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VELA Podcasts

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Transcript of The Polestar Podcast: Ending the climate crisis with Stephen Fern

Listen to the Polestar Podcast here.

 

Podcast Transcript

Jason Boudreau:

Welcome everyone to our inaugural Polestar Podcast by VELA Wealth. Honored today to have our first guest – Stephen Fern, all the way from Jersey in the Channel Islands in the UK. Stephen is the founder of Ark2030 an organization that’s on a mission to reverse the climate crisis and end the destruction of Planet Earth. He and his group are looking to achieve this through two main initiatives. One is the restoration of five hundred million hectares of Planet Earth destroyed by mankind since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the other is investing in companies and organizations that will turn back the dial on the climate crisis. So, I’m going to turn over to Stephen. He’ll do a little introduction of himself and then we’ll get into some thought-provoking conversation. Stephen, hello my friend!

 

Stephen Fern:

Jason, it’s a pleasure to be your first guest on this podcast.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Thank you for joining us and I know it’s late over there for you. So, I appreciate you staying up past your bedtime.

 

Stephen Fern:

(Laughing)… Yes, I’ve almost given up on bedtimes as you know 8 children – probably haven’t slept properly in 28 years, so, it’s a dream to one day actually go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up at a reasonable hour.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Right on. So why don’t we start by you just sharing a little bit about yourself and maybe just give us some insight into how Ark2030 came to be.

 

Stephen Fern:

Yes, absolutely. I started my life actually as a lawyer specialized in tax. I worked with Arthur Anderson’s in London and qualified as a chartered accountant in the heady 1980s. Towards the end of that decade, I realized I was more of a natural entrepreneur than an advisor and decided to set up my own business and actually combine both my professional background with the desire to be an entrepreneur and set up a wealth and financial education business. Over the decade through the 90s we became a global operation and worked with law firms, financial institutions, trust companies and predominantly private client advisors, taking people through professional examinations, professional conferences and continuing professional development. So, deeply embedded in the private wealth space. I’ve sold that business at the end of the 90s. My specialist area really was dealing with families of exceptional wealth.

So, in 2003 I’ve decided to set up a not-for-profit think tank for families of exceptional wealth, and essentially the objective behind that was to align mission and values with the wealth. It was really all about taking the sort of concept that a lot of families don’t ask themselves the question “what is money for?” and when you start to accumulate huge amounts of wealth it becomes a really important question because there’s only so much commodity you can buy and people start to really question what does it mean, what is the purpose of this and so it was really about finding that the answer to that question. In many respects our vision of what became the G9was that if you can align your skillset and your capital for something you feel deeply passionate about – you start to feel fulfillment. We spent 20 years resolving some of the biggest challenges facing mankind. Then three years ago when the UN came out and said that we have 12 years to resolve the climate crisis before we go off the edge of a cliff in terms of global biodiversity. That really hit me, and I realized that we need to focus our energy, our time and our efforts on resolving the mess we’ve created in the relationship between humanity and Planet Earth.

 

Jason Boudreau:

So, you’re three years into that now. Just give a sense of where you guys are at and what you’re up to today, and what the next year or so looks like for the organization?

 

Stephen Fern:

I think quite unnaturally for me I’ve had to instill a little bit of patience into what we’re actually doing here. The scale of the task was pretty simple really. I wasn’t setting out to create an organization or create a movement that contributed to making Earth a healthier place. It was really about saying “what is the answer?”. The Paris Accord for me didn’t go far enough. Just slowing down the problem to one and a half degrees given our propensity to miss targets like this was just a non-starter. I was really wanting to see what it means to get it right. Certainly, that is split between the sort of the idea of what we call nature-based solutions which is Ark2030 and the idea of climate crisis capital which is essentially stopping us from destroying Planet Earth in the future. So, the balance there is about 40-60 in terms of the task if we go and restore all of the nature, we’ve destroyed over the last two hundred years. Then that deals with about 40% of the challenge to get us in balance or get us back to balance. The other 60% is changing the way we do business. There are five big areas that we have to look at. There have been food systems, water, energy transition, real estate, and the circular economy. What we spend much of the last three years doing is mapping out what both of those tasks actually are, what they actually mean. So, this was very much more than just pointing at the moon saying you know, let’s go to the moon and not actually having a plan to do it. This was A – setting that mission where we want to end the climate crisis and the future destruction of the planet and B – what are we going to do? Where are we going to do it? How are we going to do it?

