17 October 2023

10 questions with Professor Cameron Hepburn

Estimated reading time: 8 Minutes

Cameron Hepburn, Battcock Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford, finished his 5-year tenure as Smith School Director on 1st October. In this time, the School has undergone an unprecedented period of growth. Here, he answers 10 questions covering his academic career, the secret of unleashing success in an institution, and plans for his sabbatical.

10 questions with Professor Cameron Hepburn

  1.  Your academic career began in chemical engineering and law, and then economics. When did you first become interested in sustainability, and why?

Well, actually my interest in sustainability came first. I was always interested in environmental issues. And as I finished high school I wasn't sure how to go about studying them. I really liked understanding ideas about society and debating them. So, I figured law would be a good set of skills and ideas to acquire. Then I did environmental law at Melbourne University, which was a small option within the law degree. I also loved mathematics, loved science, and loved solving problems and so engineering also seemed quite a useful set of skills. And again, I did the environmental engineering components of my engineering degree. 

So the sustainability was there all the way through. And I got to the end of those two degrees, and figured that central to solving most of the environmental problems that I cared about was the way the economic and political systems worked. But I hadn't studied any economics. And after listening to the advice of others I just figured, well, maybe I should. And so, with a lot of good luck, and happenstance, I managed to get the Rhodes Scholarship to come here to Oxford. I thought at some future date, and in some other way, I might get the opportunity to study economics and to try and put everything together. But my grandmother insisted that she had to have a Rhodes Scholar in the family. And I had a reasonable chance, she thought, so she bullied me into applying!

  1. You've overseen a period of tremendous growth at the Smith School. What's the secret to enabling that kind of success in an organisation or an institution?

The truth is that we've had a lot of tailwinds in the last five years. Climate change has gone from a peripheral issue to a major economic and political issue. And many philanthropists have woken up to realise that human civilization may well depend on solving some of these problems. 

I think the school was established 15 years ago with a huge amount of foresight by the Smith family and the Vice Chancellor, John Hood, and the head of social sciences, Michael Spence, at that time. They recognised that how business responds to these environmental challenges and how enterprise more broadly responds is going to be central to overcoming them. And, of course, the previous director, Gordon Clark, had got the Smith School into a stable position, so we were poised to grow - all the preconditions were there and the external environment was gradually changing in our favour. 

But, in terms of making the most of those changes, it was - just as it always is - a matter of getting brilliant people into the team. And we were incredibly lucky to have Anita Bharucha (Smith School chief operating officer) with us on day one of my time. It was then a matter of establishing where we really needed high quality people and finding those who shared our vision. But we didn’t have much money – we had to scratch around in those early days.

  1. Would you say that was the key challenge – building out the Smith School’s finances? 

It was certainly one of the key challenges because you can't grow a school without the money coming in. Gordon did an amazing job.  He started with a very large deficit and by the end of his term we were nearly breaking even. We had to make sure that we were doing things that were aligned with our values, like impactful, high quality research - but always with an eagle eye on the bottom line. I suspect that instinct will remain with the school forevermore, but we are in a position now where we can keep a closer eye on the impact that we're having and the reach of our teaching and ideas. We can focus very squarely on the mission now, even if sometimes it costs us a bit more. 


  1. You are famously busy, with multiple roles spanning academia and business. Your outlook calendar would strike fear into most people’s hearts. What advice would you give someone who wanted to achieve a similar level of impact, but were unsure how to manage their time and energy? 

Well, there's an old line about putting the big rocks in first. It goes like this: If you're filling a glass up with rocks, and you put the little ones in first, you don't have room for the big rocks. And so, if your big rocks are your family and top professional priorities, it's a matter of making sure they're in the diary first, and then you do your best not to meddle with those slots. 

But in terms of actually running the diary, you have to have a good PA if like me you are not very good at doing it yourself. And my PA Jenny Sabourin has done a great job over the years.

Then, it's a matter of delegating to an outstanding team and knowing that you can give away really important work to people who are more able than you. And it’s important that you’re there for them when they need you, but that you don’t stand over their shoulder, or try to control them. Because they’re the experts in their fields, not you, and as a director you don’t have the time do to everything anyway. 

