MGI Research

Forward Thinking on the growing role of business in the net-zero transition with Claire O’Neill

In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Janet Bush speaks with Claire O’Neill. While serving as a minister in the British government, O’Neill led the United Kingdom’s winning bid to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in 2021. After leaving politics, she joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) where she works closely with companies on the net-zero transition, the subject of a major recent study by MGI, McKinsey Sustainability, and McKinsey’s Advanced Industries and Global Energy and Materials practices. She covers topics including the following:

  • COP26 outcomes
  • The potential impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on progress toward net zero
  • How businesses are mobilizing for sustainability

An edited transcript of this episode follows. Subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast transcript

Janet Bush (co-host): In today’s podcast, I talk with Claire O’Neill, who led Britain’s bid to host COP26 and led the effort to put Britain’s net-zero legislation in place. She has now joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. So she has seen both sides of efforts to get to net zero—the government side and now the business side. But it seems there is much to do to join them up. One observation she makes in our conversation really struck home. She said that the word “business” is literally not mentioned in the final declaration from the Glasgow meetings.

Michael Chui (co-host): What struck me, too, is that the role of business may arguably be even more important as we go on given that international relations are looking increasingly fractured. Given the invasion of Ukraine, international tensions are riding high, and there must be a concern about how unified a front governments will be able to mount at COP27 in Egypt later this year.

Janet Bush: Indeed. Claire is very definitely betting on the business sector to deliver. She says in our chat that you have seen governments appearing to move away from net-zero targets, but no companies are saying they are going to slow down their net-zero transition.

Michael Chui: In fact, I think we are seeing the opposite—companies accelerating efforts to get to net zero. I am very much looking forward to hearing the conversation. Over to you, Janet.

Janet Bush: Claire O’Neill was a member of the British Parliament from 2010 to 2019 and was UK minister for climate change and industry and then minister for energy and clean growth. In 2019 she brought forward the country’s groundbreaking net-zero legislation, and she led the UK’s winning bid to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26.

She served as COP26 president designate until she left politics in 2020. Claire has now joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. She was the managing director for climate, energy, and natural climate solutions, and now co-chairs the Imperatives Advisory Board for the council. The council is the leading voice for business sustainability. It’s a global CEO-led organization representing combined revenue of $8 trillion and 19 million employees. Welcome, Claire.

Claire O’Neill: Thank you, Janet.

Janet Bush: I’d like to start by asking about the path that led to specializing in sustainability in the fight against climate change. You studied geography at Oxford, I believe. Was that the start of your journey? And how did you get from there to being the UK government’s leader on climate change?

Claire O’Neill: Gosh, it’s a long journey. My dad actually got me quite interested in meteorology as quite a young person, because he was a sailor. I distinctly remember being taken to the Met Office weather station in Bracknell at quite a young age.

I did do geography, and I specialized in physical geography, in particular climate, landforms, remote sensing. I was well schooled, if you like, in the science of it all. But then I went off and did business-y things and had a family.

And genuinely, I had a moment. I lived in America for a long time. I moved back to the UK, and I’d been away for about 12 years, and I thought the climate had changed materially. Now, people always say when they were young it was colder, it was sunnier. But it felt—the data supported it—that our springs were earlier. We had fewer frost days. That there was something going on.

It struck me that this had happened in a relatively short time. And it actually coincided with me having my family, three quite young children at this point, and starting to get very concerned, not just about the global situation but also about what was happening locally, whether it was transport management or waste management.

To give you a frame of reference, this was about 2005, just as we were starting to become aware of what we called climate chaos then. You’ll remember Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, et cetera. So what all came together, and I actually approached—I had never been political—I then approached the Conservative Party in the UK through a couple of contacts I had. And I said, “Can I help you in some of the policy areas, particularly in this space?” And eventually I ended up becoming an adviser to the shadow chancellor at that point and doing all kinds of stuff, including some work on climate and energy policy.

