Johanna Köb is head of responsible investment at Zurich Insurance Company, where she supports the implementation of the Swiss insurer's responsible investment strategy for the $200bn portfolio of group assets.
She joined the company in 2013 as a responsible investment analyst, following the adoption of the 2012 responsible investment strategy.
Since then, she has helped pioneer several sustainable asset classes, notably green bonds (she co-chairs the steering committee for the Green and Social Bond Principles) and impact investments.
On the latter, she is implementing Zurich's commitment to invest $5bn with associated goals of avoiding 5m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year and positively contributing to the lives of 5m people.
What inspired you to work on climate change issues?
I'm a sustainability person at heart, and within that spectrum climate change is undoubtedly the largest and most systemic threat humankind faces.
Climate change has been on my mind since university. It's one of those things that you cannot un-see and where not actively attempting to be part of the solution makes you an implicit part of the problem.
At Zurich Insurance Group we did analytical deep dives into the topic as part of our responsible investment strategy, which has led to a climate change programme with increasing prominence within the many sustainability topics we tackle.
Personally, I had the immense privilege to see a severed Great Barrier Reef in 2016, just when the great bleaching started, and was invited to join a research trip to the Arctic two years ago. One does not need to leave Switzerland to see melting glaciers – but spending time with scientists in a mesmerizingly beautiful but silently dying ecosystem does something to your core.
When I came back, I wasn't sure for a few days whether I should sit down and cry, write poetry or ramp up my activism even more – and as usual ended up doing all of it. Luckily, I work at a company that is going through that same journey and has recently set ambitious climate targets, so my contributions are in good hands.
What are your work priorities right now?
One of my priorities is to help the company find the optimal pathway to fully decarbonise Zurich's $200bn investment portfolio by 2050, in line with our commitment.
Tell me one step the insurance industry needs to take, to improve its response to climate change?
We need to come together to leave one consistent message with policymakers until they choose to act: we need an economically viable, sufficiently high and socially fair price on carbon dioxide emissions. Yesterday.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic we can avoid the worst effects of climate change?
The trajectory of almost 4°C warming keeps reminding me that we as a world community continue to do a terrible mitigation job. And I won't lie – it's utterly depressing. But as tempting (and human) as despair and fatalism are, there is still room for manoeuvre and I choose to use optimism as a means to an end.
There is still hope and we can still make it. But we really need to focus on driving change forward and plan and implement the innovation revolution that is necessary. It is important to move our focus from what we need to avoid to what we want to achieve.
What are you doing personally to reduce your climate impact?
For the past seven years I have run my home on renewable energy, used a credit card that offsets the carbon emissions on goods purchased, use public transport whenever possible, and banned petroleum derivatives from my cosmetics. I'm also challenging myself to not eat red meat more than twice a week, donate to reforestation projects and spend time educating family and friends on how they can help.