OPINION: For a just transition to net zero, businesses must develop climate literacy

by Sophie Lambin | SoLambin | Kite Insights
Thursday, 21 July 2022 13:00 GMT

Recycling and general waste bins are pictured in an office in Brussels, Belgium August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A global survey shows eight out of ten employees are ready and willing to act on climate change at work - but the missing ingredient is know-how, with many calling for training

More and more businesses now recognise their part in the transition to a green economy that supports people and the planet. Two-thirds of FTSE100 companies, representing a market capitalisation of £1 trillion ($1.2 trillion), have signed up to the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign, a coalition of net-zero emissions initiatives representing cities, regions, businesses, investors and higher education institutions. For many firms, the challenge is now translating their climate commitments into action.

Achieving a just transition to a net-zero economy relies on businesses to upskill their workers accordingly – ensuring that no one is left behind. Climate literacy is an important part of this transition.

In a survey of more than 7,000 private-sector employees across 15 major industries worldwide , Kite Insights found that committing to climate targets at C-Suite level did not automatically translate into employee knowledge about climate change and the action needed to limit its effects.

The knowledge gap

Of staff surveyed, 55% said their company has an important role to play in tackling the climate crisis, but only 34% could confidently explain their company’s climate commitments, with the figure dropping to 22% among junior employees. This is a clear indication that even the best-laid plans require better internal communications and staff training to bed in and be effective.

Encouragingly, staff are motivated to be part of this transition, with eight out of ten ready and willing to act on climate change at work. But the missing ingredient is know-how, leaving 70% of respondents calling for training on climate action in the workplace.

Without this training, 15% of employees would consider leaving their roles to work more closely on climate-related issues, with 71% stating that acting on climate is important to their personal sense of motivation and wellbeing.

The inability to do so may be contributing to the so-called “great resignation” - also known as The Big Quit - referring to the record numbers of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs. In the United States alone, roughly 47 million people left their jobs last year, with similar trends seen globally.

What can business do?

Business leaders can ill afford to neglect climate literacy, as doing so will see a staff exodus to more climate-savvy businesses that put climate action at the heart of everything they do. Much more needs to be done to ensure employees can turn willingness and readiness into real progress.

Training

We cannot only rely on education and academia to catch up with the needs of the economy. Announcements such as the new climate change GCSE from 2025 in the UK and Stanford’s new climate change school are welcome and needed but take time to trickle down to the workforce. We also need companies to prioritise staff training which will bring co-benefits of boosting staff retention and fostering workers’ intellectual and emotional connection to tackling the climate issue. 

When organisations make strong commitments and show real climate leadership, staff see the evidence - and it’s only a matter of time before they choose to act on climate too. Kite Insights started The Climate School to ensure that companies could access training and engagement materials they need to upskill staff at all levels, from the C-suite to new starters, on climate and sustainability.

Prioritising employee wellbeing worldwide

Beyond the potential for climate literacy to increase participation in the green economy, it may also be key to balancing the disproportionate impacts of climate change. In our survey, employees in the Global South were more likely to see climate change as a fundamental threat compared to their peers in Europe, the UK or the US, and were more willing to take action at work.

Recent research on climate anxiety published in The Lancet found that 59% of 16–25-year-olds are very or extremely worried about climate change, and those expressing more worry tended to live in the Global South. Employers therefore have a duty to ensure that their workers, especially junior staff, feel sufficiently empowered to act on climate change, particularly in geographies already experiencing the worst impacts of the crisis.

Climate literacy and the just transition

Just as everyone today must have basic digital fluency to operate anywhere from the shop floor to the boardroom, workers will also need basic climate literacy to participate in the green economy. 

The Paris Agreement spells out the close links between climate action, sustainable development and a just transition characterised by the creation of decent work and quality jobs. If we leave people behind, climate change will only exacerbate social and economic disparities. Private-sector businesses must ensure the green transition is fair and inclusive and that employees of all ages and at all levels are sufficiently upskilled. 

Companies should take note that today, the desire to act on climate change has become mainstream, but the ability to act is not.

Sophie Lambin is founder and CEO at Kite Insights.

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