 

Jason Boudreau:

Yes.

 

Stephen Fern:

We’ve had to map that out in a system against the background of a system that’s not fit for purpose. Because we’ve spent fifty years knowing that things are going wrong, and many millions of dollars thrown out to climate crisis and biodiversity nature solutions. And we haven’t really even scratched the surface of addressing the challenge. So, we really had to throw out all of the thinking that’s got us to where we are today and almost restructure and reengineer how we go about the task of restoring Planet Earth at scale. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for three years.

2022 will see the first elements of that being enacted. The scale at which we are operating will essentially be eye-watching for most people as we unveil the projects that are going to start this year in 2022.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Thanks for sharing that. It’s certainly a bold task and a bold initiative and you know we certainly are excited to be connected with you and aligned with the group and look forward to being a part of that as it unfolds. Going to pull it back a little bit to sort of Stephen the Man, the Entrepreneur and then we’ll get back on the Ark2030 conversation. So, just curious, when you look back on your life is there one thing defining moment or just something in your life where you feel most proud of, and you brought up your eight children earlier – I’m sure that’s probably at the pinnacle. So, share with me what are your thoughts on that one thing in your life that you’re most proud of.

 

Stephen Fern:

I think in terms of pride, I think whatever you do – your family life ultimately is the most important and I think that’s the epiphany that we have as part of the G9. It’s understanding that whatever you achieve from a business or a financial perspective pale into insignificance in terms of your own sense of being. That personal fulfillment for me has always been my primary goal.

So, I’ve never really looked at things around me and thought that I have to achieve material success. I’ve always been conscious of that. So, probably the decision that I’m most proud of is as a 25-year-old working in the city in London in an almost obscenely well-paid job actually saying, “no. I’m going to turn my back on that because I want a different life where I have time for me and my family and my personal drive to be fulfilled”.. Looking back, it was a pretty brave step. I spent two or three years after that literally earning nothing. Having spent six or seven years having relatively spectacular lifestyle in London, flying around the world with work and… so, probably the most the biggest decision I made was that one.

 

Jason Boudreau:

So, when you think about the average day for you. The wake up in the morning, thinking about what you are going to tackle today. What do you feel brings you the most joy on that day? What do you really enjoy in your life?

 

Stephen Fern:

I think the amazing thing about what we’ve been working on with Ark2030. The reason I felt it possible was that I’d been very fortunate to spend the last twenty years working with 4,500 nearly 5,000 of the world’s wealthiest business families. The political and business influence that has opened the doors to me made me feel that I was in a position to actually do something about this. My typical day starts very early in the day, this is a global program, so, I’m talking to sort of Australia at 6 am in the morning and I’m talking to people like you on the West Coast of Canada or America at nearly midnight…

 

Jason Boudreau:

Right, before bed.

 

Stephen Fern:

… but what I do is I work in little gaps through the day and make sure I’m available for my family when they’re around and home from school and so on. So, I’m very fortunate in that. I’m not actually pinned down to a particular diary. Although it sounds like it’s a crazy number of hours – it’s not really, it’s just that they’re spread out so throughout the time.

The most exciting thing about it – is on a daily basis I have maybe three or four phone calls which if you had one of those calls in your entire business life you would be running down the street waving your arms and screaming “wow I just spoke to X and this is going to happen!”.

