In business, a unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over US$1 billion. In 2013 Venture capitalist Aileen Lee chose the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures.

According to CB Insights, a private company with a business analytics platform and global database that provides market intelligence on private companies and investor activities, as of August 2021 there are more than 803 unicorns, including ByteDance, SpaceX, and Stripe among the largest. There are also 30 unicorns with over a $10 billion valuation, including SpaceX, Getir, Goto, J&T Express, Stripe, and Klarna. They have been given the name “decacorn“. SpaceX reached over a 100 billion valuation in late 2021 becoming a “centicorn” (the term is a work in progress).

And now the first unicorns are also appearing in the environmental business. International finance bets on sustainability and pushes up the value of consulting firms that lead companies towards the goal of carbon neutrality. The consultancy involves first measuring, then reducing, and finally eliminating the carbon emissions responsible for global warming, also by resorting to forms of compensation such as the purchase of certified carbon credits. According to Verdantix, a British market research company, there was one acquisition in this sector in 2019, four in 2020, and the number rose to a staggering thirteen in 2021, which testifies to a clear concentration of business, an event that often is a prelude to the emerging of an industry leader.

South Pole is certainly one of such unicorns. It is a Swiss carbon finance consultancy founded in 2006 in Zurich, Switzerland, whose business covers project and technology finance, data, and advisory on sustainability risks and opportunities, as well as the development of environmental commodities such as carbon and renewable energy credits. The company has 23 local offices across Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific, North America, and South America, thus controlling around 20% of the global climate mitigation market, and has over 700 employees. According to Quantum Commodity Intelligence, an independent Price Reporting Agency (PRA) that provides cash commodity prices, news, and data for oil and energy markets, South Pole has an estimated value of over one billion dollars. Among the reasons for the assessment, Quantum Commodity Intelligence cites the recent investments in the capital of South Pole by Temasek, a company based in Singapore, and Salesforce Ventures, headquartered in San Francisco and with offices in London, San Diego, New York, Sydney, and Tokyo. Swisscom, a major telecommunications provider in Switzerland, has recently entered the capital of South Pole too, a move that coincides with the choice of the two groups to jointly promote digital innovation for climate protection.

A pressing acquisition strategy was recently launched by the Swiss multinational. Among the most recent acquisitions, there is Republic of Everyone in Australia, GoClimate in Sweden, CO2logic in Belgium, and Carbonsink, in Italy which is also the country’s leader in the sector. The acquisition of Carbonsink is explained in this way by Renat Heuberger, co-founder, and CEO of South Pole: “Carbonsink has always been at the forefront of developing climate solutions and some of the largest and most important Italian companies are turning to her to be a step ahead of competitors in terms of climate change”. A precise reference to the fact that the company has among its customers most of the companies in the FTSE Mib index which includes the 40 largest companies listed on the Italian stock exchange. Not to mention, as Heuberger explains, that the company has been present for some time in Africa with a base in Mozambique and projects in many countries of the continent.

South Pole isn’t the only unicorn in the industry, however. Last year, in fact, KKR, an American global investment company that manages multiple alternative asset classes, including private equity, energy, infrastructure, real estate, credit, and, through its strategic partners, hedge funds, acquired the majority stake in the ERM group, a multinational company headquartered in London, United Kingdom, for 1.7 billion dollars. Based on this transaction, the total value of ERM is 3 billion dollars. ERM is a consultancy firm that focuses not only on sustainability, but also provides environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. ERM has 5,500 employees based in over 40 countries. Its motto is: “boots to boardroom”, to say, from the boots of the workers to the board of directors.

In this framework, there is certainly room for small and medium-sized enterprises to experiment with new functional and economically accessible digital solutions. Smaller companies must be enabled to do their part in climate action and respond to the increasingly pressing demands of large companies also because the need to measure and manage emissions is spreading throughout the supply chain. In fact, when a large company is committed to climate transformation and improving its reporting and climate communication, this decision will involve tens, hundreds, or even thousands of medium and small suppliers. Thus the possibility of proposing tools capable of measuring the climate footprint of these operators as well as suggesting areas and actions to take to reduce it will probably be one of the development drivers for the next few years.

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