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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

3 October 2022 – CISL has published a new report to help companies achieve their net zero goals by taking a whole system approach to net zero transformation. The report, which includes knowledge contribution and support from over 30 companies, aims to help sustainability practitioners engage their C-Suite on systems change.

Accelerating action to achieve corporate net zero goals in an era of turbulence and complexity necessitates a new mindset in which companies expand their frame of reference to take a whole-system approach to transformation. 

The most recent IPCC report highlighted that global emissions must peak by 2025 to limit global warming to 1.5oC above the pre-industrial baseline. But action by leading businesses alone to align their organisations with net zero will not deliver the full global transformation needed. Rather, there is an urgent need for businesses to address not just their own emissions, but also to work with the social, economic and natural systems around them, actively engaging stakeholders including markets, the business community, policy makers and investors in the transformation. 

Building on CISL’s Targeting Net Zero Framework, this report and the tools presented within are designed to help ambitious businesses that have already set net zero goals to stress test and adapt transformation programmes in the face of systemic turbulence. We also provide a series of accompanying case studies below that are intended to inspire action.

Read CISL’s Net Zero Business Transformation Report

Net Zero Transformation

The report is aimed at sustainability practitioners to enable them to engage their C-Suite on systems change. In doing so, it explores:

  • The case for change in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world.
  • The key findings of a year-long analysis of corporate approaches to net zero transformation.
  • The four critical levels that companies need to understand to deliver net zero transformation - individual leadership, the company, its value chain, and the wider system.
  • CISL’s Net Zero Transformation Framework and its five essential steps to accelerate change at the scale required.
  • A call to action for companies to engage in a set of pre-competitive development areas.

Our Framework for Accelerating Transformation Amid Turbulence and Complexity

The framework focuses on the deep interdependency between net zero goals and the wider natural and social systems upon which our economy depends; and the key leverage points that will most help to advance net zero transformation, promote organisational resilience and drive system change. With this systemic perspective in mind, companies can use the framework outlined below to guide their transformation process: 

  1. Set a transformative agenda that establishes the vision and gives leaders the mandate to disrupt the status quo;
  1. Understand the complexities—including systemic impacts, dependencies, risks and opportunities—in a way that considers and engages the organisation’s extended ecosystem of stakeholders;
  1. Create the enabling conditions by building the foundations of transformation (good governance, effective business integration, enabling culture, future-fit capacity and skills, systemic innovation, transformative finance, and transformative partnerships and advocacy);
  1. Take a portfolio approach to innovation that clusters multiple interventions around strategy objectives spanning the full four levels of transformation;
  1. Mainstream and secure innovations, developing pathways for scaling that prevent roll-back by aligning the organisation around the new innovations.

Citing this report

The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2022). Net Zero Business Transformation A framework for accelerating change in an era of turbulence and complexity Cambridge: The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Net Zero Business Transformation Case Studies

During this research, numerous examples of leading organisations taking ambitious action on transformation were identified. These companies helped shape and validate the report findings, but should also serve to inspire and support others in their transformation efforts. Below are insights from seven such companies.

Published: 3 October 2022


Lead authors of this report were Kate Wolfenden, Dr James MacPherson, and Aris Vrettos, with input and support from CISL members including Dr Victoria Hurth, Ben Kellard, Gillian Secrett, Lindsay Hooper, Lucy Auden, Tahmid Chowdhury, Emma Cutting, James Cole, Dr Gemma Cranston, Dr Bojun Wang, Bianca Drotleff, Rebecca Doggwiler, Beverly Cornaby, and Phillipe Joubert.


Copyright © 2022 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or The University of Cambridge.