© James Ferguson

The environmentalists and green groups at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which starts today in Paris, will inevitably call for better leadership on sustainability issues. They will not have to travel far to find those willing to teach them.

The verdant campus of HEC Paris is a cab ride from the railway station at Jouy-en-Josas, on the southern fringe of the French capital. Here, “sustainability and society” is one of the school’s three pillars of its leadership training programmes.

Andrea Masini, associate professor in operations management and IT, joined HEC four years ago when the school updated its MBA programme, adding a course focused on climate change and sustainability. He says climate change is “in the DNA of this school”.

Schools elsewhere may not have embraced the subject as much as, say, entrepreneurship and globalisation, but student demand is growing.

Ethics come first

In a survey of 3,711 business school students across 25 countries by Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment, 44 per cent said they would accept a lower salary to work for a company with better green credentials. A fifth said they would refuse a job at a company with bad environmental practices no matter how high the salary.

“There is a carbon tax on talent,” Stuart DeCew, programme director at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, says.

It is increasingly common to find deans boasting about the green credentials of management teaching.

This is encouraged, although not required, by the main business school accreditation bodies. Although teaching about climate change leadership is not a requirement of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a commitment to teach on corporate and social responsibility is one of its core values.

Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, says an interest in climate change connects professors across Columbia University’s Manhattan campus, with his academic staff working in partnership with colleagues in other departments, such as the natural sciences. “Universities are this wonderful locus for problem-solving because we don’t have an axe to grind,” he says.

Green topics become the norm

The Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Montreal, “normalised” the climate-change issue as a core topic a long time ago, says Steve Maguire, director of the school’s institute for integrated management.

“For a certain generation it has gone mainstream,” he says. “Students do not self-identify [as environmentalists], in the same way that many young women do not identify as feminists, although they back gender equality.”

At Desautels, the interest in climate change dates from 1998, when the McGill school of environment was opened. Its creation was the result of a combined effort by academics including several business school staff.

Climate change has become one of the key qualifications taught at Desautels. For instance, the executive MBA programme, jointly offered with HEC Montreal, launched a four-day module on the sustainability challenge in 2014.

“It has been very well received by EMBA students,” Prof Maguire says.

The big picture

The passion for climate-change teaching is strongest in business schools that form part of larger universities, where engineering and chemistry professors have collaborated with business academics. Prof Maguire says they have worked together on solutions to sustainability issues that are both technically and commercially viable.

“Unlike LBS, Insead and other standalone business schools, we are embedded in the natural science, legal and social science discussions about climate changes issues,” he says.

Although interest in teaching climate change is growing in North American business schools, the centre for teaching the subject is still Europe. This is a reflection of both corporate and student interest there.

Demand from companies

The spur for the creation of climate-change teaching at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management was demand from the city’s financial institutions.

Ulf Moslener, professor of sustainable energy finance, explains: “All our teaching on this subject has been driven by the academic side, but the banks wanted to introduce this because it was what they felt they needed senior executives to understand.”

Perhaps as a result of this, the climate-related courses the school runs have been designed to teach practical skills for running companies in an age of scarce resources.

In Cambridge, in the UK, the drive to teach climate change came in the 1990s when professors in management studies, then part of the engineering department, a forerunner to the Judge Business School, launched a masters course in environment and sustainability. “There was a feeling in some academic circles 15 or 20 years ago that the teaching of climate change was a bit flaky,” says Stephen Peake, a fellow in environmental technologies.

“But that wasn’t the case at Cambridge Judge, where the feeling has long been that this is an important subject for business education, because if the risks are what the science says they are, then there are clear implications for the economy.”

The fall and rise of sustainability courses

Not all programmes dedicated to climate-change issues have proved robust.

In 2007, Norwich Business School in the UK launched the world’s first carbon management MBA. However, the qualification did not survive and the last students completed the course in 2013.

“Carbon management and climate change have become more mainstream, strategic issues in business. They are embedded more widely in business education, so it was no longer necessary to have a standalone course,” the school says.

When one climate change degree programme withers, however, another tries a slightly different approach.

The University of Exeter Business School in the UK created its One Planet MBA, in the wake of the financial crisis in 2010, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund International, in Switzerland.

The programme taps into a need to get acquainted with climate change issues as their importance increases in the boardroom, says Nicolas Forsans, director of the One Planet course.

Despite the name, Prof Forsans insists the programme is not a “green MBA”, but a course for teaching innovation and leadership to create business opportunities at a time when resources are becoming more scarce. He adds: “Our students are defined by their mindset rather than their career paths.”

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