As the Pacific Ocean transitions from a three-year cooling period known as ‘La Niña,’ during which the highest temperatures ever recorded were observed, it is now entering an ‘El Niño’ phase, causing a rise in temperatures once again. Robin Millington, the CEO of Planet Tracker, discusses the significant implications this will have on global food production.

In this Global 20 interview, Robin emphasises the role philanthropic funding can play in addressing the challenges related to food supply, and highlights the increasing responsibility of large food companies in the face of climate change-driven pressures on our food production.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:00

I’m thrilled to be joined by Robin Millington today who is the CEO of Planet Tracker and has spent really most of your career in the area of climate and biodiversity. And we’ll talk a lot about that today. Robin, thank you very much for joining. I know you’re running from one speaker list to the next so it’s great that you’ve joined us for this Global 20. Thank you very much for joining us.

Robin Millington 0:24

Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be able to talk to your audience as well.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:29

Great. And we will drill down during this discussion really on the role of philanthropy because this is about philanthropy. But as a bit of context, we know from our last Talking Philanthropy Forum, that climate and biodiversity is an area that needs an awful lot more philanthropic support. And people find it quite difficult to connect with what’s going on in the world. So, I’d like to explore that a bit further. We also were delighted that we had another one of our Global 20s, which was Douglas Gurr talking about the sixth extinction event and how we can avoid it. So, this is a really emerging theme from our Global 20s. So, we’re really pleased to have you join us and talk more about the work you’ve done. And your CV is so formidable that I wouldn’t dare to do it, because it’ll take me 20 minutes to go through that alone! But you’ve also been involved in founding Wetlands International, Planet Tracker, which we’ll talk a bit about in a minute, and also Director, External Relations on the European Climate Foundation (ECF) many years ago. So, you’ve been in this space an awful long time. Maybe we could just start by talking a little bit about Planet Tracker, because I think it’s a philanthropically developed and funded organisation and it’s got a particular edge in this space. And I’d love you to tell more, for those that maybe don’t know about your work, what you do. And what’s the purpose of Planet Tracker?

Robin Millington 1:49

Well, thank you. The beginnings of Planet Tracker came out of something that maybe your audience is familiar with, called Carbon Tracker. So, when I was at the ECF, we were some of the original funders of Carbon Tracker. Now Carbon Tracker is a group of financial people that saw the collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Summit and thought that we have to go beyond traditional political lobbying, political advocacy, and start talking about how finance and the financial system are also backing some of the bad behaviour that we have to change globally in some of the industrial practices, and in the energy system. So, Carbon Tracker coined the phrases of stranded assets in the oil industry, unburnable carbon, the carbon bubble, that sort of thing, and really made a big splash. I mean, the Bank of England picked up their work and started using it as the basis of a number of the climate finance discussions. So having known the founders of that, we began talking in 2017 about how we expand beyond just talking about the energy system to some of the other pressing issues in the world, such as food system, food production, such as the pollution that’s coming out of plastic, single use plastics, things like the waste coming out of the textiles, industry, and fast fashion.

And so Planet Tracker was formed as a companion organisation, if you will, to Carbon Tracker. Carbon Tracker is looking at utility, big industry, and specifically really energy transition and the oil issue. And we’re trying to look at an expanded space, which is the biodiversity or natural capital, or ecosystem services issues, and also the pollution issue that’s coming out of so many of these supply chains. And we are as well as Carbon Tracker full of financial industry professionals. Our Director of Research used to be Global Director of research for Deutsche Asset, we have ex JP Morgan, State Street, etc. So, we look at this with the financial industry eye, but what we’re trying to do is value nature, but not just the extraction, which is often what the value is incorporated into, it’s the cost of extraction. It’s actually the cost of scarcity that we have to begin looking at. It’s not just taking the water out of the river, it’s whether there’s water in the river at all.

Ben Morton-Wright 4:13

That’s an incredibly complex and comprehensive view. I remember when I first looked at your website, just seeing how many impressive brains you’ve got operating in this space, and also their incredible background, as you say, in finance, so you’ve really got an incredible powerhouse of people that really have a depth and experience and it sounds like it’s incredibly important work. What has your experience been in terms of philanthropy? I know you’ve raised a lot of money in your time to date, but what’s your experience? And how’s it worked for Planet Tracker? What’s happened and what have you seen in this space?

