Projects for a Sustainable World

Turning Projects Green after COP21


Lefsky Strategic Initiatives, Inc.

The field of project management will be tasked with a tremendously important and challenging initiative: carry out the goals of the COP21 climate agreement in Paris.

On 12 December 2015, countries from around the world completed rigorous negotiations in Paris to reach an historic international agreement to fight global warming at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21). More than 190 countries and 40,000 delegates worked to forge a consensus that would enable global temperatures to stay within a 2°C increase from before the industrial revolution, with a target of 1.5° C.

Keywords: sustainable project, investment, innovation, energy


One of the largest and most complex programs in history commenced with the signing of the Paris agreement. The need for project management expertise in various sectors around the world will be needed to bring about the aims of the agreement.

On 12 December 2015, 195 nations and more than 40,000 delegates from around the world signed an agreement that changes how the world will work to solve the problem of climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during its 21st Conference of Parties, commonly referred to as COP21, delivered what has come to be known as the Paris Agreement outlining the responsibilities of nations in helping to avert major, climate-based disaster. While non-binding, this document lays the groundwork and sets the parameters for reversing course on the trends of rising global temperatures. The stakes for such an agreement are tremendously high and nations, cities, and businesses around the world will be relying on the project management profession to help turn the carefully crafted language into successful projects that help reduce carbon emissions.

While other sources of pollution can cause significant damage to the planet, oceans, and various ecosystems, this conference and the agreement around it is specifically focused on the reduction of carbon emissions to keep the average global temperature to no more than a 2° C increase from baseline temperatures preceding the industrial revolution. Data provided by NASA (Exhibit 1) reveals that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels continue to rise and, if left unabated, will raise the average global temperatures to potentially destabilizing levels.


Exhibit 1: Global climate change (NASA).


What does the output of the Paris agreement mean for project management and project managers in particular? The short answer is that there will be a lot of new work coming along with significant funding. It will also require new ways of thinking and collective problem solving at a size and manner different than has been previously attempted.

The result will require the best minds in the project, program, and portfolio management to help solve one of the most complex and difficult problems. Additionally, it will require coordination across different state and non-state actors to successfully meet the aggressive targets of an upper level limit of a 2° C increase to the average global temperatures, and a goal of a 1.5° C limit. In order to meet the targets, an international organizational structure is being formulated to oversee the initiative. Each of the 195 signatory countries are putting together their own targets and apparatuses for effecting CO2 emission reductions, the central entity will be set up to manage and track the overall progress.

The UN and the organization being developed will need the active involvement of national governments, regional entities such as the European Union, businesses, and individuals. The opportunities and challenges for the project management community will be among the most significant that have ever been faced. According to the International Energy Agency, an anticipated US$1 trillion per year, on average, will be required over the next 15 years in order to carry out the projects needed to hit the targets for maintaining global temperatures. This will make the COP21-related projects among the most expensive global programs of all time.

Technologies are rapidly advancing to help improve energy creation and efficiency, and project management expertise and training will remain an important need to help effect the desired outcomes. More advanced developments in existing practices will be utilized as the program apparatus evolves. One of the keys to solving the climate problem is network coordination. To be successful, it is not enough for the majority of people, companies, cities, or even countries to meet their goals. Rather, a carefully networked set of success criteria must be met in order for the world to succeed in this endeavor. How will the UN be able to measure, track, and manage progress and accurately assess which goals are being met?

Stakeholder management is required with a diversity of actors not seen before. To get to an agreement on 12 December, 195 nations had to come together to reach a consensus on how to act. This agreement had to be translated into final versions and agreed upon in the six official languages of the UN. Both state and non-state actors have very different driving factors and principles in their engagement in this process.


