Adrian Hayes web

How do we balance tackling climate change with environmental sustainability?

Adrian Hayes (MBA, 1994) has travelled a long way from the business school! A record-breaking polar explorer, author and sustainability ambassador, Adrian recently joined us on campus to deliver a talk titled 'Climate change or sustainability?'. We caught up with Adrian to learn about his fascinating career, which takes in big business, the special forces and arctic exploration, among much, much more.

  • Can you share a couple of examples of the impact of climate change you’ve witnessed on your expeditions?

The major experience I witnessed was when I trekked to the North Pole from Canada in 2007 – a 50-day expedition, preceded by a month in Northern Canada, which remains the most brutal journey I have ever undertaken. Among all the gargantuan challenges we faced, the thinness of the sea ice was a prime one – averaging a metre over the 500 miles we crossed but with many, many miles times down to a few inches and numerous open expanses of water.

That ice used to be 4-5 metres in thickness 100 years ago….indeed, the conditions have become so challenging the North Pole has not been reached from the Russian side for 15 odd years and from Canada for 7 years. It may well be a journey that belongs to history.

On my other polar expeditions (skiing to the South Pole and crossing the length of Greenland) we were on ice sheets rising to 3-4,000 metres in thickness, as opposed to sea ice, so a different type of terrain. However, on Greenland – the greatest contributor to rising sea levels in the world – we did witness the enormous volume of melting ice flowing into the sea when we eventually descended off the ice cap.

I also worked with Dr Sebastian Mernild, one of Denmark’s senior ice scientists, collecting ice core samples during the 67 days of the expedition for his modelling for COP 9 in Copenhagen in 2009. And having spoken at length with Sebastian before, after and to this day, I have become well versed in the topic.

  • Do you see yourself as a climate change campaigner?

The problem I have with the climate change campaigns are that they all about…climate! And in my view, there is a danger in focusing exclusively on a single risk, single issue within that risk (carbon dioxide) and single remedy (net zero). We need to wake up to the fact that climate change hasn’t caused 99% of environmental issues on Earth, humans have – by our increasing consumption and the increasing numbers of us consuming. It’s my view that we have to take a far broader vision and action, which is why I campaign on sustainability, not climate change.

  • 'Sustainability is the most overused yet misunderstood word in the English language today' - why do you say so?

The word’s been around from hundreds of years, but it’s only become a buzzword in the past 20 or so. Unfortunately, most people think it’s an environmental term, whereas the truth is that it is an economic, social and environmental model and concept, which takes a systems approach to all that we do.

In layman’s terms what we do in these three pillars has an effect in the other two, and we cannot solve problems in one pillar without looking at all three together. The sustainability tagline is ‘People, Planed and Profit’ not profit alone. And two principles are also relevant - ‘Harvest must not exceed regeneration’ and ‘Waste must not exceed assimilation’.

This is why I believe we need to be addressing the wider issues of resources and waste, in the way we take environmentalism forward, rather than this tunnel visioned focus on climate change and carbon dioxide.

  • You’re a strong believer in the link between population growth and sustainability?

We have to face up to the two ‘real inconvenient truths’ (increasing consumption and increasing numbers of us consuming) that have caused environmental degradation in the world. The vastly increasing consumption of the developed world is an issue that we need to address, but we cannot continue adding 80m people to the world every year (the population of Germany) without there being an enormous impact on resources and waste.

A sustainability approach takes the ‘sweet spot’ of the three interlinking circles of sustainable economic growth and sustainable population growth. I’ve been passionate about population since I was a young boy and am now a Patron of several population charities. However, it’s critical to add that our campaigns totally eschew any mention of ‘population control’. Rather they focus on the education of women and girls, choice and family planning availability.

  • Who do you think is responsible for addressing climate/sustainability issues - individuals or leaders/governments?

Governments and leaders have to take the lead but are singularly failing to do so. And the major reason is that the entire system of economic growth at all costs needs (and revels in) this ever growing consumption and increasing population! I’m far from being against growth but, at the end of the day, we all have to live within our means – and that includes governments. Which means cutting down on our spending that impacts resources and waste.

I hope we will soon reach the stage in the developed world that recognises spending on ‘stuff’ does nothing to increase happiness and we can provide the economic growth we need primarily on services. A coffee with friends, a dinner in a restaurant, walks in nature, picnics in a park, or any form of exercise, have very little environmental impacts but will make us a lot happier than the endless consumption of goods.

University of Nottingham research viewpoint: 

The climate crisis, the most complex and critical challenge of our time, must be tackled on many fronts. It requires coordinated, strategic and evidence-based action - yet working in harmony towards a shared goal is not always easy. Such complexity is already seen in the global economy, where the strategic decisions by business on offshoring and foreign direct investment present challenges in establishing cross-border trade policies that are fair, effective and reduce environmental damage. Our research is helping policymakers to address this challenge.

To support sustainable economies that achieve higher welfare and lower environmental damage needs full coordination between government departments to ensure environmental, trade and investment policies are complementary. 

The complexity of the global economy and the ability of businesses to take strategic, cross-border actions underlines the challenges facing policymakers seeking to address environmental problems and achieve their carbon goals. Securing higher global welfare may not create lower environmental damage; cooperation among governments on green taxes may not reduce environmental damage.

Stricter environmental policies may not reduce investment by polluting firms and may not increase the welfare of our societies. Trade policies that seek to reduce the impact of pollution must meanwhile address diverse drivers of pollution - consumption versus production and domestic versus cross-border. 

Complementary policies may be required to achieve higher welfare and lower environmental damage, with coordination between government departments that are undertaking different environmental, trade and investment policies.

Read Arijit's full blog >

Arijit Mukherjee is Professor of Industrial Economics at the Nottingham University Business School


  • Who do you look up to or admire for their campaigning or activism?

Hmm, this is a difficult one because there are very few! The problem over the last 10-12 years is that social media has distorted everything. Like it or not, consciously or sub-consciously, we are being influenced, drawn to and even addicted to attention, recognition and respect. In some cases, even fame.

And I’m finding that much charity work is becoming more about the person rather than the cause. The people I admire are the ones who go about their work without splashing it all over social media. Authenticity is key to me.

  • You’ve travelled to more than 100 countries, what have you learned about how different cultures respect the environment? (or otherwise)

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the Sultanate of Oman are the two countries I have visited or lived in which have got the balance of sustainability right. Two amazing countries that would recommend anyone to visit.

  • Do your world records mean anything to you?

In short, nothing. I never think about them or talk about them, they are merely part of my history. 

  • What gives you most pleasure - your expeditions, writing, documentary making, campaigning?

Hmm, I love being out in nature adventuring but you don’t have to go on a three-month expedition to experience the joys of it! Rock climbing, hiking or sailing are the three sports, above all, that can give a similar feeling even if just for a day. But I do also like speaking to an audience to impart from salient lessons on humanity. And thankfully physical events are now resuming in force.

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