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Simon Bellamy OBE Blog

Published on: Monday 6th December 2021

Authored by Simon Bellamy OBE

Executive Director at Eden Project

Do we need to find more courageous optimism as we lead through the climate emergency?

Written by Simon Bellamy | December 2021

COP26 was loaded with real hope that this UN Conference could be different; more realistic about the scale of the changes needed and more robust about the need for commitments to Nationally Determined Contributions.

But, that’s only half the story, as commitments need to come with a clear route to accountability and actual delivery plans with meaningful dates. There was also an entirely reasonable expectation that world leaders would finally bridge the gap between the podium soundbites and the everyday building blocks of credible actions, to reduce carbon emissions in half by 2030. It’s a big ask.  

So, is something else also at stake? Now the conference has ended, will public and employee pressure heighten responsibility for those in leadership roles in all sectors to demonstrate their own credible plans for delivering meaningful change?  

It’s not just climate change - biodiversity loss is right alongside it   

Maybe the urgency and the language around this UN conference is sharpening the minds of delegates to do more.  There is one thing that is certain, the media coverage and the overall level of discussion regarding climate change, biodiversity loss and our place as a part of nature has never been so high.  

So how do we maintain this urgency without exhausting everyone? I think there’s a role for leaders to energise the debate and energise their people. The link between planetary health and human health is stark and leaders across all sectors are rightly being asked about their individual and organisational responses to do more. 

 Act now? But how? 

The demand has been to ‘act now’ but the next big question for many is how?  

In October 2021, the UK Government published its strategy with policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet net zero target by 2050. Irrespective of opinions on its content, it offered a means to lead the way, prove what’s possible and explore new opportunities for decarbonisation.  

But the latest sobering assessment by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the world’s most respected climate analysis coalition, points to a rise of 2.4C based on countries’ actual short-term goals for the next decade. On this measure alone, and the need for investment commitment in a $100Bn fund to help developing countries mitigate and adapt, COP26 really hasn’t delivered. Is it another case of too little too late? 

An invitation to all leaders 

Rightly or wrongly, I am an eco-optimist and see this COP as an invitation for all of us who are leaders to ask ourselves what we can do irrespective of governments.  For me, our role as leaders during a climate emergency raises many important questions.  

  • Firstly, our own contribution as citizens;  
  • secondly, the expectations others may have of us and our ability to make things happen; and  
  • thirdly, our own ability to observe, listen and understand what’s actually going on around us 

Amongst all of that, how do we make informed decisions and judgements; not just snap at what seems to be the right thing – or to be seen to be doing the right thing.  

A call to action and collaboration  

The phrase ‘act now’ is a call to action for global leaders but it is also a lightning rod for individuals, communities and organisations to set a bold ambition and control their own approach to leading positive outcomes to the climate emergency. This will require cooperation and confidence to hold our nerve on a scale at least equal to that which we have seen during the pandemic.  

‘Act now’ is an invitation for us to see things differently and hasten working with others who may not see things the way we do – in order to create an environment of positive challenge, collaboration and cooperation to increase the likelihood of actually delivering solutions that work.

Creating a production system that mimics nature 

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote Cradle to Cradle in 2002 and it still inspires me greatly to re-imagine the way we see everything. An architect and a chemist respectively, they view resources as sources for something else within a regenerative circular economy that looks at natural systems without the concept of waste. They look to nature and find a production system which mimics nature’s model.  

It is an overwhelmingly positive reminder that it isn’t about simply doing “less bad” within a system but “more good” to achieve an efficient eco-system as a whole; working with not against nature.   

It is a provocation: to ask questions regarding how we can be leaders for good and thereby create more good outcomes? As one environmental expert highlighted at an event recently, “we need to ask different questions and have courageous optimism. That means a balance of pessimism in our mind of what will be delivered but huge optimism in our heart for what remains possible”. The idea of courageous optimism really resonates especially when it’s achieved collectively – as organisations, businesses and communities.  

Empowering personal and organisational change 

The rallying cry for COP26 is loudly, ‘how can we ensure that ‘net zero’ isn’t just an excuse for more business as usual’.  As leaders and citizens, what we change every day also really matters – measuring and then acting in a way that minimises our impact on nature.  

Global leaders have a responsibility and obligation to act, but anyone in a position that has the potential to make change should be empowered to move the carbon and biodiversity dial for positive impact – no matter how small that may be.  

At Eden Project, we are singularly focussed on viewing everything through the lens of our impact. We’ve joined the Race to Zero through our partners Planet Mark and have pledged to become a climate positive organisation by 2030.  

Going beyond net zero 

Net zero for us is not enough. We have set an agenda to go beyond this aiming to exceed net zero carbon emissions, committing to a decarbonisation pathway that actively absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it puts in.  

But carbon isn’t all bad. It’s just that we need huge amounts less of it as a gas and more of it as a solid. That means re-carbonising our landscapes, for example, by getting more carbon agricultural soils, more carbon back in peat bogs and wetlands and more carbon in woodlands and forests. Nature-based solutions will play a huge future role.  

We’ve got a long way to go and we are the first to put our hands up and admit that we haven’t got all of the answers but our target is clear – and everyone is involved.  

A spark of spontaneous cooperation across sectors and global divides 

As a final thought, the great systems thinker and architect Buckminster Fuller wrote in mid-20th  century we should look to “make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone”.  

Every time I read this, I’m struck by the sense that ‘making the world work’ has just got a whole lot harder due to the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. The idea that economic and social justice must be allied to ecological and climate justice is also perhaps the modern post-script to this.   

And there is therefore, an invitation for all of us to reach out and engage with leaders in developing nations to support their efforts. But as leaders, there are always opportunities to create sparks of cooperation and collaboration that can propel a sustainable future - complementing global efforts across the public, private and charitable sectors.  

Establishing cross-sector partnerships 

No single individual or organisation is capable of delivering the change necessary to reverse the climate and biodiversity crisis but the more we are able to coordinate our actions and mutually reinforce our efforts the higher the chances of success. That suggests that Windsor Leadership programmes and the existing network of alumni could make a huge contribution to creating spontaneous sparks of cooperation and ultimately change.  

So, what next? What is it that you most deeply want to do now? How do you think your skills as a leader, and human, can be best be applied to the climate and ecological crises? What do you feel COP26 has forced you/your organisation to evaluate in this deeply complicated puzzle? Whatever the individual answers, the future has not been set and it remains ours to make. 



The views expressed in Blogs, Articles, Podcasts and Videos posted on Windsor Leadership’s website and social media channels, remain the opinions of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Windsor Leadership. Windsor Leadership does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information shared. We hope however that the views prove to be useful in reflecting on the challenges of leading today.


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