This is such an enormous project and it’s getting such amazing support from around the world, from individuals and organizations who range from small organizations with incredible passion, insight and ambition right up to global giants who are really questioning and challenging. This relationship between business and shareholder value and their responsibility to treat the Planet and people well – these are amazing conversations. So, my day is incredibly diverse. When people say no day is the same – my day is incomprehensive, no hour is the same… and that is both incredibly challenging, but incredibly rewarding and very exciting.

 

Jason Boudreau:

I really get that. Thanks for sharing. That’s very cool. So, it’s true that when you and I speak it’s usually towards the end of the day even much like it is right now and if we were to sort of end this call and, you know, you’re lying in bed and you can’t sleep. What’s keeping you awake at night these days?

 

Stephen Fern:

Ah, the things that are keeping me awake at night are actually all positive things. I think that to be an entrepreneur and you know this yourself, you will tend to have an optimistic personality.

I don’t think you can be an entrepreneur if you focus on the negative, it just would be too crushing on a daily basis because the challenge of being an entrepreneur is so crazy. I probably survived on about 4 hours of sleep, and the second I wake up my brain buzzes and I get out of bed. So, what keeps me up – not a lot, because literally as soon as I do wake up, I do get out of bed and just jump on calls and speak to people. I think the things that worry me… are actually not the scale of the challenge because I actually do believe that it is doable. I do believe the mindset of enough people is sufficiently positive that we can actually tackle the climate crisis.

The difficulties are just to try to step around. Ultimately, you can look at big business… and Canada is a great place where the challenges of saying that we have to ditch the carbon economy can be huge for countries like Canada and Australia; but my view on that is that we shouldn’t be wasting time trying to persuade those companies to stop doing what they do, because for soever long we are putting petrol and diesel into our cars and coal into our power stations they will keep producing it.

What we’ve got to do is do the bit that we Can change which is stop putting petrol and diesel in our cars – stop using coal and carbon.

It’s simple, simple economics and it’s about understanding what we can change rather than stressing about what we can’t.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Yes.

 

Stephen Fern:

And I wrote about it today actually, in response to a fairly well-known city figure. Basically, absolutely slaughtering. Unilever for the focus on purpose. And he said they’ve lost the plot. It’s about money. It’s not about having a purpose. I basically said, “look it’s very simple. Unilever is doing the right thing. That will mean less, or it may mean less profit. But if you believe that we can have an economy into the future which is driven simply by purpose irrespective of the cost – I can’t change your opinion. I don’t want to change your opinion. I don’t need to change your opinion. But what I will tell you is there are enough people on the planet who will shift their custom to the companies that do care”.

Those companies that don’t care might make more profit by a margin on every item they sell. But if they have zero turnover – they’re going to be out of business, and I think that’s the key for me. It’s not trying to persuade people to change their minds. It’s to get those people, the billions of people around the world who want to do good. Guide them to act in a way that says to those who don’t want to change their mind – okay, keep your opinions, but it’s not going to stop us doing what we want to do, and what we want to do is support a new form of economics that actually understands the value that people bring to business, that communities bring to business, that the Planet brings to business and to value those properly.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Right.

 

Stephen Fern:

That is why, perhaps, I don’t stress and get angry and upset about the challenges we face. It’s not a case of facing those challenges head-on. It’s just taking a different tack to address them. And it’s always about not stressing about things you’re out of control of. And that was something I learned when I was at Anderson’s in the mid-1980s. Almost the first thing that they really taught us was if you stress about your workload, you will never sleep. You will want to be in the office 24 hours a day. So, control the things you can control. Of course, stress if something is in your control and you need to do something about it. But don’t stress about the things that are out of your control.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Totally. Well, and it’s interesting you bring up your sort of response to this Unilever CEOs conversation around purpose because, of course, Larry Fink came out with his annual letter this year addressing stakeholder capitalism as he calls it – which I think is such a fantastic term because he’s talking about the fact that it’s not about not making a profit, it’s not about companies being successful. Financially it’s about where you’re creating value. His comment about the next thousand unicorns not being in tech or software but it’s really about transforming the future of this Planet – those are the next thousand unicorns.