Exhibit 2: Best research-cell efficiencies.
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory


The one common theme among business leaders at COP21 was this: It's good business to reduce carbon emissions. Most companies are not benevolent actors when it comes to climate change, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. They are acting out of profit motivations and on behalf of their shareholders. There is also potential loss of revenue and brand value for companies who are seen as heavy polluters. The good news is that the commitments surrounding COP21 were significant with major announcements from the likes of Siemens, Google, Kellogg, Coca Cola, L‘Oreal, Airbus, Michelin, and IBM to name a few. These commitments signal major investment from the private sector to reduce carbon emissions, and will result in the charter of many new programs and PMOs.


A focus on renewable energy has continue to take off with new innovations in solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal sources making huge improvements to the effectiveness and cost to produce electricity. Solar panels have vastly improved in 40 years of development, while pricing and availability has made the use of photovoltaic solutions much more mainstream and prevalent in consumer and commercial markets.


The pace of innovation has largely been on the supply side, with funding and subsequent breakthroughs coming up with better ways to create energy via renewable sources. Efforts are being made and research is being performed to develop new ways to reduce the demand by improving efficiencies in power usage. The construction and building refurbishment industries have changed little over the past fifty years in the tools, materials, and processes used for major projects. There is now a push for a green and sustainable buildings and a growth in the certifications of those buildings to ensure reduced impact on the environment.

Low-carbon building materials are being tested and deployed, such as post-tensioned timber frames. New façade systems are being used to retrofit existing structures to improve efficiencies related to heating and cooling. The benefits of these developments are, once again, that CO2 reductions can also be linked to cost savings for property owners and occupants.


The European Union's Climate Knowledge and Innovation Communities (Climate-KIC) Building Technologies Accelerator (BTA) program is releasing the first of its reports outlining the optimal energy investments for cities. This initiative will start with an analysis of Swiss cities with the plan to roll this research out across Europe. This important information will help drive the appropriate investment into technologies and solutions that make sense, specific to the existing infrastructure and the available energy resources suited for the region. The type of information provided will show what mix of solar, geothermal, wind, or hydroelectric energy would be most suitable to the conditions. It will help drive the proper investment and the subsequent projects to implement the most appropriate solutions.


The threats from climate change and global warming require their own set of project management expertise. The field of risk management is already changing significantly due to the impacts of changed weather patterns and extreme events. In a pragmatic response, and in order to avoid, transfer, or mitigate potential risks, companies are moving data centers, building redundancy, taking out insurance policies, and moving data to cloud-based models.


In order to be successful, it is essential that the best practices in project management are utilized. COP21, while an agreement among member nations, will need to be carried out by well-trained professionals. The scale and complexity of this initiative will also drive innovation in the field of project management itself. These challenges will be similar to ones global teams are already familiar with in some regard, they employ distributed multinational and multilingual teams to solve difficult problems. Different cultures and backgrounds will be working together to achieve a common goal. This is among the most hopeful and the most essential of alliances created in the history of this planet. If we are able to meet our collective objectives on this program, so much will need to be developed and deployed that does not currently exist. This is a program where not meeting our objectives is not an easily acceptable option.



Dan Lefsky is the President of Lefsky Strategic Initiatives, Inc., and has been building state-of-the-art solutions for major global corporations for 20 years. This past year, Mr. Lefsky moved from New Jersey to Paris to grow his business and be able to help organizations around the world to improve their project, program, and portfolio management capabilities. He has been active with PMI since 2005 and this is his eighth PMI® Global Congress. He is a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in France, active on the Digital Economy, Training and Education, and Green Growth Committees. In 2015, he participated in COP21 climate events and the OECD Forum, engaging with global governmental and business leaders. He was named Citizen of the Year for his hometown of Denville, NJ USA in 2014. When not optimizing PMOs, he runs marathons and competes in triathlons.


img    Dan Lefsky        |  img  @danlefsky            |  img

                                                Email: [email protected]

European Institute of Innovation and Technology. (n.d.). Climate-KIC. Retrieved from

International Energy Agency. (2015). Energy and climate change. Retrieved from

NASA. (n.d.). Global climate change: Vital signs of the planet. Retrieved from

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2016, Dan Lefsky
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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