Paul Dickinson co-founded CDP in 2000 with an ambition of creating a global economic system that operates within sustainable environmental boundaries and prevents dangerous climate change. Paul served as CEO of CDP from 2001 to 2010, when he took on his current role of Executive Chair. As we approach CDP’s 20th anniversary, we asked Paul for his insights on the organization’s past, present and future.
What led you to found CDP? What was the problem/challenge you wanted to address?
In 1999 I had become profoundly concerned at the scale of the risk presented to human society by greenhouse gas emissions. I had also identified that the 1,000 largest global corporations had become the most powerful geopolitical force in the world. This led Tessa Tennant and I to conceive a plan whereby investors would use their authority over corporations to encourage disclosure, leading to insight and action on climate change. The world seemed to lack management of this catastrophic problem but, in the words of CDP advisor Adair Turner, “what gets measured gets managed.”
When you founded CDP, what was your vision for the first 20 years? What did 2020 look like back then, and has CDP met your expectations?
It is in the nature of starting a new enterprise that 20 weeks away seems like an eternity, and 20 years another universe. But time passes, and I am delighted that CDP has grown and flourished providing an essential piece of infrastructure for the world, putting accountability for performance on climate, water and drivers of deforestation at the heart of decision-making by corporations, investors, cities, states and regions. We have gone from being a tiny start-up into a mature organization with many thousands of influential stakeholders.
How would you summarize CDP’s 20 years of impact?
I think we can justifiably claim to have created an enormous wave of corporate and city greenhouse gas accounting and reporting, normalised the measurement and management of corporate impacts on water security, and have implemented a vast global program tracking the purchase of commodities that drive deforestation.
We have supported the very successful Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) process and implemented it across our system, with over 8,000 companies participating. We are deeply embedded in the world’s largest economies from Tokyo to São Paulo, and from New York to Johannesburg, and our data is purchased by Bloomberg, MSCI and S&P alongside numerous others, forming the bedrock of the Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) revolution that is changing the world, at tremendous speed.
What do you consider CDP’s greatest accomplishment over the years?
There are many achievements. It has been an honour to have the UN Secretary-General, the President of the World Bank and even Chancellor Merkel writing introductions to CDP reports. That is very high-level support and speaks to the clarity of our mission and the importance of our work.
We are also a founding partner of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which provides an extraordinary framework for bringing necessary contextual truth to corporate planning. With science-based targets, our enormously important corporate stakeholders can understand what they need to do, even while governments may prevaricate, or fail in their duty to manage risk.
And how has CDP managed to stay relevant?
Climate change will threaten humanity for the next 100 years at least. CDP has continued to grow by drawing ever-larger numbers of corporations and cities into accounting for their impact on the world’s most significant problem. Our laser focus on helping humanity protect itself from grave danger is the power that drives us.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge to CDP’s mission?
Without a doubt the biggest challenge is the lack of sufficiently strong taxation and regulation to drive the market forces that will support the fight against dangerous climate change and environmental damage. When we have ambitious policies and government action at the scale required, I know the corporations, investors, cities, states and regions that report through CDP will be able to solve the terrifying problems we face, fast.
With CDP’s 20th anniversary falling during the COVID-19 crisis, what do you think is the importance of CDP’s work as we start to recover?
Everyone is now talking about a green recovery, and the CDP disclosure system has laid the foundations to execute this. We have helped our stakeholders plan for a low carbon future, and now we need to deliver it. CDP is all about managing global risk, and COVID-19 has shown that our societies are making massive, unprecedented responses. Climate change will have an enormous impact on humanity, and I hope the current crisis will teach us to understand the reality of risk and invest more resource into protecting ourselves.
What are your hopes for the next 20 years of CDP?
I am very proud, and we should all be very proud of what we have achieved, but the world is a big place, and we have only just begun. The next 20 years are going to be even more interesting. I hope and believe corporations, investors, cities, states and regions will be mobilized to action by the CDP system over the next 20 years, and make the changes required to avoid the devastating impacts of environmental damage and climate change.
What do you think will be the biggest obstacle in accomplishing this?
A belief that humanity is somehow invulnerable to a breakdown in ecological security.
What is your most memorable moment in your time with CDP?
Sitting in the KEIDANREN headquarters in Tokyo at a CDP launch event, seeing the CEOs of some of the largest corporations in the world waiting in line to give three-minute speeches in support of our work together.Or, at a CDP event in New York in 2014, watching the CEO of Apple speak alongside the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary-General. CDP is about focusing key stakeholders from all arenas on taking urgent action to build a thriving economy that works for people and planet in the long term.
What do you particularly enjoy about CDP?
Having the privilege to serve alongside so many inspiring colleagues and stakeholders. I feel the power and impact of this community, united by our shared mission, every day.
What is the single most important thing people should know about CDP?
You can see how the world’s most influential organizations are performing. By looking at their disclosures through CDP, you can evaluate performance and take action.
Finish the sentence, ‘I work at CDP because…’
I work at CDP because I believe all humans have a right to life, and we must take action at the greatest possible scale to protect ourselves from the dangerous, existential risk of climate change and environmental damage.
In one word: what does CDP mean to you?