Robin Millington 4:48

So, it’s interesting. What I have personally watched is philanthropy evolve. When I first started at the European Climate Foundation, which is a re-grantor, so we would get major funds of money in from large philanthropies and then we would re-grant as a strategic platform. The amount of money in the space for environment overall out of all philanthropy was only 3 to 4%. And out of that, climate change was a very small amount. Now, I saw some recent statistics that now say environment has moved up to something in the neighbourhood of 9 to 10%. Now, I may not have the figure correct, but that, to me is, over the last decade, quite a large evolution. There are many more people now coming in with large sums of money, particularly for the climate change issue and the energy transition issue. What I do, however, feel is the orphan issue in all of this is biodiversity and ecosystem services. And when you see the World Economic Forum saying that 50% of industry is based on natural capital or biodiversity, you just have to stop and say, that’s not true. 100% of industry is. We are nature, we are dependent on having food to eat and water to drink. And if humans aren’t involved in the industrial process, I don’t know what you would count as biodiversity and how much is dependent on biodiversity.

Ben Morton-Wright 6:17

Fascinating, and it chimes, again, with some of the themes that we’ve looked at in terms of the importance of biodiversity and indexes and tracking, and making sure that we’re actually having a full picture of our impact and everything we do, and preserving our biodiversity. So obviously, this is a really strong theme that’s emerging urgently. I am mindful, actually, in your terms, your statistics, it’s very interesting, because our Talking Philanthropy last session looked at the philanthropic ecosystem of Asia. And the panel there that was discussing environment, which included a lot of big funders in environment, who also represented a lot of funders from Asia in particular, were talking about the challenge of actually seeing the reality of where you put your money, and how it actually is directed and the kind of overwhelming nature of the world’s problems in this space. So, I don’t know if that’s the reason that there’s so little funding, although that seems to be changing recently. Why do you think philanthropists don’t connect and step up? With all that’s going on in the world, you would expect 50% of everything that’s given to go into environmental causes, in a way.

Robin Millington 7:22

The world has many issues and many problems. And a lot of philanthropy, let’s go back to the history of philanthropy, came out of either church-based philanthropy, or it came out of the sort of late 19th century industrial revolution, where you had many workers in dire straits. And philanthropy, traditionally, was kind of stepping in where government didn’t, and it still does. But I don’t think environment was a historic piece of that. It became prominent in the 60s, 70s, especially after the environmental movement formed. But I still think that it’s very hard for a lot of philanthropists that want to see tangible results from their investments. Environmental change is a longer-term issue. It’s very rare that you can kind of tick the box in six months and say job done. And I do think that sometimes part of the problem is how do you measure outcomes? How do you know that your money is moving the dial? How do you know what you’ve done here?

Ben Morton-Wright 8:28

So on that, that’s a pretty good segue into the main sort of theme that we pick up on in terms of you are tracking the planet. So how are we doing?! And we’ve obviously had some pretty bold statements from the UN the last few days, we’ve had some pretty scary reports coming left, right and centre, but where are we and how are we doing?

Robin Millington 8:54

I don’t want to be negative, because we still have time to correct course. Correct. My issue is that the time is now. We don’t have another 10 years. I mean, all the talk about 2050 as a possible endpoint to things is just way too far out. And even the discussion about 2030 gives people the feeling that we still have several years to be worrying about it. I think we can make serious changes but it’s a matter of who’s doing what today. If we don’t make those changes today, it does take time for the system to change. It won’t be filtered through in time if we wait until it actually touches us, it’s too late. And in the work that we’re doing on food systems, for example, I see tipping point after tipping point being crashed through. Now, this year, last year, this coming year, one of the major issues is that the Pacific Ocean, which seems very far away or very close, depending on where you’re sitting in the world, it has come out of a three year, what they call a La Niña period, which is when the Pacific Ocean cools. Well, it’s coming out of the La Niña at the highest temperatures recorded. And we’re going into immediately something called an El Niño, which is when the Pacific Ocean warms. We’re going into an El Niño, which is a warming period on the back of the highest temperatures in the Pacific. The US just called it and said we are now officially in an El Niño. Now that will have huge impacts for food production worldwide. And the rising heat is already touching people because wheat, everybody thinks it’s the Ukraine war.

If you look around the world wheat production is down 37% in Canada. Wheat production is down in North Africa, anywhere from 15 to 25% depending on the country. Wheat production is down in the Middle East, Iran being the biggest wheat exporter in the Middle East. It’s down something like 20% all around the world. And these are all climate related because of droughts, or alternatively, because of flooding, like has happened in Italy recently, crops are being wiped out. But because we sit in more privileged countries, and it hasn’t physically touched us yet we think somehow we’re going to import our way out of it. But what happens when we and five or 10 or 15 other countries in the world all go to the same source of import, because the traditional sources of import are no longer available because of the downturn? It’s going to put a lot of pressure on our food production and that’s 100% climate change driven. Then you have black swans like Ukraine, but that’s not the real reason behind the food problem right now.

