April 13, 2023

Future Generation Boards II: We Have the Almanac

by Prof Nick Barter and Dr Akihiro Omura

In Back to the Future part two, Marty McFly travels to the future, not the past, and in that future, he finds a copy of Grays Sports Almanac, a reference book of all major sporting results. It’s better than winning the lottery.

In Back to the Future part two, Marty McFly travels to the future, not the past, and in that future, he finds a copy of Grays Sports Almanac, a reference book of all major sporting results. It’s better than winning the lottery.

Marty knows that when he returns to his time, every bet he makes, on every sporting event, will be a winner. Of course, nothing is, or ever will be, that simple. The Almanac is stolen by Marty’s nemesis Biff, who uses it to create a horrific alternate version of the future, a dystopic hell over which Biff presides from the penthouse of a casino. The meaning is clear, knowing the future is not enough, not when you consider Biff’s need for power.

Over the coming decades we are facing challenges such as biodiversity loss, rising sea-levels, soil erosion, climate change, rising inequality and more[i]. These challenges are putting debts onto our children[ii] and those that come after us. Science has provided us with this foresight, and it’s almost but not quite like we have the equivalent of the sports almanac, and we are in the past with the ability to make winning bets on the future. However, even with the foresight of science it appears that we are failing. We might like to think we’re Marty McFly, but maybe we’re closer to Biff.

For example, to focus on climate change, it was in 1988, 35 years ago that the United Nations founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[iii]. This is more than a generation ago and longer than Marty’s time travel which was just 30 years (1985 to 2015). Given the time we have had to consider climate change it might be expected that emissions reductions would be well underway. Unfortunately, not. In 2021, the global average temperature was about 1.1C higher than the pre-industrial baseline and there is a high likelihood we will break the 1.5C barrier in the next five years[iv]. Further, going past 2C of warming is considered dangerous, yet now there is discussion of global warming of 3C or more[v]. So much for long-term thinking and our ability to use the foresight afforded by science.

This inability to limit our emissions has many reasons, wilful misdirection being one. For example, Exxon Mobil spent decades rubbishing the science of climate change, even though they made startlingly accurate predictions about future temperatures[vi]. While short-termism continues to rear its head, with BP recently announcing that it would scale back its emissions reduction targets, while at the same time as letting the world know it had made record profits from the boost given to fossil fuel prices by the impact of the war in Ukraine[vii]. In discussing these announcements, the CEO of BP, Bernard Looney made clear that his role is to deliver value for shareholders. In so doing, BP has deliberately turned away from foresight and prioritized the shareholders of today rather than those who might be around in 2050 and beyond.

Notwithstanding the short-term monetary pressures on a publicly listed company like BP, and without wishing to particularly single out Mr. Looney, perhaps his decisions are to be expected. At the time of writing this piece (2023) his approximate age is 53 and in 2050 he will be 80. If his likely life expectancy is 85 years old, as per OECD predictions[viii], it is unlikely he is going to live long enough to see the full effects of dangerous climate change. Hence, perhaps the foresight of science is irrelevant to him and other BP decision makers. They won’t be around to pick up the tab. However, such decisions are perhaps not so rational for those with plenty of life left in 2050 or perhaps the 2050 CEO of BP.

From our analysis of companies, the 2050 CEO of BP is probably about 29 years old now and if that person is like other young people, then climate change matters to them, especially because our wellbeing is tied to our expectations about our future[ix]. Perhaps Mr. Looney’s decision to loosen the emission reduction targets of BP was made without consulting the next generation of leaders. Yet he could have asked them.

Given the context sketched out above, we asked ourselves if the age of the CEO correlates to whether a business has a policy to reduce emissions? Our previous analysis on the Climate Action 100+ grouping of 166 companies that emit 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions[x] found that age does correlate[xi]. Building off that earlier analysis, we expanded our data set to just under two thousand companies. The aim being to understand if the signal we had seen in the 166 companies was repeated. The signal was repeated, and our expanded analysis revealed some interesting correlations as follows[xii];

  • There is a golden age range of CEOs between 48 to 60 years old who are leading companies that are more likely to have an emissions reduction target. Outside of this range, companies are less likely to have a target, particularly those companies with older CEOs.
  • As CEO tenure gets longer and particularly if the tenure is longer than 20 years, companies are less likely to have an emissions reduction target. Below 20 years of tenure, companies are more likely to have an emissions reduction target.
  • Companies with 90% or more of non-executive directors on their boards are more likely to have an emissions reduction target. Companies with less than this percentage are less likely to have an emissions reduction target.
  • Companies with the CEO and Chairperson being the same person are negatively correlated to the company having a reduction target.
  • Companies older than 40 years are more likely to have an emissions reduction target than average. Those younger than 40 years old are less likely to have a target.
  • Companies with a larger asset base tend to have a target for reduction. Likewise, an improving return on assets and reduced debt to equity ratio is positively correlated with a company having a reduction target.

