21 years after co-founding CDP, including 12 at the helm, Paul Simpson recently stepped down from his role as CDP’s Chief Executive. Here he shares his final thoughts on stepping away to pursue new directions and challenges.
It can be hard to fully understand change and impact when you see it day to day, or even year to year. Now, with time to look back on the last two decades, I am extremely proud of what CDP has achieved and the change we have driven. CDP started with just four of us around a table: Paul Dickinson, Tessa Tennant, Jeremy Smith and me. The organization has gone on to exceed by far what I thought was possible as I sat in our first office - a windowless basement on the edge of the City of London – all those years ago.
In 2002 when we first asked companies to disclose their environmental impact, most people weren’t willing to talk about climate change. The markets didn’t yet see it as an immediate risk, and next to no companies measured their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – let alone had a climate strategy or reduction targets.
Since then, there has been a great deal of progress to celebrate along the way. What we began, pioneering first climate and then forests and water security disclosure, has truly permeated the mainstream. Although we still have some way to go, it is a very different picture we see today, with widespread acceptance of the risks posed to businesses and investors (as well as to people and planet) by climate change and of the need for action.
Challenging and changing perceptions of climate change
There was serious scepticism among the investor community about the issue of climate change and what CDP was trying to do when we first started. It took a lot of discussion, listening and learning to gain trust. In 2002, when we first asked companies to disclose their environmental impact, the letter we sent included the words “as investors, we wish to better understand the risks and opportunities from the perception of climate change.” It may seem incredible today, but in those early days a number of investors weren't prepared to put their name to a letter that implied climate change was a fact.
Our first letter was backed by 35 investors and sent to 500 companies – and printed and sorted by hand by our small group ‘til the early hours of the morning. The following year, we permanently removed the word “perception” from our letter and never looked back (although it was a while before we stopped doing it all by hand!).
We thought if we could get 100 companies to disclose in response to that first letter, that would be a success – we got 245 companies. 20 years later we have seen record disclosures, even in the face of global crises and challenges (far beyond the purely environmental). Last year, over 13,000 companies, representing 64% of global market capitalization, disclosed through CDP along with more than 1,200 cities, states and regions. Around 3,000 companies have gone further and committed to set a science-based target.
We are part of an ecosystem that comes through partnership and collaboration, united by CDP’s vision; and we can be proud of our journey. Together with our partners, supporters and disclosers, we have helped embed corporate environmental disclosure as a norm at every level, from companies and investors to regulators.
We need to do more and do it faster
While the progress of CDP and the increasing adoption of disclosure is more than I once dared to predict, there is no time to rest on our collective laurels. As I wrote in CDP’s 2025 strategy, the message from nature is clear: the climate and ecological crises are accelerating, and time is running out for us to realize a net-zero, nature-positive world. If we are to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial level, we need to reduce emissions by 7% per year this decade. While increasingly high awareness and growing ambition and commitments reflect trends in the right direction, we must drive more action, faster – accelerating the rate of change.
One of the fundamental elements for achieving this goal is regulation. Today, we are seeing a whole wave of environmental disclosure requirements coming from regulators around the world. You can see it in the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed climate disclosure rule, the formation of the International Sustainability Standards Board and the work of the EU on sustainability disclosure and taxonomy. It’s happening in the UK, Singapore, Japan and India among others. This is due in no small part to CDP, and we need to keep going.
I also expect we’ll see mandatory requirements being introduced in most, if not all, capital markets, with the potential to lay the foundations of a sustainable economy. We can expect to see other important forms of regulation too, to incentivize further action, such as carbon pricing and trading, and accountability.
Widening the depth and scope of disclosure
Perhaps the biggest challenge in regulating global markets is that we have no global government to demand and oversee equitable and fast-paced change. This is a gap that CDP is uniquely placed to fill in the crucial years to come, running a global system equipped to adopt standards into its disclosure platform, as it did with the TCFD in 2018.
We are also seeing increasing demand from capital markets for much more holistic disclosure from companies. All too often, investors are not getting the measurement and data they need from the companies in which they invest. While last year over 13,000 companies disclosed through CDP on climate change, only 3,400 reported on water security and under 900 on forests. A ‘climate first’ approach pervades which, though fundamentally important, must broaden to include nature.
As part of its 2025 strategy, CDP will expand its scope to cover the full range of planetary boundaries that humans need to stay within for a sustainable world. These include biodiversity, land, oceans, and waste; and the first is already in the questionnaire. The world is not currently on the right trajectory to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, but significant progress has been made. We now need regulators and governments to step up their ambition and action quickly.
Reasons to believe we can do it
At both corporate and capital market level we’re in a better place to take this broader approach to environmental reporting compared with 20 years ago; the need is more urgent and we can benefit from advances in data and technology.
When I announced I was leaving, people asked how I would feel stepping away after such a long time. The simple truth is that I am able to leave because CDP today is such a strong, amazing organization. I’m grateful to have made so many amazing friends in my time. There are people working for CDP all over the world, and thousands more working in companies, cities, states and regions, capital markets and governments, all working to deliver CDP’s mission.
While I am moving on to explore new challenges, CDP will never be far from my thoughts. I want CDP to continue to thrive and increase its impact and will do anything I can to help the team deliver that. The role of CDP is to keep pushing. There is a gap between the science and the market, and we have to close it, driving behaviour change. I look forward to watching this global organization and the talented, passionate people behind it achieve even more far-reaching impact in the years to come.