Jonathon Porritt: Business leaders are better placed than MPs to drive the green economy

EXCLUSIVE: Business leaders are "more predisposed" than politicians to drive sustainable development for the foreseeable future, according to leading British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt.

Jonathon Porritt claims the new BEIS Secretary Greg Clark is a “serious player” when it comes to understanding the significance of the green economy

Jonathon Porritt claims the new BEIS Secretary Greg Clark is a “serious player” when it comes to understanding the significance of the green economy

Speaking to edie, the Forum for the Future founder who is speaking at edie's flaship Sustainability Leaders Forum in January (scroll down for details), insisted that the business case for sustainability will grow from strength-to-strength as organisations increasingly realise there is “no downside” to mainstreaming energy efficiency within a company’s operations.

“I think business leaders are actually in many respects more predisposed to make things happen than politicians," Porritt said. "There’s no downside to getting good at sustainability - it doesn’t require huge additional cost, it doesn’t in any way get them into reputational difficulties, it doesn’t limit access to market. If anything, it increases access to market on a license-to-grow a story.

“We know there’s always been a business case for companies getting their heads around improving efficiencies; managing resources, more intelligently, getting after greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and all the rest. So long as the company can work through what that business case is all about, then there’s absolutely no downside to it whatsoever.

“For that reason, I think we’ll continue to see a lot of businesses continue to drive sustainability issues for the foreseeable future.”


The environmental activist-cum-author has a positive vision for the world's ecological future. Technology breakthroughs such as 90% global energy generation from renewable sources and the transformation of manufacturing through nanotechnology and 3D printing are all considered distinct possibilities in Porritt's 2013 novel The World We Made.

But what about the role of the sustainability professional in the year 2050? Will the increasing resourcefulness of business actions have rendered obsolete the need for a specialist team of sustainability professionals?

“I think that’s probably going to be the case,” Porritt said. “The advice that Forum for the Future gives to companies at the moment is that businesses have to promote sustainability in two ways. They need a 'core' of sustainability professionals - it’s impossible to inject enough knowledge and ideas and advice about capital expenditure into a company without that. And businesses then really need to be incredibly applied to mainstreaming and embedding sustainability into a company ethos; incentivising non-specialists to take their share of CSR.

“For me, the faster a company mainstreams sustainability, the better that company usually is at turning around the challenge. But we’re nowhere near the point where we could dispense of the specialist professional teams at the moment. 

By 2050, it will be a very different story. Either we’re creating all the wealth that we depend on in a truly sustainable manner or we’re all in a very different kind of pickle - that’s the truth of it.”

UK energy security

Porritt’s description of the green business of the future will only come to fruition if the global energy strategy is conducive to a low-carbon mix of renewable technologies and effective energy storage methods. In the UK, the current uncertainty surrounding green policy is threatening to stall the low-carbon transformation, the environmentalist says.

When asked about the changes the Government needs to make to guarantee the UK’s future energy security, Porritt said: “They need to do what nobody has ever done in modern times, which is to understand that the basis of any good strategy depends entirely on looking at infrastructure, the built environment and energy efficiency.

“I think the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) thing is a sideshow. It’s never going to make any major difference as nobody knows how to get it to scale quickly enough. I suspect the best thing they could do is keep an R&D programme running.

"The same is true of fracking, where there is massive excitement - over-excitement, in fact. Again, I think that by 2020 the amount of gas coming into our grid from new fracking installations in the UK will be pitifully small.

“So, we’ve got to focus on the basics: how do we have a proper strategy to reduce total energy demand and consumption? Where do we then ramp up the clean generation capabilities? And where do we then get the gas that we continue to need as a bridge fuel through to 2025?”

Industrial strategy

Despite his reservations over these aspects of green policy, Porritt remains confident that Britain's low-carbon agenda is now in safe hands. Having developed a working relationship with the new Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Secretary Greg Clark during his time as chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, Porritt suggests that Clark is a “serious player” when it comes to understanding the significance of the green economy.

Much like Aldersgate Group’s chief executive Nick Molho, Porritt is also excited about the prospect of a low-carbon industrial strategy being formulated within the boundaries of the new business-focussed department.

“It’s problematic that we don’t have a place where climate change is as big as a priority as it was within DECC, and that sends out a powerful symbolic signal that this isn’t necessarily the key area that this Government is going to focus on," Porritt said. "But having said that, symbolism isn’t worth very much. The real issue is the substance of what any Governmental department can actually do and, for me, the incredible thing is the emergence of industrial strategy.

“So I do take great heart that this new Department where energy and industrial strategy come together with business in a way that might allow for a low-carbon industrial strategy to be brought together within the confines of one department, just so long as they can develop a good working relationship with the Treasury.

“And that is a huge proviso. As we know, DECC was only able to achieve the limited amount that it did because it of course was basically run by the Treasury. If we have the same balance of power where the Treasury continues to call all the big shots like infrastructure, industrial priorities and other things like Hinkley Point and so on, then we won’t really see the kind of progress we really need.”

Jonathon Porritt at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum 2017

Jonathon Porritt is among the headline speakers at edie's upcoming Sustainability Leaders Forum, which brings together the pioneers and innovators leading the conversation on sustainable business.

Taking place on 25-26 January 2017, this flagship event is renowned for its cutting-edge content, inspiring speakers and unrivalled networking. To meet the evolving needs of our attendees, the Forum has been expanded to run over two days, with a host of new features that will deliver our most comprehensive, interactive and immersive programme ever.

Find out more about the Sustainability Leaders Forum and register to attend here.

George Ogleby


green policy | low carbon | Corporate Social Responsibility


CSR & ethics | Green policy
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