Meet the Leaders: In conversation with Marcene Mitchell 4 Jun 2021

Marcene Mitchell is a globally recognised expert in the field of climate change and sustainable finance. After working with Perrett Laver, Ms. Mitchell was recently appointed as the Senior Vice President of Climate Change at The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF). She focuses on advancing climate change mitigation and resilience policies across the world with a particular focus on nature-based climate solutions. Ms. Mitchell previously served as the Global Head of Climate Strategy and Business Development at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank.

Ahead of World Environment Day, Sophia Copeman, Partner in our Global Non-Profits and Social Impact Practice sat down with Ms. Mitchell to discuss: her career so far, her new role with the WWF, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the fight against climate change and the challenge of climate change more generally.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us today. When it comes to climate change, what would you say is the biggest challenge we face?

I think the biggest challenge has been creating the necessary sense of urgency amongst both business and political leaders across the globe. We have known about climate change for a long time, yet we have simply watched it become a climate crisis. So, for me, winning hearts and minds and convincing people of the need to act now to address climate change has undoubtedly been one of the main challenges.

Are you optimistic that we can convince people of the danger and reach the 2030 climate change targets? And then, if we are to make progress does it still require systematic change?

It is possible to slow global warming, but absolutely requires a huge systematic change in our approach to climate change. We need to go from commitments and targets to taking concrete steps to fight this issue.  This must become the decade of climate action.

The good news is that there is a new sense of optimism that we tackle this issue. I truly believe that there is a great new sustainable world out there that presents more opportunities than threats. I have seen first-hand in my career how fast industries can transform in only a decade. Ten years ago, renewable energy usage was nowhere near comparable to fossil fuel energy. Now, in 85% of the world, renewable energy is the most economic choice. There is so much we can change; we just need to take these important steps to transform our economy.

You have a particular focus on nature-based climate solutions – how important do you think they are in the fight against climate change?

Nature-based climate solutions are crucial; and that is why I am so honoured to be able to work at the WWF. In the past, there's been two kinds of conversations: one about climate, and one about conservation and biodiversity. Finally, these conversations are coming together into this idea of nature-based solutions, the concept being that we can and should use nature to solve some of our climate problems. For example, nature can be used as a way of reducing and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere through our forests and grasslands, which is a very powerful, and sustainable solution.

You mentioned the WWF, what really attracted you to your current role with the organisation?

 I have always loved nature and during this pandemic it's been one of the things that has kept me sane. I live in Washington D.C, and there is a beautiful park that runs throughout the city called Rock Creek Park, and every day I go out into the park and explore the woods. Things just don’t seem quite so bad when you are out there in nature. So, the opportunity to bring my experience and optimism to a conservation organization that is about nature and biodiversity was just a really exciting opportunity for me.

In your new role, are there any areas you would like to focus on?

I think that nature-based solutions are very important, yet they are a very new area for the private sector. Therefore, one of my goals is to really expand the private sector financing of nature-based solutions and hopefully see their usage grow globally. I really want to use my experience at the World Bank and background in financing to push for nature-based solutions and of course to all the WWF’s wider work in conservation.

Again, this is the decade of action, we need to implement solutions at a scale and at a pace that has not happened before. The only way to achieve that is through governments, the private sector and civil society working together. Hopefully, through my work at the WWF I can use my experience to help achieve this united action on climate change.

Can you share any details about projects you are working on at the moment?

This is very much our moon-shot project, but one area we are working on is the development of the seaweed industry. Seaweed’s potential for conversation and climate solutions is limitless! It is easy to grow, versatile, and beneficial to ocean ecosystems. Therefore, farming seaweed is an efficient way to produce climate friendly food for a growing population, feed for livestock and even bioplastics to keep our oceans clean. Seaweed can also act as an underwater forest that absorbs carbon and nitrogen, and it could also help reduce overfishing as it provides fisherman with an alternative income source. It is so exciting to be part of something that is innovative, creative, and aiming to achieve essential change.

This sounds very exciting! Looking at the fight for climate change more generally, what would you say are the biggest obstacles?

We really need to have the private sector and government working better in harmony together and, there are many government policies that could facilitate that. For example, prices on carbon would be a real long-term signal to the private sector to reduce carbon emissions. There are over 45 countries that have these prices on carbon, but we need that to be expanded and have an international agreement about carbon pricing and carbon credits. Generally, I think that a lack of collaboration is the main obstacle. We are all in this together and need to act together to solve a global problem such as climate change.

What lessons can we take from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well first, the pandemic has shown us how important planning is. Virologist and epidemiologists have warned us for many years about the possibility of a pandemic, and yet we delayed our action, meaning we were caught unaware and unprepared. I think that is a very important lesson for climate change. Scientists have told us for years that this is happening now, to plan for it and to address it. We need to learn the lesson of our unpreparedness for the pandemic and act now on climate change.

The pandemic has also illustrated the underlying inequities in our societies as the most vulnerable groups have been those hit hardest by its impact. It is clear that climate change will most detrimentally impact the poorest. Geographically, people outside of the “West” will be the most impacted and the least prepared to deal with the effects of climate change. So really, we must do more to alleviate global inequities especially when faced with the coming challenges of climate change.

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