Then I just decided that maybe I should have a go at getting elected. And if you’d said to me, a girl from a comprehensive school who wasn’t particularly political, you’d end up being a Conservative member of Parliament, it would have been a very big surprise.

But I got elected. And I did all sorts of things. But I had basically said, from an early start, “I’d really love to try and get involved into the climate and energy space if possible.” And was delighted to be given that portfolio, and subsequently attended cabinet in that portfolio seat, which was quite unusual.

Janet Bush: Before I go back to the issue of climate change, what was it like being a politician?

Claire O’Neill: Well, look, I gave it 12 years. I went into politics, really, because it was super interesting. I represented the area I lived in, Wiltshire, and I wanted to try and make a difference locally. And, my goodness, what a time to be in the political space—we had three general elections, a referendum on Scottish independence, and then we had the Brexit referendum.

It was never a dull moment. But ultimately I delivered a lot for my constituents. I delivered my plan. And I honestly felt that it was time to move on. I’m not somebody who would have wanted to go in and then stay there all the way through. I think it’s personally quite good to get in fresh blood every few years, into the political space.

And on the one hand, it was wonderful because we were able to do some really amazing things, particularly in the climate and energy space. We built a really strong cross-party consensus. We had great interactions between the government and the private sector. We were really able to do some things, whether it was the offshore wind sector deal or the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

On the other hand, it was a really frustrating time. Because politics became quite hateful in the late teens and early 2020s. And we had a lot of public hatred of politicians, and also Brexit was—regardless of which side of the political divide—was a very divisive time.

I had always wanted to get back to the private sector. And I was very lucky to be at this interface of public and private policy making for a really important time. I was delighted to be able to take that to our business council and now into a whole other series of roles.

Janet Bush: When you were at Oxford, studying geography, were you aware of climate change back then?

Claire O’Neill: Yes. I mean, one of the parts of the physical geography syllabus was historic landforms. So whether it was glaciated landforms or desert landforms, we understood very much—this is back in the early ’80s—the signs and signals that had shown that the climate had been materially warmer, materially wetter, materially colder or drier in different parts of the world.

I think what has taken me by surprise since then is the speed of change. And again, this relates back to thinking, “Gosh, this decade of change, while I’ve been living in the States, it’s really different in the UK.” And you can see that on the temperature charts.

So yes, I was aware of it. I understood it.

Interestingly, I’m now a business fellow at the Smith School for economics and environment in Oxford. And it’s really interesting seeing how the stream of work in the school of geography has now permeated a lot of the Oxford academic ecosystem.

Janet Bush: Everybody has an opinion on COP26, and I would love to have yours.

Claire O’Neill: When I pitched the idea that the UK could host COP26, this was a really important moment in the climate negotiation space. It was the moment when the Paris Agreement was supposed to be turned into practical action. It was the moment where we really had to get to grips with this runaway emissions level. And, of course, nobody could have predicted that COVID would happen and it would all be delayed.

And so a couple of things. I think it was great that it took place overall. Multilateralism is fracturing, isn’t it, around the world? And most particularly under pressure through COVID and now of course through the situation in Ukraine. The fact that all of those nations can, to some extent, suspend hostilities and get together to focus on climate change I think is hugely valuable. And I do commend the UK government for running an effective COP.

The challenge you have with COP is that it is a necessary but not sufficient part of the system. So people say, “Well, what did you think of the COP declaration?” And I say, “Well, it was an eight-page series of words that made a series of nonbinding commitments between governments that were negotiated down to the lowest common denominator,” that basically said, “Climate change is important and we should work together to do something about it. And by the way, here are some vague things that we need to do, whether it’s finance or innovation.”

It doesn’t provide anything like the level of action or rigor or cooperation that we need to really tackle the problem. And do you know how many times the word “business” appears in the Glasgow declaration? Zero. And there is this separation of mentality that says, “You have the politicians and, in this case, the global super-national politicians over here. And they will regulate and they will enforce. And then the rest of you can get on with it.”

That is not the way that you make change. So my ongoing frustration with COP, if you like, is that it is necessary, it’s great that we have that moment, of course, we need political signaling. But it is in no way going to give us the answers that we need.

