“People think about businesses and parliament, but there’s this conduit that’s really valuable, so we need to preserve it, resource it, and work for it because it’s a great place to be.”
Baroness Bryony Worthington has been instrumental in creating the UK’s climate change legal framework, both as one of the lead authors of the United Kingdom Climate Change Act and as current Executive Director of Environmental Defense Fund Europe. In conversation with Sherah Beckley, Baroness Bryony reflects on how she became interested in environmental policy, the importance of the Environmental Defense Fund as a conduit between business and government, and the importance of giving people the information to empower them.
Sherah: Could you share three or four pivotal moments that have molded you?
Baroness Bryony: I grew up running wild in the hills of Wales so I’ve always had an affinity with the natural environment. My two passions are climate change and oceans. I spent some time after university sailing and had a chance to interact with wildlife – dolphins and whales, and it was a wonderful life experience.
I gravitated to working in wildlife conservation and worked are a junior researcher on a legal campaign. I put together a briefing for an MP on a new legal clause that would prevent the reckless harassment of dolphins. I was expecting it to be turned down, however, the minister accepted it and it went into law. That experience really shaped me.
In the same period, I remember sitting in a government agency meeting discussing new wildlife protection law and they said, of course all of these lines on the map are going to be completely irrelevant because of climate change.
And I thought really? If we know climate change is coming why aren’t we working on that? So I knew I had to make a change and switch gears because this was obviously a bigger problem.
I got a job at Friends of the Earth, where I was a climate change campaigner, and that was a new beginning.
Working on the Climate Change Act was the other pivotal thing. I sat in a room at Friends of the Earth, and we knew we needed to do something to change the Government’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I said let’s pass a law to create a legal framework to limit how much we can emit over the long term.
We wanted to get at the fundamentals of why emissions go up and down, which had at the time to do with commodity prices in the power sector. Coal was cheap, gas was expensive and emissions were up.
A campaign for new climate laws was launched and was hugely successful. We originally thought it could take three years, but in six months David Cameron, then leader of the opposition had signed up the Conservative party and from then all the stars aligned.
Sherah: And bringing us to your current role as Executive Director of the Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF Europe). How does your work directly contribute to sustainability?
Baroness Bryony: We’re an organization that provides an interface between citizens, who by and large are too busy with the more pressing things on their plate, to really get involved, in the process of law making. We need interlocutors to help guide citizen action because it’s complicated. You don’t know intuitively how to influence an EU directive or a piece of legislation.
Groups like Environmental Defense Fund are brilliant at providing that conduit of public opinion, speaking for the people and the environment who don’t have voices in the system, and standing up to those who do have power and influence and might be using it to hold things back.
Often, we are under resourced but EDF, over its 50-year heritage, has built up those networks and does have that heritage and reputation. It has found that working in partnership with progressive businesses is an effective route to deliver change. So, I was delighted to join this team because it feels like home.
Sherah: And on that point about working with the private sector and sometimes seeing unlikely partnerships – what are some of your favorite examples?
Baroness Bryony: In EDF’s history, the most standout one is Walmart. They started off with modest ambitions for shaving a little CO2 here or there, and now they’ve just signed up to take a gigatonne of greenhouse gases out of their supply chain. And when Walmart moves everyone starts to take it seriously and that’s had a massive impact. More than 400 companies have joined Walmart in its effort to reduce CO2 in its global supply chain by a gigatonne—more than the annual emissions of Germany. Even more exciting is EDF’s Fourth Wave of environmentalism.
Sherah: Could you tell us a bit more?
Baroness Bryony: Third Wave environmentalism is a term EDF coined in 1986, when we realized the need to work with business and use market-based solutions to align incentives, so that doing the right thing became second nature for business.
Now we are seeing an emerging Fourth Wave driven by cutting-edge technologies. The Fourth Wave uses technology, data analytics and visualization, and digital collaboration to make environmental problems not only visible, but also actionable – by citizens, business and government.
A great example is the clean air project we’re working for cities like London using low cost sensors, Google cars and satellite data to provide a clearer understanding of the causes of air pollution and the solutions.
Sherah: Switching gears, what do you think the connection is between women as leaders and a sustainable future? Is that important? Should we be looking at empowering women as leaders?
Baroness Bryony: Well I don’t want to be too stereotypical, but we bring life into the world and I think that engenders a different worldview. We nurture and create and have a different interaction with the forces of nature. Of course that’s not just true of women – it’s always a spectrum and some men are brilliantly caring and nurturing and some women are not but, by and large, there are still some differences in outlook.
Sherah: What role should men play in this journey?
Baroness Bryony: Well the wise ones will ensure that equality takes root and help to further it. EDF is a brilliantly equal organization, and we have hugely powerful women as part of the organization. We have a man as the president but almost all the other senior positions are women.
Increasingly I think inequality between the sexes is more generational. In younger generations there isn’t such an imbalance. I’ve never felt I had to be a feminist because the women before me have already broken a lot of the taboos and made huge progress. Men my age and younger grew up in a different, less patriarchal society.
Though at times, it still strikes you, especially in the energy sector, when you attend conferences and there are almost no women. Shipping is another. There’s one brilliant woman who’s trying to get advanced wind technology back onto ships, and she stands out for being quite an unusual person in the room.
Sherah: And you mentioned younger generations – what is your message to them?
My first message is we’re sorry!
We’re sorry we left you with this mess and we’re doing our best to make amends. And there is hope. Children being born today will have totally different tools to deploy on the problem. Already the new interconnectedness of our lives can be used for good and for evil. We’ve got to make sure we accelerate the good, and use the tools created during this fourth industrial revolution.
I can’t imagine that the environment won’t be one of the things young people care about and fight to change. So –
I’d say get to know how NGOs and the civil society movement work. We’re the bridge between people who are too busy, but care, and the complicated world of policymaking and politics.
People think about businesses and parliament, but there’s this conduit that’s really valuable, so we need to preserve it, resource it, and work for it because it’s a great place to be.
Sherah: What continues to drive you and give you hope?
Baroness Bryony: It’s in my nature to be quite curious and passionate, maybe sometimes a bit too passionate! I’ve got kids and that really motivates me. My little boy is really into conservation – as they all are now – especially since they’ve all watched Blue Planet. I feel sad that we’re going to leave this planet in a less habitable and benign state – so that really motivates me.
I’m also a bit of a geek. I’m always searching for data to help find new insights and solutions.
We’ve got more information than we’ve ever had, so that’s really something that motivates me – trying to find the ways that work.
Sherah: Thomson Reuters Sustainability launched a campaign called Dare to Ask. How important do you think this question is?
Baroness Bryony: I remember asking my sister-in-law, who has kids and lives in London,
“Do you worry about the air quality?” She replied “No. Why? Should I be?” And I thought that’s interesting – kids’ lungs are vulnerable and you’re pushing a pram, which is at the exact level of exhaust fumes but it’s obviously not something you think about.
I think there was a sense of, ‘well the government takes care of the environment so surely, and that can’t be hurting my children.’ But now more people know air quality is an issue – and the challenge is working out a solution.
On air quality, we’re doing hyper-local mapping and modelling to help work out what the main causes of the problem are and to inform policy decisions. If we can put accurate information in people’s hands we think this will empower them to call for change.
We could be more assertive in asking that our common resources and environment are respected and protected.
Individual actions – whether at a personal or country scale – can deteriorate life for others and we need to take more care and ask more difficult questions.