Recently I was part of a class discussion on setting good targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The conversation turned to differences in organizational culture and how that influences the organization’s willingness to set aggressive GHG emissions goals. Some organizations have a culture that focuses on rigid adherence to achieving targets (e.g., sales targets), and lots of pressure (for example, financial rewards and status) to reach them “no matter what”. These organizations will tend to set targets that are lower and deemed achievable. Other organizations are more tolerant of failure to achieve targets, and reward effort, experimentation and creativity. These organizations tend to set higher, more aggressive targets.
This got me thinking about the nature of goals and targets, what they say about an organization’s values and aspirations, and how they influence dynamics and relationships within the organization. A target of 20% reduction in greenhouse gases over the next five years, for example, and the rewards and consequences established for achieving or not achieving that target, tells everyone in the company how important environmental sustainability, and specifically addressing global warming, are to the company. A 5% target communicates a lower level of importance and urgency than a 20% target. A target changes peoples’ awareness, understanding and response to a problem. No matter what my opinion is about global warming, if my CEO sets an aggressive GHG reduction target, I will take the problem more seriously than if no target had been set.
The target also sets up a challenge to all those within and outside the company whose help is needed to achieve the target. The challenge to meet the target triggers a myriad of questions. How should our work processes change? How can I re-negotiate with vendors for products and services that are less carbon intensive? The more challenging the target, the more intense and urgent the questions are, and the more serious the activity required to answer those questions, and implement solutions.
We might debate the pros and cons of aggressive and modest targets. We need to figure out the best way to engage staff and stakeholders in getting our greenhouse gas emissions reduced as quickly as possible. At the same time, the world’s climate system has its own limits which are not open to negotiation with humans. Our ability to live within those limits, and to figure out how to meet the targets necessary to do that, will determine our success in living on this planet. I don’t know of targets set by countries or companies which overshoot what’s necessary to effectively control and reduce global warming. So it’s incumbent upon leadership—within companies, local communities, and countries—to communicate aggressive GHG targets in ways that invite and inspire people to achieve the “impossible”.
What are your experiences with setting GHG emissions targets? What have you found successful in engaging people in your company, agency or community?