There’s more to being a sustainability leader than you think

23 Feb 2022

Image: Andrea Carroll, DAA

When Andrea Carroll began her career in sustainability, she was one of very few leaders in the space. Today, she still feels the role is largely misunderstood.

Sustainability has become one of those words mentioned as a key area of focus in most business strategies, alongside innovation and security. But, as is the nature with such broad all-encompassing topics, it can be hard to understand what it really means to have a strong sustainability strategy.

This lack of understanding is something Andrea Carroll, the new head of sustainability at DAA, has come across throughout her career.

Future Human

“I think nobody knows what I do,” she told SiliconRepublic.com. “Throughout my career, my first conversation with somebody when I have to either talk to a business or a client is, ‘What do you think that I do? What do you think sustainability is?’”

Prior to working for the semi-State company that operates the Dublin and Cork airports, Carroll was a senior sustainability leader in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and at tech giant AWS.

“I still find the leader terminology really interesting because I think there’s been such a shift recently and there’s probably only a handful of us in Ireland that have been working in this space as long as I have,” she said.

Carroll’s educational background began in University College Dublin where she studied geography. She then did a master’s degree in environmental management, where she heard of the concept of sustainable development for the first time.

“At that time, most people who were going into the environmental management sector were not working with industry and business. But to me, sustainable development just made so much sense.”

‘We can’t just demonise aviation for carbon emissions’
– ANDREA CARROLL

In her current role, Carroll aims to figure out how DAA can reach its sustainability goals in the most effective way.

“DAA came to me with a very ambitious idea about what they want the head of sustainability to do,” she said. “They have done an awful lot of really good work in the environmental space at the airports and within their buildings, but they want to take that a step further.”

Carroll said that “we can’t just demonise aviation for carbon emissions”, particularly when Ireland is an island nation.

“We don’t have an opportunity to do that. Data centres as well, data centres are really heavily demonised, but we fully depend on them and lean on them in terms of our modern lifestyle,” she said.

“We need aviation to support our economy, to support our lifestyles, to support the differences in connectedness between families. It became a really interesting existential sustainability issue for me.”

Misconceptions about the role

Carroll said that even though the sustainability space has grown immensely in recent years, one of the most common misconceptions that comes up time and time again is what her role actually entails.

She recalled one time when someone said she may not be well received because people thought she was going to make everyone give up their cars and take public transport instead. “I was like, ‘That is not my job.’”

In order to alleviate common concerns, Carroll said she usually starts with meeting the leaders across a business and asks them what they think sustainability is, what they think her role will entail and how can she support them within her role.

This, she said, “was probably very different to what they thought the conversation was going to be”.

“My role is to figure out how we can help [them] do what [they’re] doing but in the most effective and sustainable way as well as being a conduit for helping people to understand what regulations and what demands are coming to them,” she added.

She also said there is sometimes a misconception around sustainability and technology, both on the pro-tech side and the anti-tech side.

“It’s really easy to say, ‘Let’s not worry about the future because technology will get us out of that.’ I’ve heard that argument so much over the last decade, and it’s just not true,” she said.

“On the other hand … data centres and technology are really demonised because of how power-hungry they are and how much they push us further into this quagmire. But in a lot of ways, they do that in order to innovate other ways that we can keep up or develop our culture, and how we connect as a society.”

Shifting the conversation

As part of her current role, Carroll works towards helping DAA meet demands not just from the Government, but from its customers as well. However, she said there needs to be better information and clearer instruction as to how climate ambitions can be met on a more granular level.

‘Sometimes I feel like the harbinger of doom’
– ANDREA CARROLL

“There’s a huge amount of worry across society about all these targets and ambitious goals the Government have set for us. As people, we need them to be reached. But in reality, the businesses that have to achieve them don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to do that as a sustainability professional who has been studying this for 20 years,” she said.

“I think that we need real conversations about what it’s going to cost and what it’s going to require for us to hit our sustainability targets.”

Carroll added that while the Climate Action Plan and carbon budgets are a great sign that the Irish Government is giving sustainability more attention, there needs to more focus on the cost, expertise and resources needed to reach those targets. Additionally, she said the processes that are currently in place need to change.

“Sometimes I feel like the harbinger of doom,” she said. “I understand that there is rapid change, but Government processes and planning processes are not responding in the way that business has to respond,” she said.

“If I want to put in an anaerobic digester or something to produce renewable gas or renewable electricity, the planning process that we have to go through hasn’t shifted. We don’t have a decarbonisation route to get to the technology that we need, which means we have 2030 targets that we’re probably never going to reach as a nation because the planning won’t allow us to get there for another couple of years.”

She added that in order to really address the climate crisis, there needs to be the same level of attention that was given to the Covid-19 pandemic. That is the level of intense focus that we need,” she said.

“The second thing I think we need is money. That was the big call from COP26, certainly from all the developing nations, but from other places as well that we need money to do this.

“There isn’t a business case for sustainability. Sometimes you can put a business case together. Most of the time we can’t and we’re not going to achieve what we need to do if we always have to put a business case forward for it.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com