Ben Morton-Wright 11:43

And in terms of how can I actually help on that? So with Planet Tracker and the work if I was able to write a big cheque, I’d be lucky enough, what would you ask me to fund? You know, if I was sitting watching this video, and I could fund something what would you say?

Robin Millington 11:57

What we want are for the food companies to take seriously the fact. We’ve just done a major study called The Financial Markets Roadmap for Global Food System Transformation. What we, with a financial eye have looked at, is the fact that the producers, the farmers, the people on the actual sharp end of all of this are not the people who either get the majority of equity or debt lending, nor are they the ones that get the profit. So the profit sits in the retailers so on the downstream end of the supply chain. The majority of financing sits in the middle part of the supply chain. But that upper end of the supply chain, where the worst pollution, where the worst damage, where the worst emissions where the worst toxic chemicals sit and all the slave labour and everything you can think of, don’t have the money to do the transition. So, what we have to do is shift and make sure that the people with the money are putting the money into where the transition can happen. Because right now a lot of the big firms say, “I don’t know my supply chain, I just source it”. And they don’t take responsibility. Now in the scope, one, two and three discussions they’re supposed to be taking responsibility for it. But if you go in and read, we’re doing in depth analysis of a lot of big companies’ transition plants. And we’re finding that they’re talking the talk, but a lot of them seriously are not walking the walk. Or they’re doing it but they’re doing it at a third the pace that they’ve said so there’s no way they will get to the plans in 2030 that they’re stating publicly. So if you were to put money into it, what we would want to do, the next big step that we want to take in the food system, is actually going out and doing that engagement and advocacy that has to be done, either to get the rules of the game changed by the regulators, or doing direct advocacy with the financial houses that are funding the big brands where the profit sits. Forcing them to relook at how that profit gets distributed and how does its scope three emissions or the pollution problems in their supply chains become addressed? That’s just one thought!

Ben Morton-Wright 14:10

And that’s a good start. It’s an interesting trend, because it’s really, truly strategic philanthropy that you’re talking about. And we actually started this whole series with a Dr Pam Davis interview the Client Earth at the beginning of this whole journey of Global 20s. And the same sort of view was given is that really the best kind of philanthropy in the environmental space might be interventions to help shine a torch on what’s going on to actually help lobby around, as far as you can do, in terms of non political lobbying, but also documenting and tracking what’s happening so that we’re all aware. So it’s a different kind of philanthropy in many ways. It’s rather than a direct in/out intervention it’s more of a strategic intervention so that we’re now equipped to know how to make changes and companies actually can then change their supply chain to change their activities and actually help, being informed from the work that you’re doing and the pressure that you’re bringing to bear in terms of shareholders and all the rest, I would imagine in terms of making sure they change, to comply to avoid some of these problems. So is that a fair description on the kind of intervention that philanthropy can make in the whole space?

Robin Millington 15:19

Yes, and without the philanthropic funding, we wouldn’t have done the work we’ve done, and we are now finding out that much of our work is absolutely unique. We have large financial institutions now directly coming to us and asking for help. One large bank had us do presentations, sort of a nature and natural capital 101, if you will, to 11 different divisions worldwide. To help them understand what they need to be asking, they need questions to ask in their quarterly earnings calls, they need questions to ask of the C suite boards. One of the things that we want to take on at a much greater scale is the issue of incentives. So we’ve just done a major paper in the textiles industry that looks at the top 30 apparel manufacturers or brands, I should say, and asking, okay, they’re all talking about fast fashion, they’re all talking about cleaning up the supply chain, they’re all trying to do the screen advertising PR for themselves. However, when we actually look at KPIs for executive pay, and bonuses, only two out of 30 had anything like an acceptable level of incentive linked to their C suite team. And we think that that’s one of the key issues if the incentives aren’t properly linked up and the KPIs aren’t embedded. What incentive does the C suite have to do any of the sustainability transition that has to be done?

