Sylvain Vanston is in charge of integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk and opportunity factors into the Axa Group's product development, risk management, underwriting and investment processes, as well as developing new policies with a specific focus on climate change and biodiversity.
He also supports the relationship with analysts and rating agencies, the Axa Group's ESG reporting strategy as well as its environmental footprint management.
He has been a relentless promoter of climate action at Axa and has shared his expertise in many forums, including as a member of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
What inspired you to work on climate change issues?
I have a very clear starting point: June 1992, in a Canterbury park, reading The Economist analysing the Rio Summit negotiations to establish the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
As an International Relations student, these negotiations struck me as a perfect case study involving a classic "tragedy of the commons" dilemma whereby a common resource (in this case, the earth's capacity to absorb anthropic carbon emissions and provide natural resources) is being depleted by individual actors, leading to the ruin of all, when cooperation could have avoided it.
Thirty years later, it is fair to say this initial conundrum remains and still prevents efficient global cooperation.
I boarded the climate train via an academic "game theory" angle, but righting the sheer unfairness of climate change stuck with me. I focused my following university years on the concept of sustainable development. You could say I'm not a newcomer to this debate, and yet it still feels new to me, which is a blessing.
What are your work priorities right now?
Axa announced a greatly ramped-up climate strategy last November. My priority is to walk this talk and deliver on our promises, including some ambitious and transformative commitments on climate neutrality, coal phase out, green investing and so on. We also joined the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance where we support work on "investment temperature" metrics.
We are also working on biodiversity loss, which receives far less investor and business attention than it should. In many respects, the biodiversity crisis has already crossed the "well below 2°C" threshold that we are trying to avoid when it comes to climate mitigation.
But of course, the Covid-19 crisis has given us new priorities. We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus packages. A green recovery strategy is our only sustainable recovery option: "back to better", not "back to normal".
Tell me one step the insurance industry needs to take, to improve its response to climate change?
Many European insurers took proactive steps to develop ambitious climate commitments, first as asset owners with "divest / invest" strategies, then later as insurers implementing underwriting restrictions. These receive less media attention than divestments, where we played a strong role, but they are a significant effort.
However, our role as insurers has always been to enable the development of new technologies and enterprises through risk mutualisation. We should step-up our efforts to address the need for more green business by better leveraging the unique capacity of insurers to enable risk-taking. This would encourage business innovation and shift the narrative away from restrictions.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic we can avoid the worst effects of climate change?
It's hard to be fully optimistic. The impacts of climate change predicted by the IPCC since 1990 have materialised, and indeed earlier and stronger than expected. The massive drop in carbon emissions caused by the lockdown is not even sufficient to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Political momentum is elusive. Growth remains so intrinsically coupled with carbon emissions. The window for action is closing fast. It is tempting to quit.
But there is a silver lining in every storm: the Covid-19 crisis presents us with a unique opportunity, because change is more acceptable when it is truly required. We can collectively help design the first-ever recovery strategy which is aligned with the Paris Agreement. This is the only way to shape a world we will be proud to leave to future generations.
What are you doing personally to reduce your climate impact?
Not enough! After 25 years of motorcycling, I recently bought an electric scooter, which is such a joy to ride in silence and low emissions, thanks to France's low-carbon energy mix. I also try all kinds of innovative veggie food, but it is not popular at all with my wife and kids.
But I am still unable to quit flying to go on vacations - a habit which I know very well is not "Paris-aligned". I take comfort in knowing that my job is helpful, but this personal inconsistency upsets me. If I don't change, how can I expect others to change?