Actually, one of the things I had designed into COP26 that did get delivered was a whole series of real-world action plans, whether it was bringing together the world’s financial community and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Whether it was a plan to phase out coal in South Africa with real money. And it was brilliant to see all of those early ideas we had actually implemented. So alongside the negotiations, we had to also have lots of real-world action.

Janet Bush: You mentioned the breakdown of internationalism. I read a blog recently which called the invasion of Ukraine a mortal blow to internationalism. And of course that’s the sine qua non of making progress toward net zero. So how worried are you?

Claire O’Neill: It’s awful. And it’s completely unexpected. In a way, as a former energy minister, I sit and think about how much did our energy policies contribute to this situation by basically forgetting the lessons of the 1970s, forgetting that geopolitics really matters.

What does it do? What does it do to the process? I mean, will people not show up at COP27? Possibly. Although, you know, it’s in Egypt. It’s a developing country. COP, you could imagine that most countries will send delegations.

But I think that what has happened in the real world, post Ukraine, is actually—it can be very encouraging. You’ve clearly seen Europe pull together in an unprecedented way when it’s starting to think about energy policy, electrification rollout, military aid. And I think that can only be to the good. You could really imagine a scenario in which Europe starts to decarbonize even faster than planned.

The UK is also thinking through its energy policy. And there will clearly be some changes and possibly a short-term alliance on more fossil fuels that will increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Then you have questions about, what’s the US going to do? What are the other parts of the world going to do? I think Ukraine has accelerated the low-carbon transition in some parts of the world. But essentially it will lead to a bunch more CO2 and methane being emitted as a short-term result.

That means if we’re to be serious about net zero, we’re going to have to focus not just on more rapid cuts in emissions in the future, but also carbon removal. And one of the big parts of this net-zero equation, you’ve got to reduce carbon, you have to remove carbon, and you have to adapt to whatever the resulting climate conditions are. We never talk enough about carbon removal. And for me, that is a huge missing part and also a massive opportunity for governments and the private sector.

Janet Bush: Could you give us some examples of the key ways to remove carbon?

Claire O’Neill: The easiest way to remove carbon is to plant lots of plants, a lot more trees, improve grassland, restore biodiversity. Because that’s what nature does. It sucks up CO2 and it emits oxygen. But it only stores it for a medium period of time.

Nature-based solutions, as they’re called, are definitely part of the answer. And by the way, if you’re investing in nature-based solutions to capture carbon, you can also be restoring biodiversity and providing employment, often, for people living in remote rural communities, often women and girls.

For me, they tick all the boxes. But I think we have to get serious about longer-term carbon removal as well. And that’s where you’re starting to talk about remineralizing rock, putting CO2 back into the aquifers, as I call them—the reservoirs from which the oil and gas was pumped, potentially doing some things. There are some cool scientific experiments around, whether you’re putting iron filings on the ocean. You’re using chemistry effectively. Through nature or through chemical carbon removals, there’s a massive opportunity.

Now, it’s not a panacea. And one of the things that people dislike is the idea that we can continue to emit as usual and just suck it all up. Because we don’t have the capacity and we don’t have the technology to do that. But it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and solution. And I think increasingly we’re realizing if we’re serious about net zero and climate recovery, this element of carbon removal has to be there.

Janet Bush: It was interesting, you talked about chemistry. MGI wrote a report quite recently called The Bio Revolution, and it talked a lot about the biological innovation which is going to play a part in sustainability. And I wondered if you were excited about the biology source as well.

Claire O’Neill: I am. As I say, we always talk about trees. But this soil carbon, carbon that’s locked up in the oceans, the ability to have better regenerative agricultural systems, again, that are providing more sustainable food systems and storing carbon and preserving water. These are the livelihoods of billions of people on the Earth. These are where it starts to get interesting. It’s difficult because it’s hard to scale. But the potential to do that, I think, is absolutely enormous.

