#HowIGotHere... With David Saddington, Head of Nature Campaign for COP26, BEIS

In Sledge's latest edition of #HowIGotHere, where leaders in their fields talk us through their career journeys to date, share tips for landing a role like theirs, and more, we spoke with the incredibly accomplished David Saddington, Head of Nature Campaign for COP26, BEIS.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

It’s not dissimilar from what I’m actually doing to be honest.

I started my climate change journey at quite a young age, so working within the UK government as one of the leaders in the International Forest Unit, and running a climate COP in the UK is a pretty dream job!

To do work that is purpose-driven and particularly in my current role, working in the area of deforestation is very rewarding, because in addition to climate change, I care so deeply about nature and wildlife, and the communities which rely on those landscapes.

If I could present some nature documentaries that would be a bonus, but this is a pretty good job!

How and when did you get your start in climate change?

  • A first hand experience inspired action

My journey really started back in 2005, when I was impacted by the flash floods in North York, at the age of 13.

Witnessing the devastation of flooding in the community, and hearing climate scientists on the news say that events like this will only get worse because of climate change – and as quite a geeky science loving child – I became really fascinated by climate change.

  • Activism began at a grassroots level, and grew from there

I took it upon myself to investigate climate change and make a bit of noise about it. I communicated it to my friends, teachers, and school. Those actions led me to become a Young Person Representative for the UK government, and communicate climate change to the UK public.

This involved meeting with Tony Blair, where I suggested that climate change should be on the UK school curriculum. It’s probably one of the most impactful things I did in my early days of activism.

  • Partnering with the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF)

Another catalytic moment was working with the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) soon after that to scale those education reforms worldwide, and grow my social enterprise at the time, which was around developing eco gardens in schools and parts of the community.

That was a really nice way of, as well as educating people about climate change, bringing some of that connection with the natural world into cities and urban areas.

From there the connections I’ve made and the relationships I’ve strengthened have led me to where I am today.

How has that evolved over time?

  • A drive to make a difference through COP26

I joined the UK government about four years ago now. When the UK won the COP presidency, it was a pretty special moment, and I knew I wanted to be part of a government that made that happen.

I’d worked on climate COPs for the UN and the private sector before, but it was really exciting that a climate COP was going to be held in the UK for the first time. I was involved in the process around designing what our priorities should be as COP President from the very start, which was really fantastic.

  • Creating the FACT Dialogue framework

When I first took on the COP26 role I was Head of Buildings and Nature, because at the time we weren’t quite sure what we would focus on for COP. It was really great to experiment and see where we could add the most value, because you can’t do everything, you’ve only got two weeks, and can only focus on so many things.

Quite quickly it became clear that the nature space and tackling deforestation was very important. Around 25% of global emissions are from deforestation and agriculture, and it’s really far behind. It’s such an important area, so I evolved my role to lead and champion that work.

  • Implementing FACT Dialogue in a post-COP26 world

This led me to set up FACT Dialogue and all of our other work in this area, and now on the other side of COP26 our focus is on making sure we deliver on those pledges.

We’ve had world leaders sign up to reduce agricultural deforestation, world leaders commit to more sustainable trading, and CEOs step up to make their brands not only deforestation free, but forest positive.

Now we need to make sure all of those leaders deliver on those pledges, and we’re also of course on the countdown to COP27, so our real challenge is to demonstrate the progress we’ve made one year after launching all of those initiatives back in the middle of a Scottish winter!

What’s an average day look like now?

  • Connecting with global leaders

There’s no such thing as an average day in this role!

This week I’m off to Malaysia and Indonesia to talk to the governments and key companies there, and visit their tropical rainforests. It’s a really exciting opportunity to see, for example, what sustainable palm oil looks like on the ground, and how we can improve it further.

  • Leading a like minded team

It’s a real privilege to lead a really passionate team every day, who are dedicated to, particularly in my world, making the global supply of products like palm oil and choc more sustainable. It’s a fantastic, diverse, varied job.