 

Stephen Fern:

And these are certainly on the climate crisis capital side of our mission. He’s absolutely right. This is where the excitement is and where the pace of change will rapidly exceed humanity’s current expectations of the trajectory that we are on. The reality is that those organizations that develop the ideas that will change the trajectory will become global.

They will become incredibly popular and successful. They will be huge and of course, those opportunities are enormous in the sky, in scale, in number, in the different channels that this can be developed in. There’s a phrase that you’ve heard me say before which I absolutely love “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. The stone age ended because we found new tools and new ideas and the carbon age won’t end because we run out of gas or coal or oil. It will end because innovations and technology and things will replace it and it’s going to happen way faster than anybody anticipated”.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Right. Right.

 

Stephen Fern:

Yesterday, in Europe they announced that for the first-time electric car sales outnumbered diesel car sales across the whole of Europe. If you’d have asked me that twelve months ago – electric car sales were a fraction of petrol and diesel car sales.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Yes, that’s incredible.

 

Stephen Fern:

In twelve months! Twelve months and that transition has happened. And when governments are saying “we won’t allow car sales of petrol or diesel beyond 2035…” that is the most pointless piece of political legislation you could imagine because people will stop buying petrol cars by 2025 not because of any law, but simply because it will just be nonsensical to spend forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars on a car that people will see as a dinosaur that’s in your front yard and you won’t be able to sell it second hand. So, people are not dumb in terms of the speed at which these things happen.

So, as soon as the infrastructure… People say “well the infrastructure isn’t there”. Wow, do you think people are not sitting here thinking that we need electric charging points literally on every street and what are the innovations that will allow that to happen. Yes, every lamppost will have a charging point in it because people all over the world are thinking of ways in which we can charge these cars and then use the batteries in cars almost as overnight storage to basically power things in and around the home.

The ideas and innovation are just enormous and even in battery technology. I think last week a company in America replaced a standard Tesla with a battery technology they’ve been working on. So, it’s a retrofit of a battery and the Tesla did 750 miles without stopping. So, even that battery technology is going to go through the roof – all of these things, things are going to happen way faster than we imagine.

If I had one prediction, and I think it blows most people away in terms of like “that’s not going to happen Stephen”, is that the decarbonization of our global economy will be pretty much at its end by 2030.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Wow.

 

Stephen Fern:

I really don’t think we’re going to be pushing 2050. I really do think that the vast majority of these solutions will be in play in eight years. Eight years is plenty of time to totally re-engineer how things work.

 

Jason Boudreau:

And when you say “in play”. It’s not necessarily that the reversal has happened. It’s that the pieces that are needed to make that happen are fully in play and now we’re on the trajectory we really should be on for a sustainable future.

 

Stephen Fern:

Yes, I’m not just talking about sort of like “we’ll know what the solutions are, and they will have started” but that it will be happening on an epic scale. Now that it doesn’t mean that every coal-fired power station will be put out of business by 2030, but I do believe that the vast majority of transport heating fuel energy will be renewable by 2030. And that will then decarbonize globally the economy.

God help those organizations that are stuck with those stranded assets because there are trillions of dollars that have been invested in stuff that there will be no buyer for.

 

Jason Boudreau:

I guess there lies another opportunity for innovation -how do you take sort of legacy assets and retrofit them or allow them to survive into the future in this new way of living, being and working and all of that. We see companies definitely doing that in real-time even today. Hydrogen is a good one. I know there’s a lot of companies out there, a few of whom I know locally here in the Vancouver area where they’re retrofitting internal combustion engines to be able to run on hydrogen and it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s just retrofitting what already exists.

 

Stephen Fern:

Yes, I think that happens in almost any transition. But I think when Fink talks about these thousand unicorns of the future – I think they will come from people who literally tear up the old rulebook and just start a fresh.