Janet Bush: You said that in the short term, we’re going headlong into coal and fossil fuels. The secretary-general of the UN has just said that that was madness. To listeners, we’re talking about a month into the Ukraine situation. In the short term, it looks bad. But in the longer term, you think that this will reinforce the progress towards net zero.

Claire O’Neill: I do. As I said, I think there’ll be a regional playout of this. But in a way, one of the things we know we need to do is to decarbonize heavy industry. And we know hydrogen is the most likely molecule to do that.

Green hydrogen, generated from renewables, is well out of the money. If we can accelerate some of the technology and the clustering and the investment decisions to get low-carbon hydrogen to be a real catalyst and energy source, then that becomes an exportable technology around the world.

I understand the secretary-general was going to be, and he has been, an incredible advocate of this. But I also understand that when you’re facing an energy crisis, and the cost is skyrocketing, somebody has to pay.

One of the things I used to say a lot as a minister is, “Who’s going to pay? It’s either taxpayers or shareholders or consumers.” And I think all too often, particularly when we put policy costs or subsidies on consumer bills, it is the poorest people that pay this.

Even as a politician, that’s unpalatable. I also think as somebody who cares a lot about inequality, it’s unpalatable. The response will be, yes, that those are the people who will face the consequences of climate change more severely.

That’s true in many parts of the world. But it’s not necessarily true in the big developed economies. And I do think, Janet, that if perhaps this Ukrainian crisis is ushering in an age of pragmatism—because again I go back to this disconnect between what the COP document says and what the governments are really doing—I think we just have to be really serious and pragmatic about the progress.

But my money is very much on the corporate sector at the moment. Because while you’ve seen governments almost reversing away from their net-zero targets, I have seen no companies who have said that they’d like to slow down their net-zero transition. Quite the opposite.

And by the way, companies are also focused not just on climate recovery, but nature recovery and reducing inequality. There was unprecedented business engagement in COP26. And CEOs left COP saying, “We get it. Net zero is the thing we have to do.”

I think most politicians left COP thinking, “Thank God, that’s over. Now we can get back to our day jobs genuinely.” It’s this moment where you show up and make a bunch of pledges and you go away again. I don’t think the corporate sector—I think they’re feeling longer-term heat.

Now, I’m talking global leaders. I’m talking publicly traded companies. But there’s something changing, I think, in the corporate ethos at the moment. And we should be harnessing that for all we’re worth and recognizing that sometimes purist government policies are just really difficult to implement.

Janet Bush: Well, I obviously want to talk about business, because my personal conviction is that it’s business and the self-interest of business which will actually get us somewhere. But just before we go to the business side, I had a thought that because the energy crisis related to Ukraine, but also before Ukraine, means people are going to be hit in the pocket, so it’s a pocketbook issue now for politicians. In some ways, climate change was just a woolly, nice thing. And we ought to sort of do something about it. So maybe governments take it more seriously than they did because it’s an economic issue, very clearly.

Claire O’Neill: I think you make a good point. Energy is responsible for 70 percent of emissions directly and indirectly. Energy is a human right to access. And you’re right, a billion people in the world have no access to electricity. We don’t talk about them enough. Usually women and girls who are powering those economies with collecting wooden charcoal.

There’s this thing called the “energy trilemma,” which is cost, security, and carbon. And government’s trying to balance this. By the way, I always thought there was another one, which was competitive advantage. I was convinced that from an industrial strategy point of view, if you could major on what your countries were good at and your industries were good at—in the UK’s case, it would be offshore wind—there were huge competitive advantages to be reaped.

This is a jobs and growth story as well. But yes, I think that’s right. And I think the other thing that’s interesting just to throw in is—and I don’t know how much this is just a UK phenomenon—but have you heard of Wear a Jumper for Ukraine? The International Energy Agency has made a point about, here are some ways to wean ourselves off Russian oil and gas. One of them is to turn our temperatures down. The other is to drive less.

You can see that people are taking this onboard. It is quite amazing that the cost of petrol in the UK now is at unprecedented highs. People are facing energy bills that will be triple what they were paying last year just as taxes are going up, just as food inflation’s going up.

