Chief Climate Officer : trendy title or profound change in the position of Sustainable Development Manager?

The scope of a Chief Climate officer

The position of Chief Climate Officer is not yet a standard position found in companies, which today rely on their Sustainable Development Managers to carry out their entire CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) strategy. But why not directly dedicate a position in the organization to the climate? We have the right to dream, right? It's free, green, and sometimes it allows you to move forward.

The interfaces of the company with the climate are multiple and can be dissociated into two categories: on the one hand all that relates to the impact of the climate on the activity of the structure, and on the other the impact of the structure itself on the climate, via its GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions.

The impact of the climate on the activity is of primary interest for the company which will have to develop its resilience to the climate in order to perpetuate its activity, in particular in a context of climate change. Similarly, its carbon footprint is obviously a fundamental responsibility of the organization, particularly in the context of integrating externalities into the financial balance sheets (see Metigate for more information).

The Chief Climate Officer would therefore be the guarantor of these actions in interface with the climate; natural culmination of the scope of a Sustainable Development Manager.

And the Sustainable Development Manager in all this?

According to Apec, the Sustainable Development Manager “initiates, pilots, supervises, controls, develops and represents the sustainable development strategy of his company or organization. He is committed to advancing environmental, ethical, social and governance aspects at all levels of the structure”. 

We can immediately notice that we are not talking only about the climate, but about progress on the environmental aspects, and above all on the ethical, social and governance aspects. It's a wide position, which gives the impression of carrying all the ambition of positive impact that a company wishes to have. A heavy task... in particular by considering the obligations of verifications of conformity of the behavior of the company, its managers and its employees with the legal and ethical standards which are applicable to them, which is called compliance (official definition of the association the Circle of Compliance).

And this is the whole subtlety of the current positions of Sustainable Development Manager, which from one company to another, are more or less dedicated to compliance or company strategy. A dilemma very well explained by Fabrice Bonnifet, then President of the C3D (Collège des Directeurs du Développement Durable) and Sustainable Development Director of the Bouygues Group, in an article in Les Echos in 2019: “The profession of sustainable development (SD) or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is key to transforming the company, if and only if the person who takes on this role knows how to change dimension: moving from a role focused on compliance to a vision based on integrated sustainable development. to the strategy. »

Complementary positions

By adding climate resilience and responsibility for the carbon footprint to the organization, the search for and deployment of actions for better environmental performance becomes concrete and integrated into the company's strategy; these two elements directly impacting its performance.

Indeed, the Sustainable Development Manager lacks a tangible and visible mission for the whole company, at the operational and financial level, which could be carried out by the Chief Climate Officer . It might even be interesting to assume the dissociation of operational and strategic actions for the benefit of the environment, from actions of pure compliance. Why not transform the position of Sustainable Development Manager into a position of Chief Compliance Officer (another CCO…)? Isolating the climate issues would be the guarantee of making the sustainable development strategy much more operational and integrated into the company.

Often debated because of its scope more focused on compliance rather than on the company's strategy and operational processes, the function of Sustainable Development Manager lacks two strong responsibilities to get back to the heart of the company's challenges and accelerate transition: managing the structure's resilience to climate change, and improving its carbon footprint, which will be included in the financial balance sheet. This scope could even be carried by a Chief Climate Officer , directly associated with the governance of the company via its participation in the Executive Committee, and not via the creation of this position within a CSR Department. A governance that we know how essential in the choices of environmental orientation of companies.