For CSOs, decarbonisation is just the beginning

Today’s chief sustainability officers have a lot more on their plate than reducing emissions. To tackle it all, says PwC’s Emma Cox, they can’t go it alone.

Emma Cox

Global Climate Leader, Partner, PwC United Kingdom

+44 (0)7973 317011


Remember Paris? 

With COP28 and Davos wrapped up, I find myself looking back at that historic 2015 climate agreement with a tinge of nostalgia. Business leaders emerged from the Paris conference with a galvanised sense of purpose and a laser-like focus on decarbonisation. And to judge from the findings from PwC’s 27th Annual Global CEO Survey, reducing emissions remains a priority for many executives. When asked about mitigation actions like improving energy efficiency and innovating climate-friendly products and services, a robust majority of the survey’s 4,702 respondents said their company had completed those actions or were in the process of doing so:

But read farther down in the chart, and the picture gets more muddled. Three other increasingly urgent priorities—adapting to climate change, ensuring that the energy transition doesn’t leave any stakeholders behind, and managing dependence and impact on nature—aren’t getting the nearly same level of attention from business leaders. 

They should, because the warning signals are flashing red. Consider that two-thirds of respondents to the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risks Report rank extreme weather as the risk most likely to present a material crisis on a global scale in the coming year. And yet only around half of CEOs or fewer say they’re building climate risk into their resilience programs or financial planning, or taking measures to protect their physical assets and workforce from climate shocks. Only 12% of CEOs say they’re highly exposed to climate threats at all.

Or take the recent protests staged by French farmers who say they’re being squeezed by environmental regulations. The unrest is emblematic of what can happen when climate actions don’t sufficiently take into account peoples’ jobs and livelihoods. And yet a majority of CEOs haven’t implemented initiatives to upskill or reskill their workers for a net-zero future—a step that’s crucial to retaining an engaged workforce that’s on board with the tough changes that the energy transition requires.

I see a similar lack of urgency around nature risk. A recent PwC article cites the fact that an estimated 55% of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on natural ecosystems. Given the relatively small share of CEOs in the survey who are investing in nature-based solutions, it’s a dependency too many companies haven’t fully acknowledged.

I work on these issues with chief sustainability officers nearly every day, and in the years since the Paris accords were signed, I’ve watched the CSO’s role become both more critical and more complicated. Every company is different, but one thing holds true for almost every organisation: CSOs can’t go it alone. They need to work across C-suite silos, across business units, outside the company’s walls and even beyond industry boundaries in order to bring the full range of climate actions into the heart of business strategy and planning. This unprecedented degree of collaboration rests on a few core principles and imperatives:

  • Meaningful action requires meaningful financing. Adaptation, upskilling, managing nature risk—globally, these issues aren’t getting the investment they need. With their expertise in resource allocation, long-term capital spending, and M&A, CFOs can be a powerful ally in integrating these actions into a company’s financial and strategic DNA. One asset CSOs can deploy: a growing body of research. A recent report by the Standard Chartered banking group, for example, highlights the astonishing future cost of a failure to invest in climate adaptation in emerging markets like China, India and Pakistan.

  • Map hidden dependencies. Companies have gotten better at pinpointing and measuring their Scope 3 emissions. Forward-thinking CSOs are applying that full-value-chain view to adaptation, nature risk and the needs of workers and other stakeholders. It’s one thing to build a barrier to protect a factory located in an increasingly flood-prone area, but that won’t address the inundated train tunnels that will prevent employees from getting to work. Where along your value chain are you vulnerable? Where are you taking a resource—like free and abundant water from an aquifer that may eventually face depletion—for granted? 

  • Grab the low-hanging fruit. A report published in January 2024 by PwC in conjunction with the World Economic Forum shows that many measures to reduce energy demand are surprisingly doable, affordable and even profitable. Look for under-utilised solutions like these. And look for co-benefits: some decarbonisation actions, for example, can have attendant upsides for adaptation and nature risk. A recent Leadership Agenda article gives the example of a construction company that uses environmentally friendly building materials that also protect structures against extreme weather.

  • Make disclosure a momentum-driver. Frameworks like the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive and the recent Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures delineate reporting targets for social impact, biodiversity and other factors that the CSO increasingly needs to address. The prescriptions in those frameworks can serve as a road map for CSOs as they work across the C-suite to integrate under-addressed priorities into business strategy. 

The good news is, I’m seeing encouraging signs that businesses, industries and governments are broadening their view of climate action. Novel insurance products protecting against climate shocks, new private equity investment in companies that develop technologies centred around climate resilience, the “30 by 30” plan coming out of the 2023 Montreal biodiversity conference (a commitment to designate 30% of the earth’s land and water as protected areas by 2030)—all are potential tools to help CSOs build the kinds of effective coalitions that will make meaningful action happen.

Explore the full findings of PwC’s 27th Annual Global CEO Survey.

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Emma Cox

Emma Cox

Global Climate Leader, Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7973 317011