabinet. In 1997, he founded Sancroft, a corporate responsibility consultancy and in 2010 he was made a Life Peer in the House of Lords. Instrumental in the passage of the Environment Act of 1995 and the 2008 Climate Change Act, in 2012, he was named Chairman of the independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the UK government. As such, Lord Deben is responsible for policy recommendations that guide the UK government on its legally binding target to be net zero by 2050.
He cites Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her seminal 1962 book on the dangers of pollution, as a major influence on his leadership on the environment. He is also a religious man, a Catholic who sees his faith as tightly woven with his social calling.
Born at the start of World War II, the son of a Church of England priest, he recalls a household with few luxuries but a supportive and happy family. “The one thing we weren’t allowed to be was bored. If you said, ‘I’m bored,’ then you’d be in trouble. The world was far too interesting ever to be bored in.”
That tireless curiosity remains with him as he prepares to step down as CCC chairman in a year and a half. “I have no intention of retiring because I don’t think I know how to do that,” Lord Deben says. “But I shall go on doing this job. And when I’ve done it, I’ll do something else.”
The “job” as he sees it, is mobilizing action to combat global warming.
“Climate change isn’t waiting for us,” he says.
As founder of Sancroft, you have seen the evolution of corporate culture first hand. Do you see the past year as an important inflection point?
I’m always worried about inflection points, because there’s too much prognostication in that. But I’ve certainly seen a huge change in people’s attitudes.
When we started 23 years ago, you had to fight hard for people to understand that ESG actually made companies profitable, improved management and avoided costs. In those days, you had to fight right from the beginning. Thankfully, that has changed over the years.
Last year, as the world ground to a halt with the pandemic, ESG and climate rapidly rose to the top of the political and board agenda. Now, corporates come banging on our door. That’s the difference; they’re coming to us. It’s not something we ever expected before.