And yet they’re not out on the streets. And somehow it’s because this sense of, “OK, we get it. This is because of Russia. We’re not going to give in and panic.” It might just be a British thing. But there’s definitely something. If you can put a face to some of these sacrifices, then it starts to make what can be a very woolly and abstract concept, as you say, which is climate change, a bit more real.

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Janet Bush: I want to obviously talk about your work at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. But before we get there, you have mentioned that business is absolutely vital. How important is business?

Claire O’Neill: Well, most global emissions come from the private sector. I know I’m working with the world’s most sustainable companies, but there is something about CEO and management conviction that is running very strong. And whether it’s because businesses had a time of high profits and there’s a need to feel, to give something back. Whether it’s because employees are now demanding an organization they work for that is on the side of angels. And we know certainly that other stakeholders, including shareholders and investors, are very clear about this agenda.

All of these pressures seem to be combining to really get the best companies to think about it. Of course, there’s greenwash. Of course there’s companies saying, “Well, we’ll set a net-zero strategy. But we don’t know how we’re going to get there.” That is fine. But you just get the sense that there’s a level of conviction there that wasn’t there two years ago, actually, in this broad sense.

Ultimately no one actor, no government, no private-sector individual, no market intervention can do this on its own. We’ve got to have this public and private partnership.

Janet Bush: We think that there is a real groundswell of business reaction to this. I know that the world council has recently published a 12-point business manifesto for climate recovery. Can you summarize what that says for our listeners?

Claire O’Neill: It basically was an effort to say, “If you were to focus on 12 things, and these are for both public and private actors, it would be these.” And it started with energy because clearly energy is, as I say, the source of emissions. It started with methane. We always talk about CO2, but methane is this incredibly short-term but incredibly potent greenhouse gas. And it’s relatively easy to reduce methane levels.

We talked about green grids. We always chat about, “Oh, it’s so much cheaper to generate energy using renewables,” and that’s true in a very specific one-point example. When you have to put that energy onto a grid and manage a grid for future energy demands, this becomes much more difficult.

We ended up, by the way, with proposing a mechanism called Corporate Determined Contributions that would capture all of this corporate ambition and delivery of CO2 reduction and deliver it into the COP. Because all of these great pledges that the corporate world makes, they don’t go anywhere. They’re reported, and then they just drift off.

We thought we should put a ribbon around them and say, “Every year this many businesses have pledged to remove Y million tons of CO2 and by the way, it’s gone down this year.” So it was basically an attempt to say, “Here are the most important things. Here’s what we think business and government should do together.” It was very much supported by the WBCSD members, 200-plus companies. It was a joint effort. And it was considered one of the top ten talking points for COP26. So it had a good impact.

Janet Bush: Well, good. So this idea of putting a red ribbon around corporate commitments, that’s a role-modeling exercise, isn’t it? “Here’s what your big competitors are doing. Are you doing the same?”

Claire O’Neill: I agree. And it’s also an attempt to get over this accusation of greenwash. Every year we march a whole bunch of companies up the hill, and they come to COP, and they say, “We’re going to do this, this, and this.” And then it goes away again.

That is not the fault of the companies. It is because in the COP system, every year, the host country changes. The champions change. And the action agenda changes. And there is no statutory way of running through all of the commitments that have been made and monitoring them.

The idea was if we’re bringing companies into this net-zero world and demanding they do better, we should be measuring that. And we should be holding them to account and celebrating when they achieve it. So it’s also a way of being transparent, if you like, with the commitments that have been made.

Janet Bush: And this is the new Carbon Transparency Partnership, I think. You’re measuring the carbon emissions of a business, and that’s the first step towards reducing them. You’re homing in on scope 3 emissions. And those are the ones that arise across value chains. And they account for the major share of all emissions. So that seems to be an interesting initiative.

Claire O’Neill: That’s right. The idea for the reporting to COP was all the emissions. But you’re quite right to focus on scope 3. Because most of a company’s emissions are indirect, i.e., they happen in their suppliers or their customers.