I was with the head of Aston Martin design about two years ago and he was telling me that they were ready to produce effectively a four-seat Aston Martin that didn’t have a steering wheel, had two people on each side of the car facing each other. He said, “we’re ready for this”. He said the public isn’t ready to not point in the direction you’re heading, to not have a steering wheel. He said “that’s a mindset issue. It’s not a technology issue” and I think that’s really what’s going to be fascinating over the next few years -just to see how fast we’re willing to accommodate and accept some of the amazing changes that are going to happen to us.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Yes. One of the neat things that I didn’t have any real knowledge about myself, and you introduced me to over the last number of months, is this idea that if we find a way to transform our oceans. The impact that can have on transforming the climate issues we’re having as a planet is exponentially greater than trying to do anything on land. Can you share a little bit more about that?

 

Stephen Fern:

Jason, it was probably one of the most exciting moments of the last three years when I first looked at oceans and thought about what we are able to do here. It was exciting because when we first started the Ark mission we looked at breaking down this sort of five hundred million hectares into something that seemed to be manageable. One of the ways of doing that was saying “well, it’s a hundred million hectares of rainforest, a hundred million hectares of forestry, a hundred million hectares of degraded farmland, a hundred million hectares of Savanna Grassland type areas… and oceans. Oceans was the fifth and I was able to actually identify globally very clear and logical strategies for regenerating all of the landscapes. What do we need to do? Where? How? What are the techniques from rewilding to protecting a mosaic of options and I looked at oceans, I thought what do we do with oceans?”.

I was looking at ocean protection thinking that it is really not a case of us going and doing work, that is more political, lobbying governments to create Great Big Marine Protection Areas. So, that didn’t quite work. We looked at near Shore reforestation which is a huge thing, kelp and seagrass and things like this. There’s an amazing opportunity both economically and from a carbon perspective there. But nothing about the oceans themselves.

Then I had the most amazing conversation with a guy called Ralph Chami, IMF, who has spent 10 years building analysis for the ocean economy and in the most simplistic of ways he just transformed my mindset in minutes and it was the most fascinating conversation. And he basically described to me the answer to global warming lies with our oceans. It lies with the restoration of the global whale populations – every time a whale does its poop it creates this huge nutrient bloom in the water. That creates a phytoplankton bloom, and the huge scale of that phytoplankton absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and kicks oxygen into the ocean. This then stimulates the growth of other bigger creatures which are then fed on by the smaller fish and then it opens up in the pyramid. So, there is this colossal biodiversity impact and massive carbon sequestration. Following in the wake of every whale.

One of the issues is our global whale populations have gone down from probably something like five or six million back in the early 1800s to a million and a half now. And in a way that has created massive dead zones around the world’s oceans. What he worked out was that the impact from a purely carbon perspective of the whales themselves restoring those whale populations is the equivalent of planting a hundred billion trees. And you think of the logistics of planting a hundred billion trees – it’s enormous

 

Jason Boudreau:

No doubt. The right type, in the right area to all of that.

 

Stephen Fern:

How do you restore whale populations? It’s not like you can do it like with a captive breeding program in a zoo. Then he went on to explain to me about the work that they’d done and essentially it is government-driven programs.

If ever you’ve been out and looked out across the ocean off the coast of Vancouver and watched the whale’s migratory patterns. Not only is it a life-affirming experience as anybody who’s seen it and I have in Australia, but it is also a life-affirming experience to actually see these creatures leap out of the water in front of your very eyes. Wow, it’s just breathtaking!

But in essence, the whales are moving around in a world that is like us spending a night next to a pneumatic drill. The noise from the shipping and the disruption from humanity basically prevents them from breeding, it prevents them….

 

Jason Boudreau:

… they are stressed.