Taken all together, this analysis while only a snapshot, supports our earlier work[xiii] and reinforces in broad terms that CEO age and power indicators correlate to whether the company has an emissions reduction target. CEO power being indicated by the length of the CEO tenure, the CEO also being the chairperson and the percentage of non-executive directors being low.

Given our societal reliance on companies being the key agents of change to help ameliorate the challenges we face, the correlations we have found indicate an issue. The foresight of science is not enough and unfortunately CEO age and power matters to whether a generational challenge is being tackled or not. Hence, do we need to shift how we govern companies and make the future incarnate to them. To do this, we hypothesize that future generation boards could be a key tool to help businesses govern generational challenges. In short, if decisions today incur future debts, then it is perhaps only right and proper that those who will incur that debt are asked for their input.

Some companies have begun to explore this type of structure as have some governments[xiv], and experiments have shown that future generation representatives on boards do enable a greater consideration of future debts[xv]. However, the actions of Mr Looney indicates that more needs to be done. Our analysis of data reveals correlations that CEO age and power matter as to whether a business is acting on generational concerns. Behind the numbers of our data are human behaviours. So where to from here? From here there is a need to meet with current executives, governance lawyers, the cadre of potential CEOs in 30 years’ time and more to gather their perspectives and build a framework for testing.

So, as it turns out, just like Marty McFly and Biff, we do know the future. But in the film that knowledge turns out to be too dangerous, too vulnerable to bad intentions and short-term gains. The data of climate science and science more generally is our Almanac, we just need to do better than Biff. Thankfully we can. Young people know the decisions of today are putting future debts on them. They are not ignorant. We should be polite and talk to them, gathering their input into the business decisions of today that will impact their future.


[i] For example see the following links that explain some of the challenges – https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1055681, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level , https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[ii] For example to explore the impact of climate change on the future lives of children see the following link – https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/about/frequently-asked-questions/keyfaq3/

[iii] This website offers some details of when the IPCC was founded – https://www.ipcc.ch/about/

[iv] See this website for discussion on how we will likely break the 1.5C global temperature rise in the next five years starting in 2022 – https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1117842

[v] See the following article for a discussion on the likelihood of not hitting 1.5C – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-world-will-likely-miss-1-5-degrees-c-why-isnt-anyone-saying-so/

[vi] See the following article for discussion on Exxon’s predictions – https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/jan/12/exxon-climate-change-global-warming-research

[vii] See the following article for discussion of BP’s record profits and scaling back of its emission reduction targets – https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/feb/07/bp-profits-windfall-tax-gas-prices-ukraine-war

[viii] This OECD website highlights life expectancy for men and women if they reach 65 years of age – https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/life-expectancy-at-65.htm For life expectancy the highest for women was 89.6 years and for men 85.2 years.

[ix] See the following article for discussion on wellbeing and future generations – Bartolini, S. and Sarracino, F., 2018. Do people care about future generations? Derived preferences from happiness data. Ecological Economics, 143, pp.253-275.

[x] This is a link to the Climate Action 100+ website – https://www.climateaction100.org/

[xi] This is a link to the previous analysis and short article we wrote on what we found with the Climate Action 100+ companies – https://www.griffith.edu.au/engage/professional-learning/content-centre/future-generation-boards-no-time-travel-needed

[xii] This is a link to the tables and figures of analysis on the sample.

[xiii] This is a link to the previous analysis and short article we wrote on what we found with the Climate Action 100+ companies – https://www.griffith.edu.au/engage/professional-learning/content-centre/future-generation-boards-no-time-travel-needed

[xiv] For example see the Body Shop and Good Energy and the Welsh Commission for Future Generations. The links are as follows – https://www.thebodyshop.com/en-au/about-us/activism/beseenbeheard/our-youth-collective/a/a00076 https://www.goodenergy.co.uk/the-good-future-board/ https://www.futuregenerations.wales/about-us/future-generations-commissioner/

[xv] For discussion on how future generation representation can increase investment in them see the following paper – Bogacki, J. and Letmathe, P., 2021. Representatives of future generations as promoters of sustainability in corporate decision processes. Business Strategy and the Environment, 30(1), pp.237-251.