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Blog | Interview: Giulio Boccaletti, The Nature Conservancy
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Interview: Giulio Boccaletti, The Nature Conservancy

Giulio Boccaletti, Ph.D., is the managing director for global water at The Nature Conservancy. He spoke with us about sustainability as a structural issue, and the importance of dialogue between NGOs and the hydropower community.

Giulio BoccalettiWhat is your career background, and what drives you professionally?

My career has been focused on the intersection of natural resource issues, policy and economics. I used to be a scientist. First I spent some time as a geophysical fluid dynamicist, so I worked in atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a while, and then I went to the private sector and joined McKinsey and Company where I built the water resources practice with a few colleagues. Again there I was working at the intersection of natural resources and strategic planning, and now I lead The Nature Conservancy’s work on water. 

My career has been underpinned by an interest in economic development and how it speaks to the way in which we manage our planet.

Could you tell us more about your time in the consulting world, and what led you to set up the Global Water Resource Initiative at McKinsey?

It was the belief that water is a fundamental infrastructure for the global economy. It’s required to produce food and energy, and to sustain economic and social development. 

Sometimes businesses tend to engage on sustainability to pay lip service to the fad of corporate social responsibility. It’s much more than a fad."

In my work as a consultant, both with the private sector and government, it became very clear that we were heading towards a real problem; that the trajectory of economic development was often inconsistent with the way in which we were thinking about managing those resources. 

So it was out of a need from clients at the time to think about strategically managing that resource, investing in water resources in order to make sure that sustainable economic development could happen.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes that businesses can make with regards to sustainability? Aren’t all businesses sustainable nowadays?

A lot of businesses say they are sustainable. I think some are, and I think the ones that do the best job are the ones that recognise that sustainability is actually a fundamental trend that is shaping the way in which global capitalism is evolving, and is therefore actually structural to the types of products and services that they offer. 

Sometimes businesses tend to engage on sustainability to pay lip service to the fad of corporate social responsibility. It’s much more than a fad – it is in fact an underlying structural shift in the way in which businesses need to operate, and I think those that are engaging with us seriously are the most successful.

What are the best examples you’ve seen in terms of companies addressing sustainability issues?

In the water space, I think companies across the spectrum who take issues like the development of water infrastructure seriously, not only worry about it from a strategic perspective, but also flow the implications into their operations.

So, for example, the plant manager in a particular country will have among his or her operational objectives to manage water or to engage in discussions about the developments of infrastructure. 

That, to me, is a company that has integrated the management of sustainability structurally. I think there are a number of companies that either stop at the strategic level and engage with the theme, but don’t actually drive through the implications into operations, or in some cases they just pay lip service to corporate social responsibility jargon but don’t resource those pieces of the company appropriately. Then it becomes just a cosmetic exercise.

The Nature Conservancy recently formed a partnership with China Three Gorges Corporation, a sustainability partnership of IHA. What’s the nature of this partnership, and how will both organisations work together? 

The partnership arose from work that we started doing together around the sustainability of some of the hydropower on the Yangtze. It has developed into an intellectual partnership whereby we’re trying to understand how to manage fisheries better, how to manage hydropower better and how to integrate floodplains, for example. 

It’s been an important step for us, because despite the fact that we may not always agree on what the answer is, I think it represents the recognition on our part that we have to engage industry in order to have impact.

Why is it important for NGOs to engage with the hydropower community?

We can’t afford not to. I think that our objective is to ensure that sustainable economic development integrates the conservation of nature and natural assets. Hydropower is going to be a part of that future economic development and it’s not going to be delivered by us, it’s going to be delivered by the developers and by the countries.

The hydro sector is developing very rapidly; there’s been an inflection point in the speed at which hydro is being developed around the world. This is something that will have enormous impact on aquatic ecosystems, and the answer can’t just be “no”, it has to be a question of how we develop hydropower.

So things like the relationship with China Three Gorges Corporation are very important, because they allow us to work with key players that are delivering that development. The only way we’re going to have impact at scale is by working with those companies. I don’t think we’ll always land on the same side of the debates, but the conversation is critical.