We need climate actions, not climate goals

Written by Tom Greenwood - June 22, 2022

It seems that businesses and governments are all chomping at the bit to set Net Zero targets. As someone who has been obsessed with sustainability since my teens, I should be happy about that. So why am I not?

The thing is, while environmental goals might sound impressive, they don’t actually mean very much. Planet Earth doesn’t give a monkeys that Microsoft has a Net Zero goal of 2025, that Amazon has a goal to be Net Zero by 2040 or even that Wholegrain Digital aims to get there by next year.

The reason is that goals don’t actually change anything. The only thing that changes the world is action

The problem with goals

James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, makes the compelling case that real progress is delivered not by setting goals for outcomes we hope to achieve in the future, but by creating systems that facilitate action in the present. He articulates a number of reasons why goals are not an effective way to achieve results and two of these are particularly relevant to climate goals:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals“Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias” says Clear. Every athlete in every serious competition has a goal to win, and yet there is only ever one winner. Having the goal of winning is not what determines success.
  1. Goals are at odds with long term progress – Goals do nothing to sustain progress after they have been achieved and it’s common for all of us to slip back into bad habits after we achieve a goal like running a half marathon or losing weight. In the context of environmental sustainability, the ability to sustain what we achieve is vitally important.

The reality of many climate goals is that they do little to tell us how we are actually going to get to Net Zero or sustain it over the long term. They also ignore the complexity of the problem. Goals like “Net Zero by 2030” are designed to generate positive publicity and create the impression that something is being done, while buying enough time to avoid the problem for a few more years.

To compound things further, many organisations are setting Net Zero goals without even having a clear definition of what they mean by Net Zero. But hey, they’ve got another decade or so to figure that out!

Actions speak louder than goals

If we are going to make real progress in solving the climate and ecological crisis, then we need to be taking real action, now. It doesn’t matter if those actions are small initially, so long as we are creating the culture and systems that facilitate constant forward progress.

“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game” states Clear.

This is particularly fitting for action on climate change and environmental issues, where we are not playing a finite game that can ever be won, but by definition are playing an infinite game in which success is simply the ongoing ability for society to thrive on this planet. We cannot ‘win’ the game of climate change in 2030 or even 2100. Believing that we can is one of the great fallacies of our current thinking.

What we need from organisations is not bold pledges, but a real commitment to change corporate cultures and implement real systems of action. When this happens, we will gain the benefit of compounding interest to make much more progress over the long term than waiting for that one big perfect solution.

If you’re not familiar with compounding interest, it’s simply the fact that small gains multiply exponentially over time, whether that’s interest on your savings account or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, if you have £100 in a savings account that gets 5% interest (if only!), after one year you’ll have £105. The next year though, you’ll get 5% interest on £105, bringing your total up to £110.25. That still sounds pretty unremarkable, but after 25 years you would have £348.13. Now you’re talking!

This is happening to us right now in terms of how much the planet warms as a result of the emissions that we have put in the atmosphere. Think of the atmosphere like a big savings account full of greenhouse gas emissions, with interest paid in degrees Celsius each year. As we leave our past emissions in the atmosphere and deposit more each year, we are accruing compound interest on the warming effect. But the opposite is also true, that small reductions in emissions will have a much bigger long term impact if we do them now than if we do them in the future.

This is why corporate pledges, targets and goals for future achievements like Net Zero can do more harm than good, as they put the focus on an imaginary achievement in the future and risk delaying real action in the present.

Imperfect solution are real solutions

I’m going to admit that as Managing Director of a sustainability focussed company, I feel a certain amount of pressure to set environmental goals, both from a social pressure perspective and in terms of things like our B Corp Certification. However, my focus has always been on real actions, regardless of whether their value can be quantified. Just some of the actions that we’ve taken over the years include:

  • A “no fly” policy
  • Incentivising staff to switch to renewable energy at home
  • A vegetarian food policy
  • Taxing our own carbon emissions (sadly that didn’t really work)
  • Using second hand electronic equipment where possible
  • Planting trees through our “Carbon Syncing” programme
  • Supporting environmental non-profits through 1% for the Planet

That’s not to mention the work that we have done in putting environmental issues on the agenda of the digital industry and leading the way in sustainable web design.

If we were focussed purely on a goal like Net Zero by 2030, I suspect that many of these things would never have happened. The reason we have taken action is not because we are focussed on a simplistic goal in the future. It is because we have a culture of caring about the impact we have on the world, a culture of learning and self improvement, and the flexibility as an organisation to adapt and take action on the opportunities we find.

The truth is that none of us have all the answers on how to tackle the climate crisis, but we mustn’t let perfection be the enemy of good. I founded Wholegrain Digital with Vineeta 15 years ago with the aim of proving that business can be truly sustainable, and while we’re not there yet, I believe that our commitment to taking real action has been more powerful than the goals we’ve since forgotten. 

Constant forward progress

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that companies should stop setting any environmental goals. Goals themselves can be fine, so long as they are set with honest intentions. The point is to highlight that setting a goal is not the job at hand. 

The job at hand is to shape our organisations so that they have the cultures and systems in place to enable constant forward progress in aligning the operations of the organisation with the health of our natural environment. Whether we set goals or not is perhaps arbitrary.