Paul Walsh interviews Ben Howarth, chief sustainability officer at the Association of British Insurers, about shaping the UK's approach to sustainability and maintaining momentum on climate action
In an extremely close contest, Ben Howarth, chief sustainability officer at the Association of British Insurers (ABI), is highly commended in the climate and sustainability champion of the year award category.
After joining the association as a policy adviser for motor and liability in 2015, he has since held roles in the director general's office and manager for climate change and open data policy, before becoming chief sustainability officer in July 2022.
Being tuned into the insurance sector's concerns has helped him in the role, says Howarth.
"I came in with a decent understanding of the industry's core priorities in what we did for customers and what was most important to the senior leaders in the sector," he tells InsuranceERM.
"What I tried to do is apply that thinking to climate change and think, where can we as an industry really make a difference?"
Howarth has spearheaded, researched and wrote two major initiatives at the ABI: the diversity, equity and inclusion blueprint, and its climate roadmap. Both initiatives received strong endorsements from independent external experts, according to the association.
With the roadmap, he successfully managed the priorities of both the ABI's members and the wider UK climate agenda.
"What we've tried to focus on with the climate change roadmap is to think, what's the government been trying to achieve on net zero?
Read about all the winners in InsuranceERM's Climate Risk & Sustainability 2023 awards
"I appreciate some of that has fluctuated over time, but [we've been thinking] what are the core objectives and where can the industry play a role?"
His other duties at the association have seen him act as an ambassador for the sector's climate change activities in a wide variety of events and he contributes actively to policy development on regulatory and climate change committee forums.
In his view, the climate agenda represents a twofold opportunity for the UK to revitalise its economy and be a world leader in some areas "that we know the rest of the world is going to want to adopt".
However, pursuing the agenda has been far from straightforward with some targets fluctuating at political level and collaborative efforts encountering difficulties, particularly the deteriorating Net-Zero Insurance Alliance (NZIA).
Howarth has therefore been tasked with maintaining momentum on key initiatives, specifically transition plans and supply chains.
While the NZIA has not worked out as hoped, Howarth stresses positives can be taken.
"You've still got the target setting protocols, and certainly we surveyed members earlier this year as part of preparation for the [ABI's 2023] climate summit, and we got high numbers on firms that have set targets and have put them in the public domain," he says.
He adds that perhaps the NZIA's focus "was a bit too much on decarbonising your portfolio".
He believes success can be found by focusing on the alternative economy that's going to be needed and claims the industry has a key role to play in supporting the product innovation.
Howarth also has clear ideas on how the sector can avoid accusations of greenwashing.
"Don't just throw claims out there and don't just make commitments that aren't backed up with really robust thought," he says.
"One of the best ways to avoid greenwashing is to make sure that when you're making claims in public that they're backed up by really robust thinking and an ongoing process of transparency."
His efforts have clearly paid off as InsuranceERM judges commended Howarth "as a pioneer, providing needed intelligence and roadmaps to help support industry progress".