  • Honing in on the comms piece

Of course working with partners like Sledge on events is one of the highlights too, as it’s nice to inject some of the creativity into that process. It’s something I certainly do try and bring into the team, having worked with lots of creative people in the climate change space, and outside of government to really bring that fresh perspective.

I think considering why climate change is important for the general public and communicating it to them isn’t rated highly enough.

Our agricultural systems, for example, face huge destabilisation if we end up experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change. This is important for the planet, but it’s also important to all of us.

It’s a global issue and we need to be better at engaging with people, highlighting this isn’t a nice to have environmental issue, it’s a critically important issue that impacts us all.

For me, making sure we are investing enough time in outreach, communications and engagement is key. So, it’s exciting to hear that as well as succeeding on the policy component with FACT Dialogue at COP26, we are also award-winning in terms of how we communicated it, following our recognition with Sledge at the micebook V Awards.

What do you love most about your job?

Working on something that makes a difference, with such a passionate, purpose-driven team is really powerful.

It can be quite challenging facing climate change every day, but I know that we either win the fight or we lose the fight within the next two decades, and this is a definitive moment for action.

I couldn’t imagine not working in this space, because I see what we stand to lose, but also what we stand to gain. The transition to a more sustainable future is just such a better future.

It’s not the part of policy I work on now, but one example of this is the transformation of Islington. It’s amazing to see that the streets are a lot greener and cleaner after the pandemic. There are more cycle lanes and pedestrianised streets, and the air is slightly cleaner.

It’s a much more thriving neighbourhood, and of course a lot greener as people are using cars a lot less. The transition to a sustainable future is vital, and we will get there.

I’m a pragmatist, and I am vaguely optimistic that we will eventually get there.

Favourite project you’ve ever worked on?

One thing I loved doing was speaking at TEDxTeen when I was 22. I’ve done public speaking for a while now but that was on another level – doing a really punchy, 15-minute talk at the O2 in front of thousands of people, which was also live streamed on MTV, and then the press around it… Was really daunting!

That experience represented quite a step up for me and was really great in terms of changing the narrative around how we talk about climate change. It presented me with the opportunity to step back, reflect on my activism to date, and reset the narrative around how we talk about climate change.

In those early days we talked about it very objectively, and as a scientific problem. For me the only way we’re going to get more people to care and do something about climate change is to show them how it affects them: their homes in terms of flooding, the uncomfortable heat, food security, and how the things they care about are affected, such as wildlife, the natural environment, and even sports in terms of cancellations or postponements due to extreme weather.

The only way to change the narrative around climate change is to make it more personalised, and it was a pleasure to highlight this through my work on TEDxTeen.

What’s your advice for someone looking to pursue a role like yours?

There are so many sustainable jobs out there now, so for me it’s about knowing how you can add value. What are you particularly skilled in? Where is your passion, and what do you love? If you know these things, there is undoubtedly a green job that is associated with them.

Are you a great creative designer, for example, and can you help with the better communication of climate change? There are some fantastic YouTubers and Instagrammers blowing my mind around climate change because they are so creative, have the digital assets at their fingertips, and know how to deploy some of those technologies with impact.

Similarly there are some really great engineers out there who are passionate about sustainability, florists who are plastic free and choosing to source British wildflowers, and many more individuals and organisations that are looking for ways to be super low carbon.

Whatever your passion is, there is guaranteed to be a sustainable way of doing that and if there’s not then that’s your niche, because everything needs to transition to carbon free in the next two decades.

We need to take carbon out of literally everything we do, so whether you work in fashion, comms or civil service, there are roles out there where you can be a sustainable leader.

For me I would say to have that self-reflection, consider what your skills are, start small, start specific, and really carve out your niche from there.


Sign up to Sledge Seasonals to receive the latest event, content and creative news, insights and inspiration, directly to your inbox.