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Interview: Ana Yang, Executive Director for the Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator

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Discover Ana Yang's role in driving the sustainability transition at Chatham House.

Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator is a major initiative to increase the speed and scale of the transition to a sustainable, inclusive future. Ana Yang, executive director for the Sustainability Accelerator, takes us through their influential work and shares her thought on the sustainability transition.

Tell me about your personal journey and how you got to your position at Chatham House.

Before joining Chatham House, I worked in different institutions such as the private sector, environmental advocacy in Brazil, development finance at the IFC- International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's private sector arm and philanthropy at the Children Investment Fund Foundation. The issue that I cared about most across those different institutional roles is the environment and development, especially ensuring a fair social and economic development outcome that guarantees environmental conservation. When we carry out research at Chatham House’s Sustainability Accelerator, we bring these different lenses together.

For me, sustainability is centered around the concept of fairness among human beings and non-human beings across generations. All the decisions that we make today should bring benefits for the many generations to come. Policy is one of those soft infrastructures that we need to ensure that as society we can put concrete actions in place.

I believe in change and my role in it. For me, it's all about what it is that one can do to accelerate change, from mobilizing finance, innovation and policy to achieve fair and prosperous outcomes. Creating movements and learnings on how to work with them is important.

What we're seeing now is that environment and sustainability are completely linked to geopolitics, geoeconomics, and social and economic development. It's not a niche topic that only environmentalists care about. It's completely embedded and intrinsically linked to how individuals, organizations, and governments make decisions and manage the access to resources.

What types of institutions and stakeholders do you work with?

The Sustainability Accelerator was launched on May 27, 2021, and was part of Chatham House’s second century initiative. Our mission is to help governments and societies build a sustainably secure, prosperous, and just world. One of the pillars to achieve this future is sustainable and equitable growth. I think one thing about Chatham House, and the reason why I think it's a very unique place to work, is that it works at the intersection of global politics, sustainability, security and governance.

We organize strategic convening for stakeholders to come together to share learnings and insights. We also do research ourselves and work as bridges and translators that connect evidence and academic findings into policy recommendations. We operate at the intersection of different systems and bring together different kinds of knowledge base, in particular the finance, innovation and sustainability community.

The Accelerator’s home base is Chatham House, an international relations think tank with more than a hundred years of legacy. As an independent policy institute, Chatham House provides thought leadership on key issues that defined the 20th century. The goal of our team is to harness Chatham House’s work and legacy, and step into the future and enlarge the space for a  broader set of stakeholders to shape the future. We want entrepreneurs, activists, youth and social movement leaders to be part of the conversation as well. One sentence to describe the accelerator would be: “a space that attracts different activities and stakeholders to learn, to share and to co-create together”. We like to think of ourselves as a fire-pit. A place which draws on energy, provides a focal point, and gives out warmth.

In terms of research that we do, we focus on the key building blocks that will enable a regenerative biobased future. We also do what I like to call an "acceleration sprint". We are the temporary host to interesting initiatives that need a little bit of boost and a platform for connection. We become this place for different stakeholders of the initiatives to come together to have creative and innovative conversations that normally wouldn't have existed in a more traditional policy environment. Two relevant initiatives that we co-hosted were: “The Digital Transformation of Sustainability Information is Now Underway” with Capital Coalition in April and the “The role of open-source data for climate transition” during the London Climate Action Week with Climate Arc.

In addition, we also organize creative ways to foster conversations that connect conceptual philosophical issues and try to understand how it intersects with policy and actions. This series of events is known as “Accelerator SpeakEasy”. Our last speakeasy was based on the question “what if nature was a person?”. It builds on a new movement around the world, where people are giving personhood to nature. Beyond the legal implication, it challenges different kinds of cultural values, especially the Western cultural values, in terms of our relationship with nature, how we interact with it and what kind of regulatory framework surrounds it.

What are the biggest concerns for Chatham House?

Working at Chatham House, one has the sense that the world is in turmoil and there is an increasing sense of uncertainty. Our daily job is trying to sense make how all of these tensions, shifts, and political dynamics affect the global order. One of the most topical issues right now is the war in Ukraine and to what extent it affects the direction of travel and pace of energy and food system transition. In addition, what are the medium term impacts of a potential reconfiguration of the geopolitics and how it affects cooperation and collaboration of nations to achieve Net-Zero. Part of the institute’s mission is to contribute to the effective role of international organizations to deliver a sustainably prosperous and just world.