Ben Morton-Wright 16:42

Such an important point. So fairly depressing in terms of tipping points having tipped but then some roadmaps on how we can mobilise philanthropy in terms of supporting the work you’re doing and other organisations? I think it’s very conscious, by the way that we’ve done a lot of our interviews of the 20 interviews that we’ve done as part of Global 20 in this space, and it reflects our firm’s commitment to shine a light on this area of philanthropy, actually, and encourage people to really think about it and think about it urgently. So it sounds like the kind of programmes that you’ve got, hopefully, out of this recording will, maybe we’ll get some even some inquiries and some further support. Is it all doom and gloom? I mean, we’ve had other interviews of sorts say well, don’t worry, we can find a way out of all of this. It’s fairly overwhelming. But is there any silver linings? I know, you’ve looked at, for example, urban farming, which I thought was a brilliant concept and there’s other issues around all the supply chain management, but you know, where is the silver lining, if any, what can we do?

Robin Millington 17:43

I think there are lots of solutions that could be scaled. And part of it is that there just isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, imperative, for scaling on some of these. And at what stage does that imperative kick in? Is it already when everything is looking doom and gloom? Or is it that we can see that coming in? If we do something now, we can actually help. So we’ve just done a major piece of work on deep sea mining, with the need for transition out of fossil fuel based energy. Electricity is obviously and battery power for cars, is being seen as very important but you need rare earth metals for the batteries. And obviously, there’s a lot of controversy about where is that rare earth metal going to come from? And a lot of people think, well, the nodules in the deep sea, nothing gets destroyed, it’s all okay, we’re just gonna go get it out of the deep sea. And we’ve just shown that actually on land mining, if it’s being done in a country with a rule of law, like Australia, like America, where labour rights and environmental issues are being addressed, you’re going to be able to much better for the planet, take it out of non-land mines and do the deep sea mining. However, there’s this other thing called urban mining, and urban mining is where you go in and you just reclaim all of those copper wires and all the things that are just being left in urban environments, when buildings come down with new systems are put in underground. If you can reclaim a lot of that metal, you wouldn’t have to do as much upscale of the mining, the virgin mining, you can actually start reclaiming a lot and recycling a lot. And I think things like urban mining, urban farming, it’s all there to be done but we just don’t have scale. And this is also where philanthropy can really come in and start pushing and impact investing. To start pushing these things to reach a point of being scalable.

Ben Morton-Wright 19:42

That’s absolutely fascinating and certainly the urban mining was a new concept until I first talked to you. So there we are, and I love it. It seems a complete no brainer. So I got a basement full of computers, so I think I know where they’re gonna end up. Not in landfill, right? It’s going to end up in the right place and recycled and why reinvent the same minerals that we’ve actually got, you know, it seems to make a lot of sense. That’s a really positive way to draw an end to this discussion and we’re running out of time. So I think there are silver linings in terms of the philanthropic space. I mean, are you optimistic about the potential to mobilise more philanthropy? You’ve been doing this for a long time, and what do philanthropists need to start thinking about if they’re watching this? What would you say to them directly to think about?


Robin Millington 20:31

I would say philanthropy, it needs to step away from silos. And this is something that I do see, in my experience, it’s easy to become very siloed and saying, you as an NGO, need to do this little sliver of the grant work that we want to have done and this philanthropy need, or this NGO, needs to do that. Rather do understand that there are some NGOs that are very close to the ground, close to the politicians, close to the financial community, that might be able to work on a more systemic level with things. We can possibly go in and not just be limited to one little thing, but rather give us the ability to do a systemic piece of work. One of the things that we are hoping to do, for example, is change the rules of the game in the finance world. It’s not just go in and look at the Textile Supply Chain. In that case, we’re looking at things like stock exchange listing rules, or we’re looking at how insurance companies decide when and not to actually give insurance to projects. Or there are a variety of, if you will, game changes in the way finance is actually being run. It’s the framework of finance, as opposed to the specifics of the investment in a particular project or supply chain.

Ben Morton-Wright 21:52

Yeah. It slightly reminds me of Ban Ki-moon’s opening remarks at Talking Philanthropy, when he talks about an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of approach to this and the importance of all partnering and working across different sectors and actually working together in a much more collaborative way. So I think that may be a great way to draw an end to this 20 minutes. And it’s been an absolute pleasure, as ever. I can see now why you’re in such high demand. You really are a world expert in this and congratulations on the work you’ve done. And obviously there’s much more to be done to stop more tipping points happening, if that’s possible, or at least trying to avert some of the downsides of this fairly significant world event that we’re experiencing at the moment. So Robin, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure. And thank you for participating in the Global 20s.

Robin Millington 22:36

Thank you, Ben.