It varies a lot by industry. But ultimately, if you want to try and decarbonize the whole system you have to deal with them. Now, your scope 3 emissions might be my scope 1 emissions. This is the other thing.

What we needed to do was find a system where we could aggregate all the reporting of those, allocate them, and have a way of measuring them across supply chains. And so yes, indeed, WBCSD, along with McKinsey and Unilever, set up a project called the scope 3 Transparency Pathfinder, which is basically creating a data lake of emissions.

It’s a bit like an internet access protocol–creating a protocol where you can report those emissions in a standardized format. And by the way, there are competitive challenges here as well. So everything we do needs to be legally watertight. And that project–the Carbon Transparency Pathfinder–has been amazing and is a real game changer.

Janet Bush: I’d love to get some examples, without naming names, of companies that are doing spectacularly interesting and positive things.

Claire O’Neill: I can. And this is where I think the WBCSD’s global footprint is so interesting. Because it has members from all continents, all around the world, all sectors. A consumer goods company that’s headquartered in Brazil has basically built in nature and sustainability into everything it does, including the product design process. The product design is both with the actual compounds, but also the packaging, effectively giving a suite of nature-positive materials to work from. It’s really cool. Another consumer goods company is linking executive compensation to delivery of CO2 reduction targets, but again including scope 3. So really trying to make carbon accounting as important as cash accounting. Engaging with supply chains.

Again, looking at some of the utility companies who are members who are working with their supply chains all the way down to very, very small companies to make sure that they can validate, but also that they can support their suppliers. Because this is all relatively easy if you’re a Fortune 100 company. If you’re an SME sitting there, where do you get these tools? Where do you get the skills? So that sense of self-help within supply chains. Collaboration, I think, is key.

We talked about the Carbon Transparency Pathfinder. Preserving all of the usual competitive protocols, but actually getting companies in the same industry to collaborate on how they might share their data and resources. And of course, how they might work with their suppliers, because they will often have suppliers in common.

And then the final thing I’d focus on is just really bold leadership. I think one of the characteristics of these companies who are real game changers is CEO conviction. Pick a utility—a big utility company based in Europe. The CEO just decided, a long time ago, that they were going to be in renewables. They were going to get out of their fossil fuel vehicles. And they were just going to go for it. And sometimes the regulatory environments would help, sometimes they would hurt. But this was the company’s mission. That’s just great. And I think that, actually, CEO conviction is often the thing that starts this journey. And it’s really incredible when you see it.

Janet Bush: Yes, we recently interviewed for the podcast Ron O’Hanley, from State Street, who’s also made a big commitment to net zero.

Claire O’Neill: Yes, and you can see that with BlackRock. You can see it with Unilever, to pick a company. There is just this really strong conviction that helps those companies ride through what can be, often, a bumpy pathway.

Janet Bush: Are you seeing SMEs joining the council?

Claire O’Neill: We do actually have an SME rate, which—I’m not here to advertise, but we do encourage SMEs and innovators to join the council. And there are of course other options. So the International Chamber of Commerce, led by a former head of the WBCSD, Paul Polman, that is another way for SMEs to engage. We definitely are seeing these kind of interests and also funded platforms out there for SMEs to actually upskill their profiles and work out how on earth they can participate.

Janet Bush: It’s a bit of a change of tack, but given that these are very dark days at the moment, we’ve just got over COVID, we’ve now got the invasion of Ukraine, I increasingly try to switch off by going for a walk out in nature and doing some wildlife photography. So birds have become a very large part of my life. And I believe you’re an avid beekeeper.

Claire O’Neill: Yes, we keep bees. We started off doing what’s called natural beekeeping, where you don’t—to be technical, you don’t give the bees a premade frame, a foundation, a wax foundation. They build their own. But we have now diversified into these more commercial beehives.

Beekeeping is absolutely fascinating. And we’re lucky enough to have our hives just in the middle of Salisbury Plain, which for global listeners is a very unimproved, big piece of grasslands, tens of miles wide and deep. And it’s a fantastic environment to keep bees. It’s basically organic.

