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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 26, 2022 - January 1, 2023

Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar Co-founder of Climate Governance Malaysia (Photo by Shahrin Yahya/The Edge)

Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar’s foray into climate governance was through a stroke of luck. As she learnt more about the climate emergency, the gravity of the situation dawned upon her. She knew she had no choice but to act before it was too late. 

It started when Sunita met Karina Litvack in Kuala Lumpur in November 2018. Litvack, the co-founder and chairman of the Climate Governance Initiative (CGI), was in the region as part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) delegation. She invited Sunita to set up the Malaysian chapter of CGI and she agreed. 

“Climate governance was a very new concept. I had no idea what this was and there was no one in the region who did. The success of the CGI was due to Karina’s tenacity, intelligence and foresight,” says Sunita. 

CGI, which was set up by the World Economic Forum, aims to mobilise boards around the world to accelerate the net zero transition and enable climate corporate governance, among others. Climate Governance Malaysia (CGM), the local chapter, has organised many private and public sector engagement sessions on climate action since it was set up.

CGM is the CGI’s second chapter in the world, after Italy. 

“I was a novice. There were many who were far more knowledgeable and wiser, and I am grateful for their generosity in helping me along this journey. Since then, volunteers have organised more than 200 events and we now have almost 5,000 subscribers to our newsletter, with a regular 50% open rate,” says Sunita.

She is also the workstream lead for government policy for the CEO Action Network (CAN), an industry-led initiative by company CEOs to increase sustainability and climate resilience. 

The science behind the [climate] crisis is both simple enough that a child can understand it, yet sufficiently complex and nuanced that we see a great deal of obfuscation and greenwashing. — Sunita

“The collaboration between CEOs under CAN and CGM with directors, management and civil society is arguably the single-largest mobilisation of the private sector and it is for climate advocacy and sustainability,” says Sunita. 

CGM, together with CAN, is engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders. This is done through a combination of public sessions, roundtable discussions and workshops to formulate policy recommendations and support CAN member commitments towards climate action. 

“The collaboration with CAN was particularly important. I am responsible for Workstream 1 and, in its first year, the roundtable sessions attracted more than 4,100 attendees over 14 sessions in five months,” says Sunita. 

Workstream 1, which is responsible for policy advocacy, aims to influence and shape policies and strategies to spur meaningful action. 

Educating stakeholders

CAN and CGM have organised multiple roundtable sessions with companies and the government on various sustainability topics. Dozens of business leaders actively volunteered to plan, coordinate and host the five-month series of free and recorded sessions. 

In April 2021, a series of discussions called the “Low emissions pathway for Malaysia” was kicked off. Each session tackled emissions from different sectors, such as property and energy. The roundtable sessions offered simple yet elegant solutions to decarbonise the nation and be more sustainable in a short span of time, says Sunita. 

While speaking to stakeholders, she always begins with a recap of the latest facts to emphasise the criticality of the situation. She also highlights the concerns of scientists, including the lack of research in climate endgame scenarios. This sets the stage, allowing stakeholders to understand the context and extent of climate change implications on their businesses, industry, country and region. 

After all, the climate emergency is a crisis informed by science. The 1.5°C temperature limit is imperative to avoid the worst of climate change. 

“The science behind the crisis is both simple enough that a child can understand it, yet sufficiently complex and nuanced that we see a great deal of obfuscation and greenwashing,” says Sunita. 

“Even so, climate literacy is now so mainstream that it will be implausible for any individual to claim ignorance or mount a credible defence as to why actions and decisions fall short of best practices or what is urgently required.”

Apart from her work in CGM and CAN, Sunita has been on the boards of listed companies since 2002. She is the chairman of Dutch Lady Milk Industries Bhd and an independent non-executive director of Petronas Chemicals Group Bhd, among others. She is also the trustee of six charitable foundations. 

As such, Sunita is well versed on the obligations of and hurdles to working in organisations that depend on her leadership capabilities. 

“We need to speak up almost immediately and don’t have the luxury of time to respond in a few days. We likely won’t have access to resources to conduct rigorous analysis and, yet, the organisation is depending on our views and insights. 

“So, it is important to be prepared, be ready to cogently articulate your views among peers, who have equally valid and rational views, and to understand that respect is earned,” she says.

In an increasingly volatile world, governance and oversight are becoming critically important. As such, Sunita believes the concepts of double and dynamic materiality need to be well understood. 

In her “Climate and Environmental Governance” column titled “Climate crisis makes a pressing case for public-private synergy” published by The Edge (Forum, Issue 1404, Jan 17, 2022), Sunita says corporate directors have moved beyond the traditional measures of materiality as a percentage of revenue, profits and assets. Instead, the concepts of double materiality and dynamic materiality need to be applied. Double materiality is when environmental, social and governance factors can be financially material. Dynamic materiality are risks that may appear immaterial but have the potential to become material very quickly, alongside significant financial consequences. 

“As long-term stewards of the business, we are facing multiple tsunamis headed in our direction, each with the potential of becoming highly material very quickly. Directors must be sufficiently literate about the risks and opportunities, as well as be confident and comfortable with all the levers of the organisation which, like a rudder, can shift the direction of travel,” says Sunita. 

CGM hopes to have a national climate governance conference for small and medium enterprises and a series of masterclasses specifically for chairmen of boards. Sunita also hopes to engage more key stakeholders in important conversations. With this, simple solutions can be crowdsourced and implemented. 

“When we are mindful of the climate crisis, we will find that it permeates every lifestyle decision. [From things like] whether the lights need to be on, what we eat and whether we are eating too much, how we can be a zero-waste household, how we move about, bringing up the topic in conversations and meetings, to volunteering to set up a robust multi-stakeholder crowdsourcing platform for simple, elegant, easily actionable and hyper localised solutions that will increase our collective climate resilience,” says Sunita.

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