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Organizational Change
Sustainability Leaders Warn Lack of Climate Talent at All Levels Could Stall Net-Zero Progress

35% of global sustainability leaders report difficulty hiring talent and upskilling execs with climate-change skills as a barrier to making faster progress on climate-action strategies.

Sustainability leaders at some of the world’s largest companies have warned that the scarcity of talent trained around the challenges of climate change at both operations and board level will be one of the largest barriers to achieving their net-zero targets, according to recent research from EY.

EY surveyed 506 global Chief Sustainability Officers or equivalents from businesses with at least $1 billion in annual revenues and analyzed the action companies are taking to address climate change.

When asked to name the biggest obstacles to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, more than a third (35 percent) of all companies surveyed say difficulty retaining or upskilling talent on climate change is a top internal barrier to doing more on climate change; and 28 percent say difficulty hiring talent with climate change skills is a key external barrier. Similarly, 31 percent believe that a lack of climate-change expertise at board and senior-management level is a ‘top three’ internal barrier preventing their organization from prioritizing and actioning their net-zero strategy.

Yet it does not appear to be a priority area for investment. Only 23 percent of survey respondents list human resources and talent as one of their top three climate investments (though the percentage rose to 50 percent in the UK); and just 27 percent have completed plans to hire or upskill talent to acquire climate change expertise.

“As our economy transitions towards net zero, demand for employees with sustainability expertise will only rise across industries — from engineers with the skillset to decarbonize heat, power and transport; to financial-services personnel who understand how to accurately assess and price risk for new forms of environmental assets,” says Rob Doepel, EY UK&I’s Managing Partner for Sustainability. “However, businesses are also recognizing that environmental expertise at a leadership level could make the difference to whether their company thrives or flounders in the new green economy. While many remain confident in reaching their targets, there is an underlying concern that a lack of sustainability expertise, particularly at a leadership level, could stall business net-zero ambitions.”

As EY points out, this presents a significant opportunity for companies to accelerate transformation from within. As organizations work to embed sustainability across all functions (for more on this front, Transform to Net Zero's new guides can be a great starting point), they will need education, capacity-building and knowledge-sharing; and a tailored strategy for developing the skillsets they need. EY cites AB InBev as an example: The brewing giant has reportedly begun building climate analytics and data-science capabilities internally to support its climate actions; it views social- and behavioral-science capabilities as the key to engaging suppliers, consumers, employees and communities more deeply on climate in the future; and the company continues to build a “team of teams” with training in the foundations of climate and sustainability.

Equipping a climate-smart workforce

As Business Insider reported in 2021, demand from both students and employers has led business schools in the US, Canada, and Europe to expand core courses and flagship MBA programs to better include the issue of sustainability. But as the Financial Times pointed out in 2022, despite the increased attention and demand for graduates who understand and are equipped to help businesses tackle climate-related challenges, academia is still catching up — schools are still working out how to define and prioritize the disparate skills and values associated with sustainability- and climate-related work; how to integrate them into teaching, research and operations; and the extent to which a failure to do so will undermine the future of business education.

Though climate change and the work urgently needed to address it remain divisive issues here in the US, young people recognize that climate change is going to shape their futures — and they need climate education in order to develop the skills to do anything about it. Thankfully, more and more intrepid educators are working to ensure the next generation of consumers, workers and business leaders begins understanding climate change and all its risks from an early age.