Renat Heuberger is the CEO of South Pole Group with a long career in sustainability entrepreneurship. He spoke with Project 21 Magazine about his career, starting a business and meeting the challenges of climate change.
With your business idea at the pulse of the political process, the past years have been turbulent, right?
The last few years have been very dynamic. Under the Kyoto Agreement we have focused on high-quality emissions projects and many companies buy only this. At the same time, we have always pursued new ideas and kept constantly innovating which has ultimately had a positive effect. We have in recent years strongly diversified our original role as project developers. Now, we also advise companies and public organisations on various sustainability topics and offer products and services in the financial sector, sustainable value chains or renewable energies. We achieve 50% of sales in this way. So we are much more diversified now. For example, we have developed tailored projects for companies to directly reduce emissions in their supply and value chains.
What are your biggest challenges today and how will your work with the implementation of the Paris Agreement?
As far as Trump's recent political decisions are concerned, there have been, of course, steps backwards. But the reality is that in the long term, individual companies, cities and states of the USA now have climate policies that are all the more powerful. The Paris Convention provides an extremely important global framework, the individual states and actors in the next few years will define our economic pathway. The fact that the global regulation is so weak and the implementation still completely unclear is our biggest challenge.
We are celebrating our 15th anniversary this year. Is it true that you have your roots in project21?
That's true. We founded project21 and also Seed sustainability both with the same team. In 2002 we founded Myclimate, we had all been students of environmental science at the ETH. The issue of climate change was central to us and possible solutions were at conferences worldwide. At the same time, we found it difficult to understand how these participants' flights generated thousands of tonnes of CO2, and no solutions were available to mitigate this damage. Myclimate then emerged against the background of the Alliance for Global Sustainability Conference in Costa Rica. The pitching of a sustainable business idea was the prerequisite for our participation. We have then calculated the emissions and tried to get the participants attending to compensate for them. The principle then we developed with Myclimate was the foundation that informed South Pole Carbon Asset Management in 2006. There was at the time the opportunity to work in research or administration, or go to an NGO. But I wanted an entrepreneurial solution to climate change.
How do you run a company with presence in all continents - also in an ecological respect?
We now have 200 employees on all continents up to the Antarctic and over all time zones. Ironically, we are missing only the penguin from the logo as an employee. Most communication runs naturally with us online and with Google Hangouts and employees do not fly constantly for a meeting from one location to another. In addition, we continuously adapt our standards in our offices to reduce CO2 emissions every year.
Starting a startup has become much easier. What do you recommend today to students who are committed to working in sustainability?
The most important question is what lies with you. As a social entrepreneur it comes down your character and that you develop a business idea with potential, of which you are convinced. Good ideas, innovative technologies or novel business models can revolutionise whole sectors, even if they are small to begin with. What is crucial is that you have a mission and vision. The team is also very important. It must be resilient and stand together in both the good times and the bad.
This interview has been translated from German and shortened for length. You can read the original interview on the Project 21 website here.