Paris Alignment: complex matter with social impact

Luke Disney — SVP Climate & Sustainability — grew up on the Canadian island of Cape Breton, where he learned an important lesson: “The most important thing you learn is what you don’t know.” With that in mind, he produced the Road to Paris report in under a year. “I hope people read it and realize that this bank is firmly at the heart of society.”

Two weeks before publication of the report, Luke walks into the interview room, excuses himself and quickly finishes an e-mail to a colleague. “We’ve had a thousand comments on the latest version,” he says. It’s clear that the deadline is approaching. But he is still happy to talk about the project he’s working on in great detail, the one he “lives for,” as he puts it.

From Canada to Croeselaan

Luke became interested in social issues while he was a student. “I studied Political Science and Economics and then moved to the Netherlands. I started out as a communications adviser. You’re probably wondering what that has to do with sustainability. But in the five years that I worked there, I learned a lot about how to work with people and how to bring a vision to life. I took these lessons with me when I moved on to work in larger organizations.”

Luke names an impressive list of social projects. “I worked at TNT for several years in cooperation with the World Food Programme. I was focused on the logistics for food suppliers in developing countries. In Africa, where I worked for a decade, I set up a network of 50 health clinics. I eventually met someone on a different project who invited me to join Rabobank.”

Paris Alignment

Luke joined Rabobank in 2021 as Lead Paris Alignment, a brand-new role in the Sustainability department. “Just like the rest of the world, Rabobank has been paying more and more attention to the topic of climate change. The bank has a two-part focus on climate. On the one hand we look at the risks that climate change presents for our portfolio. On the other hand we focus on the indirect impact that our financing to clients has on the climate.”

“My focus is Paris Alignment: making sure our activities are in line with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. The alignment process concerns everything that we as a bank do to ensure that our activities contribute to preventing the earth from warming up more than 1.5 degrees.” Luke integrated all the targets in the Road to Paris report, which he and more than 100 colleagues worked on for a year.

Spreading Knowledge Like an Ink Blot

Luke talks about how the report got made. “What I learned quickly was that you might think you’re working on something unique, but in a big organization like this, it doesn’t take long to see overlap with other people. The sooner you involve them, the sooner you can start working as a network and spreading your knowledge like ink across blotting paper.”

In addition to his colleagues at Rabobank, Luke worked a great deal with outside parties like the U.N. and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “The last thing you want as a bank is to be sitting there devising plans all by yourself. That is very dangerous, as you run the risk of doing something that the rest of the world will then say is completely wrong.”

Fundamental Change

Returning to the report, Luke points out that this is not the primary goal of the report. So what is? “To fundamentally change how the bank works. To implement the Paris Alignment process in the first line of business. So that the bank and our clients actually become more sustainable.”

When asked how one achieves that, Luke laughs. “It is an enormous task that raises hundreds of questions. What are the available methodologies? Which data do we need? Which commitments should we make? We boiled all those questions down to three main questions: How much is a client in a given sector emitting? Is that too much? And what needs to happen in order to reduce that?”

Luke sat down with different departments in the bank to talk about these three questions. “Each sector got their turn measuring their clients’ emissions. That created lots of discussion, because all sorts of changes were needed all at once. If there is one thing the bank does not do well, it’s rapid change. Luckily there were many others involved, and their dedication and involvement really made all the difference.”

Letting Go

Looking back on the past year and the greatest lesson he took from it, Luke says that he has “gone through processes like this in big organizations before, and what you have to realize is that being completely ‘in control’ is an illusion. Sure, maybe you have the final responsibility, but you are incapable of doing it alone. Sometimes you just have to accept that things are going to go differently, or that somebody else’s idea is better.”

“The most important thing for me was learning to distinguish between the vision and how to carry out that vision. As long as your vision — the essence of what you want to accomplish — is strong, you can give yourself room to be flexible in the process. You have to be able to let it go; it only makes things better in the end.”

Vision for the Future

“After the report is published, I hope that my colleagues feel proud of everything Rabobank is doing. I hope they feel especially proud of the fact that we aren’t afraid to talk about what we can do and what we can’t do. In the report we say straightforwardly that we do not have all the answers. I hope that colleagues and stakeholders read it and think ‘this is a step in the right direction.’”

What is the vision for the future for the team? “Not necessarily growing larger, but I hope we can include a certain type of person. At the moment it’s still a lot of discovery and pioneering, but soon we will need different skills. I am always on the look out for people who are curious, who learn fast, who can deal with stress, and who have an excellent sense of humour. You need a sense of humour in this business.”

Would you like to know more? Read the Road to Paris report here.