Secrets of the Pioneers: Dr Emily Shuckburgh

Emily Shuckburgh

We talk to Dr Emily Shuckburgh, a climate scientist based at the British Antarctic Survey. The interview is part of a series for a report, Secrets of Pioneers, Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, which will be launched at the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit on 9th November 2017. 


Alongside her research work, Emily is a fellow of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and works extensively with business leaders to promote understanding of climate science. She is the co-author of the Ladybird Expert book on Climate Change together with Tony Juniper and the Prince of Wales.

Where were you in 2007?

I was preparing to go off to the Antarctic on a research trip. At the time we had a big project to try and understand the circulation of the Southern Ocean. That’s important as it absorbs a huge amount of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere. About 30 per cent of the CO2 we put into atmosphere is taken by ocean, and the Southern Ocean is a disproportionate contributor to that. We were going down to the Drake Passage region to take all sorts of measurements.

 Where do you expect to be in 2027?

I honestly don’t know. Quite possibly back down in the Antarctic. Research dominates my life, so that is where the focus would be. I would most likely be thinking about the Arctic or Antarctic. There will still be big questions in 10 years about their importance in the global climate system and how they are changing.

I’ve been twice to each. I don’t go every year, especially with children. I am on a sabbatical as you can’t go on trips like that for a short period time.

What is the most important lesson you have learned over the past 10 years?

That decade has been the decade of me focusing on the polar regions. I started working there just over a decade ago and until I started studying those regions in detail I had not appreciated the scale of change and the pace at which it can happen.

For example, the Larsen C ice shelf was in the news recently, where this huge iceberg broke off. Calving is a natural phenomenon, but the iceberg that broke off was the size of Luxembourg. In the rest of the world, we just don’t see things happen at that scale.

 What is your vision for the green economy in 10 years’ time and what do we need to get us there?

I do a lot of work through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership with businesses. As such, I have had an outsider perspective on what the business community has been doing in this space for a decade. I have really noticed change over that decade, especially in the last couple of years. It has changed entirely.

Ten years ago it was a CSR issue at most. I think that has completely changed. Especially post-Paris there has been much greater understanding of the business community’s role and their power to drive forward change.

But there has also been more of a recognition – maybe driven by the Bank of England’s recent work – that businesses have a vulnerability to climate change. That wasn’t recognised 10 years ago – whether it is vulnerability in terms of physical

risk or investment risk – that is now being engaged with as part of business risk analysis.

I get asked as a climate scientist, do I get frustrated at the lack of action. But my sense is there is a real difference now between public engagement and business engagement. Most of the people I see in the business community get it, and get it to a much greater extent than the wider public, who rely for a lot of their information from a media environment that is very mixed on this topic. Business decisions do tend to be made on a hard assessment of the evidence and a hard assessment of the evidence unveils what a significant challenge we face that we need to respond to.

Emily Shuckburgh

 What do you think the biggest challenge the green economy will face over the next decade will be?

The biggest thing is just the numbers needing to add up. Without wanting to name names of the companies I have worked with, often there is goodwill, but the recognition of the scale of change that is required to be consistent with the Paris Agreement mapping is still a substantial step for some businesses.

There’s been a recognition we need to do something, but not of the scale of the change we need to make. And there hasn’t been that mindset change of what is required.

Will the world be on course for two degrees by 2027?

I have always said business is key to this. If the business community responds we can do it. When businesses put their minds to things they can change things very rapidly.

If you could invest in one clean technology through to 2027 which would it be and why?

That’s a really difficult question. The ultimate challenge is how do we get a population of nine billion people to live an improved lifestyle, so in terms of making a global difference, not necessarily in terms of making money, I’d look at technology that helps improve lives in the developing world and sets them on a trajectory that is cleaner than what we have been through.

What advice would you give to a sustainability professional starting their job today?

This is not just for people in sustainability, but the biggest lesson I have learnt is the need for optimism. It is very easy in this space to emphasise the doom and gloom, as there is plenty of grounds for that, but that is not very motivating for businesses, or for individuals.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I waver. I can look at it through an optimistic lens, but I can look at it through a pessimistic lens when you look at some of the science.

Over the last few years we have become increasingly concerned that some of the glaciers that feed the West Antarctic ice sheet could be in irreversible retreat and if that ice sheet collapses that would eventually lead to three metres of sea level rise.

One recent study suggested it could contribute as much as a metre of sea level rise just this century, and that would come on top of the other causes of sea level rise – you could have close to two metres of sea level rise. If you look at a map of the UK you start to see large parts of the country below sea level. I live in East Anglia – you can forget East Anglia.

What’s currently the biggest misconception surrounding climate science?

I think the thing most people struggle with, even the people who are fairly

knowledgeable about climate change, is the scale and urgency that is required.

I started working on this in the early ‘90s – I’ve been working on it for a good 25 years – when you say we have a couple of decades to respond I think we have been warning people for a couple of decades already and not much has happened.

There is this misconception that doing nothing is not a decision. That not reacting in the face of uncertainty is somehow not itself a reaction.

Business Green secrets of the Pioneers - Emily Shuckburgh

This is the third in a series of interviews produced by Greenhouse PR and BusinessGreen, featuring more than 20 leaders of the green economy, from the worlds of science, politics, academia and business. These pioneers reflect on the lessons they have learnt over the last decade, and their predictions on the future of the next decade of green growth.

The full set of interviews makes up a report, Secrets of the Pioneers: Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, to be published on 9th November, coinciding with the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit.

We will be previewing several interviews on the Greenhouse PR blog this week. These include Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Monday, Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, on Tuesday, Mike Barry from Marks & Spencer on Thursday and Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Debenhams and Barclays UK, on Friday.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of both BusinessGreen and Greenhouse PR, the specialist communications agency which supports businesses, entrepreneurs and campaigners working to create a green economy.

At Greenhouse, we support a wide variety of organisations pioneering new standards of sustainability across multiple sectors. Whether it’s fashion, finance or farming, we’re always on the look-out for new opportunities to reach our clients’ target audiences. If you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, we’d love to hear from you.