Climate change consulting: Does it have a future?

A survey earlier this year by Yale University and George Mason University showed that 85% of people in the US are somewhat or very worried about global warming; only 12% think it’s too late to act. As attitudes translate into behaviour (in 2018 a record 32 million passengers travelled by SJ, Sweden’s state train operator), the organisations they work in and buy from will need to change too. Change usually drives up demand for consulting services, but will that happen here?

It’s a question worth asking because we’ve been “here” before. Back before the global financial crisis, there was a lot of talk about, and some investment in, reducing the impact of organisations on the environment. McKinsey had come up with its carbon abatement curve and high-profile businesses were looking at their carbon footprint. Plan A was the UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer’s approach: “Because there is no Plan B,” it said. Many of those genuinely good intentions were apparently washed away when the economic, not actual, climate changed: Environmental concerns suddenly seemed less important when an organisation was battling to survive for more immediate reasons.

What, if anything, is different now? The climate crisis is worse, but that doesn’t mean that another bout of economic turbulence wouldn’t toss it back down our personal and collective agenda again. Is climate change consulting, ironically, a fair-weather consulting service?

As we’ve discussed before on this blog, there are four characteristics to “blockbuster” consulting services, and climate change consulting will need to exhibit all four. First, the impact of global warming is of concern to everyone, not just besuited executives: If executives are talking about it, it’s because people—their customers, their suppliers, their families—are talking about it. Second, it’s also a “new” threat. Now, the use of the word “new” might anger many people—climate change started decades ago—but it’s “new” in the sense that it hasn’t been on the board agenda for long. Older and more grizzled executives will no doubt recall the debates of a decade ago, but relatively few people in senior positions in big organisations have hands-on experience of trying to reduce the environmental impact of the places where they work. A third characteristic of a blockbuster consulting service is that both clients and consultants can point to evidence of impact. One of the reasons why cybersecurity work is growing so quickly is not simply because it’s something that affects all of us and is a “new” issue, but because it’s also clear clients can—indeed, must—do something to prevent attacks. Those thousands of customers who chose to go by train in Sweden, rather than fly, can work out precisely how much less CO₂ they’ve pumped into our atmosphere.

However, although climate change consulting scores well on our first three attributes of a blockbuster consulting service, it may fall at the fourth and final hurdle, just as it did a decade ago—the amount of work it generates for consultants. Back in 2009, most projects in this area were fairly small-scale: When the crisis hit, consulting firms weren’t prepared to invest in order to maintain client interest. That’s still true today: Indeed, you could argue that, with climate change consulting having been a sideshow for the last decade, consulting firms have been chronically underinvesting in this space and that it will take some persuading for them to do otherwise now, simply on the basis of people in Sweden choosing the train over the plane. What would make a difference? Regulation. Regulation forces organisations to spend on stuff they’d otherwise postpone, often at scale.

If consultants want to establish a large and thriving climate change consulting market in the future, they need to lobby for regulation. Who knows, they might even help save the planet at the same time.