 

Stephen Fern:

Yes, it’s the stress. So, people say “well, hasn’t whale hunting stopped?”. It nearly has, yes, but this isn’t a whale hunting issue so much as all that we need to do is understand and …

 

Jason Boudreau:

…the shipping lines, the cruise lines…

 

Stephen Fern:

…yes. At key times of the year. So, it’s not even a year-round issue. It’s just when the moat whales moving here. Steer clear. Also, a huge number of whales every year are killed accidentally by the propellers and things of the ships and the boats. So, it is about the understanding of the economics: if we can say that a whale generates thirty-three thousand tons of carbon in its life and we are valuing carbon at $20 a ton, then the whale is worth like a million dollars or two million dollars.

 

Jason Boudreau:

Right.

 

Stephen Fern:

So, maybe if you say to the shipowner “if you kill that whale in our territorial waters you have got to pay us a million dollars”. Then the ship owners might think “well, maybe I will steer clear of these whales” and that is really what Ralph’s work was about. It’s understanding the economic relationship between nature and economics.

It was really fascinating listening to this concept. If you think about it – we pay for food, we pay for water, we pay for our energy to keep us warm, but we don’t pay for the oxygen that we breathe. We pay for our rubbish to be taken away, but we don’t pay for our carbon dioxide to be taken away. So, maybe nature provides a service. He and I talked about this, and I said “well, I’ve heard of SaaS software as a service, maybe we could create something called “nature as a service” where we actually say how much these whales are worth to humanity and let’s start valuing them and when we start valuing them, we can create economics”. If we create economics, we can create a foundation where we act as custodians of that economics on behalf of the oceans and the wealth that those whales create because they are one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks. The wealth that they create we use then to deploy into more ocean protection work. There’s the answer. So, it becomes self-sustaining in a way that planting trees never can. It’s not that we’re not doing the tree planting but it’s just a complementary strategy.

That’s absolutely fascinating and your support on that as the earliest supporter of the program has been fantastic and has been incredibly important to getting us to this stage of actually going public with the campaign in the next four to six weeks.

 

Jason Boudreau:

It’s certainly been our pleasure to be a part of that and to support that. To your point about us being on the coast here, having grown up my entire life here, I had a chance to see whales in the wild, up close, a number of times. To your point, it’s breathtaking and life-affirming.

When you brought this idea to me about a way that we could begin that engagement in supporting the mission of Ark2030 was an absolute no-brainer and we’re super excited just to see where that’s going to go over the next bit. And, again, be a part of that, out here on the West Coast of Canada, certainly on the western side of the world where we want to make a big impact globally from.

Stephen, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I want to have you back for a repeat session soon so we can continue the dialogue. One of the things that I’m hoping to hear from you is – all the work that you’re doing is very future-focused and future-looking. And so, I’m curious. You’ve got 8 children of your own – there’s your next generation. When you’re talking to them or to others that are either in that next generation or about the next generation that’s coming, what do you share with them? What are you saying to them that is beyond when you’re here, things that are you feel are going to make an impact in their lives for them to be thinking about and be aware of?

 

Stephen Fern:

I think the most positive thing that comes out of what I’ve been working on for the last three years has been able to say to my children – there is Hope. We CAN do something about this. It is going to need your engagement. It is going to need your effort. It is going to need your energy. Please don’t think this is hopeless. And in part, three years ago everything I heard was doom and despondency, and we were going to miss the targets and so everything was very negative.

I don’t think that’s good for anybody’s mental health. With the Covid pandemic and everything else, there’s enough for the children of our world to be worried about and stressed about. I think just that sense of waking up in the morning thinking “A – this can be done and B – people around the world are uniting behind a mission to make it happen. I think that’s a really positive thing”.

 

Jason Boudreau:

That’s awesome. Well, we are going to end on that positive note. Thank you so much for your time and what you are up to with Ark2030 and like I said we are not only excited to be a part of it but deeply passionate about it and not only want to continue to support but expand that relationship. Excited to see what that looks like in the future. Thanks again to you and for your time today. Definitely look forward to picking up this dialogue again in the near future.

 

Stephen Fern:

Thank you so much.

 

Jason Boudreau:

All right, be well my friend.