How do you help business leaders to make decisions that are based on science, take best practice into account, and deliver long-term social and environmental value as well as good economic returns?

This is a question that Fellow and former Founder Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (1989-2021), Dame Polly Courtice, has been asking for over three decades. After studying for a degree in archaeology and anthropology in South Africa and coming to Cambridge for a second degree in history, she joined the then named Cambridge Programme for Industry as part of a team of two, working from the University’s Engineering Department. Despite such humble beginnings (the institute now boasts over 130 staff and will soon move into the Entopia Building, a world-leading sustainable retrofit), Dame Polly has fond memories of those early days; “it was wonderful being based in the Engineering Department. I had so many fascinating discussions with academics  who were so generous with their ideas, willing and keen to talk about what they did and how it could make a positive contribution to business, industry and society. That pattern was repeated as we reached out right across the University to dip into the treasure trove of knowledge and insight that is Cambridge University.”

What quickly became apparent in those early days was that many companies were faced with growing pressures on them to address the major social and environmental challenges that were escalating at the time and in which they were so often deeply implicated. Many executives felt ill-equipped to deal with this at a time when the corporate world wasn’t familiar with the language of sustainability or comfortable with the extent to which they were expected to respond. Cambridge has much to offer in this regard, so the work of the Institute soon became focused on helping companies find a convergence between profitability and socially and environmentally responsible behaviour.

Much of this was brought into focus with the publication of the Brundtland Commission’s report, ‘Our Common Future’, which offered the now famous definition of sustainable development, and at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, whose purpose was to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection.  Shortly after the Summit the Prince of Wales approached Dame Polly and asked her to run a programme for senior business leaders to help them make decisions based on the best scientific evidence and the best available practice, and to build a group of leaders who would champion the cause of sustainable development within the economy.  The Prince of Wales is now Patron of the Institute, and his Business and Sustainability Programme is run all over the world. It has an alumni network of more than 5,000 senior leaders who share a common language and who have been equipped to lead the changes that are needed in their companies and in the wider economy. Over the years the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), as it later became known, has widened its offerings to business, financial institutions, and governments to help achieve a more sustainable economy. In addition to the Prince of Wales’s programme it now runs customised programmes for companies all over the world, and it offers two part-time Masters courses, as well as postgraduate and online programmes. It also conducts academic research and convenes groups of leaders to work together both to create solutions to problems that cannot be solved by individual organisations, and to unlock the immense opportunities to be had from a more sustainable way of doing business.

More than 30 years after its founding, and with a network of over 20,000 members, CISL has now become a major driving force in the sustainability movement and uses its reach and influence to encourage and support business, government and the finance sector, in innovating, scaling and accelerating policies and solutions to the great challenges we face.

Unsurprisingly a key focus right now is on the drive towards achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow this November, we had to ask Dame Polly whether or not she felt optimistic about the outcomes. After COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, she admitted to feeling quite heartbroken at the outcome where they “came away with almost nothing”. But at COP21 in Paris in 2015 she tells us that getting 196 countries to agree to a legally binding international treaty on climate change “was one of the most joyful moments in my career”. So, what can we expect from Glasgow?

“We have to have hope for good outcomes from COP26 because this is our last chance to get the high-level commitment that we need and get the real action underway. To achieve net zero by 2050 we must halve our emissions by 2030. That means changing just about everything about the way we live, eat, travel and trade. Leaders have to move on from where they got to in 2015, where promises were made but very few have been delivered. Every individual can make a difference, but the real action has to come from political leaders, supported by business and finance. It’s a really big deal, and we are getting daily reminders across the globe as to why this matters – weather conditions that are destroying or damaging the lives of millions of people – often those with the least voice, the destruction of our ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity – the building blocks of life on which we depend. We need to see these challenges as an interconnected system, to recognise the enormity of the problem and get some perspective on where we can drive transformational change. What can we do at a global, national, local and even College level?

We don’t have all the answers, but we need to work them out together and get consensus around the need to change. You can’t keep telling people they need to change. They need to want to change, so how can we build human understanding and change behaviour?

I am genuinely anxious about whether what we need will be delivered in Glasgow. All those leaders who will gather in November can’t be under any illusion about what is needed and what society requires of them. The question is whether they have the courage, the moral authority, to do what is needed, to stand up to vested interests, to make decisions that secure our long-term future, and to accept that the problem has been disproportionately created by wealthy nations and that the burden therefore needs to be disproportionately carried by them.  Will they find agreement, or will they kick the can down the track – as has happened before – in the misguided belief that this can be dealt with on someone else’s watch?”

Thankfully, Dame Polly does find some cause to be optimistic about the future: “It’s hard to be optimistic when you consider the road ahead and the interests at stake, but the changes that are gathering pace, nurtured and curated by so many amazing people in academia, in business, in the sustainability movement at large, and especially by young people, show that positive change is not only possible, it’s happening right now, catalysed by brilliant thinking, ideas and efforts. That inspires me and gives me cause for hope and optimism.”

Dame Polly will be delivering a talk at our sustainability event in the Wolfson Theatre on Friday 22 October from 5.15 pm. Find out more here.