Richard Morrow Sarah Roberts

William’s career has focused entirely on sustainability. He started in think tanks, focusing on innovative approaches to energy and environmental policies, before moving into designing methodologies for sustainable investment data products. William joined the Institute in April 2023 as a research analyst to extend its thought leadership across a range of sustainability topics. He explains why he thinks sustainability tends to come down to politics, the need to focus on real-world impact, and his own most and least sustainable behavior.

Portrait of William Nicolle

What does sustainability mean to you and why is it important?

Sustainability as a concept is almost too broad to be useful. It comes in too many colors and flavors to generalize, which means that even on the same issue people can have very different ideas of the best way forward. In this sense you could say sustainability is mostly about politics. It’s all about different world views competing with one another to decide ‘the right’ set of actions.

An example of this is the UK’s use of the North Sea. Some people want it to be a giant protected area, while others want to fill it with lots of offshore wind turbines. And other people still argue against this because of the ugly onshoring infrastructure involved. Even within the pro-climate side there is infighting - the wind turbine people would argue with the carbon storage people, because if you put carbon underground it can shift the seabed up a few meters, which can then ruin offshore wind turbines.

This doesn’t mean sustainability isn’t important, but it can struggle to move beyond debates that are rooted in subjective world views. So, it’s essential to agree on some basics to cut through the noise and have a productive conversation.

This starts with clear objectives like net zero by 2050 or no net biodiversity loss by 2030 - setting goal posts focuses the debate on the best route forward rather than the goal posts themselves. Trusting in a set of basic facts is also useful because it puts people roughly on the same page. Climate science is the obvious example here, while there is still significant uncertainty around if we will be able to keep surface temperature warming at or below 1.5 degree Celsius, it is clear to most people that the planet is warming.

What is the biggest challenge to embedding sustainability into economies and how do we address it?

It’s simply cost. You can see this clearly in debates about the cost of reducing emissions - we know it will be expensive to replace the world’s energy system or switch every gas guzzler with an EV. Think about all the new supply chains that come with that. The bill is going to be very big.

But often these criticisms pay no attention to the cost of inaction. We know it will be big, possibly up to USD 275 trillion but the exact amount is much more uncertain than the bill for change. The key message is that a world with significant warming has potentially unlimited downside. We can see some evidence in recent weather; if you make the current weather the norm and throw in feedback loops which could make it worse, it’s clearly worth paying the cost to avoid runaway climate change.

Another side of this challenge is knowing how to value things. I see this as more of a challenge for the environment and biodiversity. People have subjective attachments to nature which means often they speak past each other.

This is why lenses like natural capital accounting are so important. I believe they offer ways to translate between subjective attachments and let people or organizations approach sustainability in a more objective way.

A lot of areas of sustainability struggle to say why they matter beyond gut feeling, putting things on economic terms helps to rationalize it.

What opportunities could emerge from sustainable investments?

The way it is currently practiced creates many problems for itself. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) labels can be so diverse which makes it unclear what the end goal is: a better world; outperformance; both? I’m not sure.

Having worked on sustainable investment data methodologies gave me an appreciation of the sheer diversity but also the difficulty of creating sustainable investment approaches that aim at making real-world change. The opportunity from sustainable investing is really a broader question of how capital can improve the world.

For me, that means focusing on real-world impact. Some examples could be asking whether your portfolio allocation really leads to fewer emissions, or whether you are helping lower the cost of capital for renewables.

How important are research and thought leadership to further a more sustainable economy?

Sustainability is a process that we’re all constantly driving—but under uncertainty. There is often no clear end point of a sustainable economy, it’s all about constantly trying to improve. Even if we reach net zero in 2050, the economy won’t stop.

For me, this constant improvement can only come from new ideas and thoughts.

Organizations like the Institute keep issues in people’s and clients’ minds and keep them asking questions about how to make the world better.

And, given UBS’ global reach, we can have a really big impact. Every great idea starts with some out-of-the-box conversation, and I think that’s what the Institute is all about.

What topics are you focusing on in your thought leadership writing?

I think a blind spot exists through too many people not scrutinizing their real-world impact.

Many talk the talk about sustainability without checking if they’re walking it too. This raises a key point about how markets can be powerful forces for change, but if they are pointed in the wrong direction, you can get the wrong kind of change.

It can lead to unpredictable and sometimes entertaining outcomes. One example I always think back to is UK’s now-defunct renewable heat incentive, that tried to encourage more burning of biomass but ended up incentivizing people to heat empty sheds for the subsidies.

We cover all kinds of topics at the Institute, but all of them will be trained on this point about creating real impact and change. Natural capital is the latest area we have tried to do this with, by really setting out what we see as the direction of travel and how the framework offers a way to integrate nature into financial decision making throughout the economy.  

What is your own most and least sustainable behavior?

In one sense my most sustainable behavior is my love of good coffee. It gets me up in the morning and the first thing I do is go to my espresso machine, and I can happily drink it far too late into the afternoon. So, in another sense this is also my most unsustainable behavior.

Some people pay attention where they source their beans, but I think supply chains are generally too opaque to judge this well. A lot of great work has been done to trace products with green certifications up their supply chain; it has shown the certifications are sometimes not worth the paper they’re written on.

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