I think that the Chatham House rule is a powerful tool. It is a non- attribution rule. One can share, but not attribute. It creates a safe space for people to come together, to share and try to find the insight that you wouldn’t have been able to find by yourself. For us at the Accelerator, anybody can be part of the conversation and talk to their peers to find out together what solutions they can bring to the table to activate change. I’m not saying we have the solution to everything. Because I don’t  think we know what the solutions are. But I think that what we need is the honesty of saying “I don't know, but I'm willing to work with others to find out”.

How is entrepreneurship embedded into your model?

I believe entrepreneurship is a mindset and approach. Investing in people is important, even if the project sometimes fails. For me, a person that has an entrepreneurial mindset can always find opportunities to improve and change.

I do think that this mindset is also present in change activism and civil society. The question is how to bring those communities of changemakers together. What we're trying to figure out is how to combine the change-making and profit-making people together in order to create solutions to our collective challenge.

We are learning from venture capital and start-up communities to design innovative approaches to policy making. Hence, the concept of an accelerator inside a policy think tank. Right now, we’re working on the key performance indicators that could tell us whether we're being effective or not.

How do you see the role of digitization in accelerating our transition to sustainability?

There is the process of digitization, which is not necessarily linked to sustainability, like making data from spreadsheets, for example. And then there is the sustainability ESG reporting and disclosure drive. You can see the coupling of these two trends, which I think is a good evolution, because ultimately, when you're tracking the right data flowing through the right “plumbing”, it should  lead to the right decision. That's exactly what we need as part of the sustainability and low carbon transition. This can support investors to make better decisions. But we need to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, it is about real positive impact on the ground, that will deliver social, environmental, and economic outcomes.

What is the frictional point for organizations in making that transition to mobilizing their data and sharing it to help investors in allocating their capital?

We're in the middle of this transition, so it may feel chaotic, and there are some live concepts being  debated. However, I also feel that some of the investors are using lack of data as an excuse for inaction. Recently, we noticed a lot of conversations around data and disclosure and how useful it is to enable the right decisions. It’s important to ask questions such as, what type of data matters to the investment decision, how can we make data access timely and what is the right level of granularity data from trusted sources.

The whole concept of materiality and risk is something that is very live now and I love that it is dynamic, and evolves with time and societal change.  The innovation in the regulatory space is the discussion around double materiality, in which it is an extension of the concept that climate impacts companies, but also incorporates how companies’ actions and investments impact on climate. There is still an open debate about it, but definition is already being used and we need to understand the implications of it, for example how it affects a company’s future cash flow.

Another quickly evolving discussion is the issue of risk at company and sectoral level. Many investors only look at the company without looking at the sector, and actually the entire sector as a whole has a big environmental problem and large exposure to climate change impact. Individual investors may only care about the company they're investing in, but regulators should focus on the entire sector. This is another very topical and quickly evolving theme that intersects with the data discussion.

Ultimately, as someone who is trying to wrap their head around all these different moving parts, I am trying to anchor my thinking on the “why” and “what for”. People are managing risk for different reasons. Regulators manage risk for one reason such as economic and financial stability whereas companies and investors manage risk for other reasons, such as financial value creation or destruction. The type of data may or may not be different and they may be required at different frequency and granularity, more importantly, we need to ensure that these then translate into the analysis that will lead to the right decision. The most important thing for me, is the impact of the real economy on the ground.

What are your recommendations to accelerate sustainability?

We shouldn't de-prioritize sustainability, even though we are living in times of crisis, where there are competing demands, wars, and cost of living crisis. There is this tension between what's urgent that captures policy makers’ attention and what is actually important. We often end up focusing on what's urgent without building foundational change for the long-term.

It’s important to focus on the long-lasting structural changes and policies that we need, and that will enable us to send the right signals to organizations to accelerate the transition. We need to call out to all the people who believe in a better future, get them around the table, focus on what matters and do what's necessary to activate change for the transition that we need.

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