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Climate Change Champions Spotlight - interview with Georgia Elliott-Smith

Actualizată în: 31 oct. 2023

The ecological education platform is a partner of the Climate Change Summit, the first and largest event in Central and Eastern Europe dedicated to climate change, and brings to the public's attention a series of interviews with key guests of the Climate Change Summit, an editorial extension called Climate Change Champions Spotlight.

In the Spotlight: interview with Georgia Elliott-Smith Managing Director, Element Four, former UNESCO special Junior Envoy for Youth & Environment, and legal activist

You've been a trailblazer in the field of Innovative Sustainable Practices. Can you explain what this term means to you and how it has evolved in the context of the business sector over the years?

Over the years, I have learned that our traditional approach to sustainability doesn't work to affect change at scale. Just making your own company or project a bit 'greener' isn't enough. Since the Rio Climate Summit in 1992, we have been aware of climate change and its catastrophic impacts. Yet, through delay and insignificant action, the urgency and effects have only increased. Most companies have created environmental management plans to some degree but carbon emissions have increased exponentially. It's time to grow up, to recognize that what we've been doing isn't working, to take a critical look at our approaches and embrace a new way of thinking and acting. One that measures success on the basis of impact at scale and pace.

Could you share some specific examples of how your Progressive Sustainability approach has brought about significant changes in business practices, particularly in terms of environmental and social impact?

Our work with clients has lead them to completely change their business plans, putting climate action at the heart of their operations. This has been embraced with a spirit of excitement, urgency and opportunity, rather than a burdensome obligation. Some clients have become active advocates within industry, trade associations and with policymakers - we've even sparked a debate in parliament on the mislabeling of 'ethical' investments.

Many clients now openly report their progress on sustainability, providing open-source data to industry, helping create benchmarks and tools for others to use. In this way, we support all companies to achieve sustainable development more quickly. This is a huge culture shift for some clients who operate in highly competitive sectors and are not used to sharing information, but we simply don't have time for everyone to waste time and money repeatedly making the same mistakes.

Given your experience working with organizations like Amnesty International, Patrizia, UPP, and the Bank of England, what common challenges have you observed in implementing Trailblazing Sustainability within these diverse entities, and how did you address these challenges?

Often, organizations have a narrow perspective on their impacts, jumping on the latest trend such as net zero or carbon neutral. The first task for all organizations is to fully understand your impacts, then work out where the greatest opportunity for meaningful change exists. For example, a firm of lawyers may have a tiny carbon footprint in their direct operations - going carbon neutral is meaningless. However, the type of clients they support, the advice they provide to those clients, and their influence in power networks can create enormous positive impact. We take a holistic approach and focus on the actions with greatest impact, and those activities that really inspire people - all business is about people and when those people are engaged and motivated, huge change is possible.

In 2020, you took legal action against the UK government for its failure to uphold the Paris Agreement. How does this legal activism tie into your approach to Transformative Sustainability, and what lessons can other activists and businesses learn from your experience?

The legal action was personally transformative - it taught me about change at scale and how to elevate our impacts. This now forms the fundamental principle of my work.

My case claimed that the government acted unlawfully in omitting waste incineration - a heavily polluting industry - from the UK emissions trading scheme. The judge decided that the Secretary of State had discretion in the matter and, after two hearings in the High Court, my claim was rejected. So, on the face of it, the case was unsuccessful. However, in court, the government committed to review the legislation and they have subsequently amended the law to bring waste incineration into the ETS. So, in the long term, we won!

The case also set a new legal precedent that is being used to argue other climate-related cases - that the government must consider the climate impacts of all future legislation over the short-to-medium term, not just rely on the legally-binding net zero by 2050 target. Whether a case is won in court or not, these legal cases establish new precedents that create ripples and have a national, or even international, impact.

As a sustainability consultant and activist, what role do you see for businesses in addressing climate change and sustainability, and how can they integrate Pioneering Sustainability into their core strategies effectively?

I believe business has a powerful part to play in change. Policymakers and consumers take cues from business - this influence can be used to continue pushing poor products and services that cause harm, or to create cultural and legislative shifts that elevate us to a bright, healthy future.

Meaningful change is the key. We must move away from tokenism and embrace corporate responsibility at the heart of business. For some businesses, this will be relatively simple. For others, there may be an enormous cultural rift to overcome. Sadly, for some organizations, this may be terminal - they may be unable to change before they suffer reputational harm and an unrecoverable loss of business and talent.

Products, services and the corporate culture must be redesigned. It is completely unsustainable for employees to labor on sustainability initiatives if the board remains unconvinced of its value. Sustainability is a whole culture shift - it requires time, energy, resources and dedication to change a business model. This cannot be achieved by a handful of eager employees forming a sustainability committee during their lunchbreak - a model that sadly proliferates in most organizations taking their first steps.

You've been actively involved in initiatives such as Extinction Rebellion and She Changes Climate. How do these activism efforts complement your work in promoting Game-Changing Sustainability within the business sector, and what synergies do you see between activism and corporate sustainability?

Activism is a state of mind. It is the fire that moves us from thought to action, and it is the passion that keeps us evolving and pushing forward in the face of challenges. Everyone who desires meaningful change should embrace the title of activist and encourage others to do the same. You do not have to go out to street protests to be an activist (although I would encourage everyone to do this at least once to dispel the media myths about activists!).

There are many forms of activism from legal and shareholder activism to corporate and industry sector activism - they all share a passion for change matched by their words and actions.

About Georgia Elliott-Smith

Managing Director, Element Four, former UNESCO special Junior Envoy for Youth & Environment, and legal activist

An environmental engineer, Chartered Environmentalist, and former UNESCO Special Junior Envoy for Youth & the Environment, Georgia started her career as one of UK construction’s first Environment Managers. Founder and Managing Director of sustainability consultancy Element Four, Georgia now works with organizations such as Amnesty International, Patrizia, Grosvenor Estates, Nike, and Bank of England delivering her “disruptive sustainability” approach – a combination of best practice and activism that drives meaningful change in industry. Georgia is a director of One YMCA Development Company and sits on the steering committee of She Changes Climate, a global campaign for promotion of women in climate negotiations and solutions. In 2021, Georgia successfully challenged the UK government in the High Court over the UK Emissions Trading Scheme's failure to uphold the Paris Agreement. She is an Extinction Rebellion activist and contributor to leading technical committees including the UK Green Building Council and London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI).

The ecological education platform is a partner of this initiative and brings to the public's attention a series of interviews with key guests of the Climate Change Summit, an editorial extension called Climate Change Champions Spotlight. Interview conducted by Nicoleta Talpeș, Guerrilla Verde.

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