Janet Bush: Well, fascinating. We’re getting towards the end of our chat. And what we like to do is just do some rapid-fire questions and quick answers. So my first one is: What makes you most pessimistic?

Claire O’Neill: Oh, I think an attitude of “nothing ever changes.” I am a great one for “let’s just try it.” Of course I like process, but the thing that makes me most pessimistic is people saying, “It’s always been this way. It’s never going to change.”

I just think we can all be a little bit more creative and a bit more optimistic about how we approach the world. So what makes me most pessimistic is pessimism in other people, I think.

Janet Bush: And what makes you most optimistic?

Claire O’Neill: I guess what makes me most optimistic is talking to people who are prepared to think big about the problems we have and prepared to work out ways to collaborate.

And whether it’s in a university setting, I love working with students. They’re brilliant when they come in—my children are university age, too—and they just are full of good ideas and conviction. And I just find that so compelling.

I’m quite optimistic about the human state. I know that we’re in dark times. But I grew up in the 1960s. I don’t remember nuclear drill, but I remember nuclear weapons being a bigger problem. I marched to get rid of them. And it felt like a really dark time. And it felt like we had some horrendous global crises.

By and large, poverty has gone down. We have improved the state of development in very many countries. We’ve reduced infant and maternal mortality. We have done some good stuff as a species. And I never want to forget. But I think it’s very easy to talk down what we have done and to focus on the negatives.

Janet Bush: How different has your life been to the one you envisaged as a girl?

Claire O’Neill: Oh, gosh, Janet. It couldn’t be more different. I don’t even think I had an imagination. I just bumbled around in the southwest of the country. Like you, I love to go for walks in nature and look at things. But nobody in my family had ever been to university.

For me, I’ve had the most extraordinary education, experiences, lived all over the world, met incredible people. It couldn’t be more different. And I am so grateful and thankful. But I also think that—you know, I get asked a bit sometimes, “What’s your motto?” And I think it’s just, “Why not? Why not try? Why not do something different? Why not give carbon removal a go?” Just try stuff. You make some of your own pathway by just wanting to try different things.

Janet Bush: If you weren’t specializing in climate change, what would you be doing? What would your passion be?

Claire O’Neill: I would be a vet.

Janet Bush: And what’s the one piece of advice that you would give to our listeners?

Claire O’Neill: Just do it. Don’t make perfect the enemy of the good.

The climate space is extraordinary to me. And I can have my hypotheses as to where it’s come from. But I have never heard so many people talking us out of doing things. You know, “No, that company is not allowed to sell petrol where it offsets the carbon because it will mean that it’ll keep selling petrol.” And I say, yeah, but people are buying it. Because they’ve got diesel cars, because we haven’t built the infrastructure to plug in the electric vehicles.

And by the way, if that company doesn’t sell diesel, a state-owned enterprise in Africa will happily sell the last drop of diesel. I just think we treat this global imperative of climate recovery as if it is an academic exercise.

It petrifies everybody. “You’re not allowed to do this. We’re going to rate your pathway.” This is not the way that the Industrial Revolution or the Tech Revolution worked. And it slightly drives me bonkers.

So I think my advice would be yes, of course, you need the external advice. Yes, of course, we have to build consensus. But you know what? Greenpeace is never going to say, “Company X is doing well.” They’re just not. So that’s fine. Let’s just accept that and let’s move on. And let’s try and do the best that we can.

And also know that many of our efforts will be imperfect. But if you care about the Keeling Curve—as I do, and I go and check it, and every year it goes up inexorably—we should just be focused on inflecting that curve. And since the COP process started, since we started talking about this, emissions have doubled. So clearly what we’ve done has not gone as well as it could do. So let’s just try. Let’s stop having these arguments about perfection. And let’s just get on with it.

Janet Bush: Well, on that very can-do note, Claire, thank you so much. It’s been a fascinating discussion.

Claire O’Neill: Thank you, Janet.

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