  1. Many have remarked on your kind style of leadership and the positive working environment you have fostered alongside Anita Bharucha at the Smith School. Were there leaders in your life who set this example of kind leadership for you?

I’ve been lucky to have had kind people around me throughout my life, starting with my parents and teachers, and University lecturers. I think most people are innately kind. Even behind the hardened exterior of some people there’s deep wells of kindness to be found and sometimes it doesn’t take too much to bring that out. And when we’re kind to each other, everybody wins.  So it is really a winning strategy to be kind to others.

  1. You’re taking a sabbatical over the next year, what are you most looking forward to?

I'm looking forward to having more time with my family, and to myself. To read, to think, and particularly to read outside my usual subjects. I've read extremely instrumentally for the past five years, to keep on top of the relevant literature in my fields. But what I have done much less of is pick up an interesting book on a new area. I would say an unrelated area, but when you're dealing with environmental problems, everything is related. So, it will be great to catch up on – for example – the cutting edge of where AI is, and the future of democracy versus autocracy. And antimicrobial resistance in the environment. All these big questions are interrelated. I feel like I've been slightly starving myself of these advances in other areas and I'm looking forward to catching up a bit.

  1. You regularly talk to and advise multinational businesses on climate change. How have those conversations changed over the past five years?

The good news is the conversations are now more urgent, more interested. The bad news is that in many quarters there is considerably less focus on what the right outcomes are, and more of a focus on what the more constrained, feasible outcome is. Or to put it another way – what the best outcome for them is, rather than what does a good collective outcome look like, and how can they contribute to that? Because if you're solving a big social problem, and you're contributing to that solution, it's very rare that you can't create private value from doing that. 


  1. We’ve seen in recent weeks how climate change is increasingly being debated in the political arena. How do you feel when you see regressive climate policy changes like those made by the government recently? 

The Prime Minister has decided that there's some political mileage in rowing back on some of the environmental and climate commitments made by his predecessors. Time will tell whether he's right. He might actually find that this was a bad move politically. And it's not exactly what leadership looks like it. 

We have known for decades that these sorts of changes have to come about, and in the last few years we finally had the sort of commitments that needed to be made. So I think the PM is making a mistake - even if it doesn’t end up being a mistake from a short-term perspective of winning some votes, it's a dereliction of leadership.

  1. How does it feel to come to the end of these five years, and to see Professor Mette Morsing taking over and bringing a new chapter for the Smith School?

It's been really wonderful to have such strong appreciation for my time from all of my friends and colleagues. It's a bit surprising, and it’s lovely. I feel like we're in such good hands with Mette taking over. She brings an optimism, a thoughtfulness, a steely determination, and a systems perspective with a kind of pragmatism that will serve us really well. She's a great listener, too. And I think it's been reassuring to me that she's been going around the school listening very carefully to everybody and triangulating things. And she's also coming up with loads of new ideas, many of which I've thought, “yes we should have done that.” So I'm feeling very enthusiastic about the next stage and of course, delighted to continue to be a part of it.

  1. Lastly, if you were to look 25 years into the future – where will the world be in terms of progress towards solving climate change?

It’s an almost trite certainty that we’ll be a lot closer than we are today. The problem with these sorts of long-term predictions is that all sorts of major revolutions in technology and human affairs can happen in a relatively short period of time. If you look back 25 years, and think about the technology available and the geopolitical landscape – China hadn't entered the WTO and it was still a very poor country. The internet was around – but it certainly wasn't in all of our pockets. The world was a different place. And it will be a different place in 25 years’ time, too. India will be perhaps the predominant power. China's demographic future seems to be pretty clear – it may be facing similar challenges to those that Japan faces today. The global population will likely be levelling off. 

Climate change will be hitting us pretty hard, because even with the best will in the world we will almost certainly be over 1.5 degrees by 2048. And the big question for us is, will we be able to come together to meet those challenges, as much of the world did after World War II? Or do we retreat into barbarity? 

My bets are on humanity, because, when the chips are down, we’re pretty good problem solvers. And unlikely almost any other species, we have an instinct to trust one another even if we’re not related, and that will serve us well. And my hope is that by 2048, we will basically be there on climate change. And the huge challenge at that point will be how do we prevent further biodiversity loss and species extinction, which could also lead to massive suffering for humanity. But time will tell.