Big business boss and NGO leader clash horns

In a well-mannered clash of the titans the leaders of the CBI and the WWF faced off for a debate on corporate responsibility and climate change this week.

Richard Napier, chief executive of the conservation charity, and Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) met to debate whether British business could be a world leader on environmental issues and continue to enjoy rising profits.

Napier said we would face an unpredictable and potentially devastating future if we continued along the ‘business as usual path’ and called upon the CBI to back companies that minimised their environmental impact.

“The public want it. We want it. And, I suspect, more and more of your members want it, too,” he said.

“Let competitiveness encompass both financial and environmental costs.

“Few sectors or companies are going to be immune from the effects of climate change.”

Sir Digby said that the business community understood the importance of a sustainable environment, and had made a “huge contribution to the rise in environmental quality we have seen in the UK” pointing to progress made by the private sector compared to what we were doing as individuals.

He made no attempt to dismiss the existence of man-made climate change, saying business took the issue seriously, having made an overall reduction of greenhouse gases of 17% on 1990 levels, whereas household-related emissions were down just 3%.

Dioxins had been slashed by 90%, he said, while hazardous waste production was at the lowest level for more than a decade.

Napier, accepted improvements were being made but said large emitters of carbon would in the future find consumers turning their backs on them.

“Customers and employees will boycott a company which is a carbon dinosaur,” he claimed.

“The market and public opinion are already changing – which is good news for the environment and, so long as you listen and react, good news for your members, too.”

Investors, said Robert Napier, had already got this message. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), supported by WWF, now had more than 200 global investors with US$31 trillion of funds under management (see related story).

These investors were demanding transparency and actions from companies not only in terms of disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions, but also mitigating the problem.

He called upon the CBI to encourage its members to embrace the technologies of a low carbon economy.

“Huge opportunities in technology are already proven,” said Napier.

“Our history of shipyard and aviation engineering should enable us to lead the world in wind turbines. Our scientists ought to be pushing the boundaries in the economics of alternative power generation.

“And British companies should be taking the markets in the new technologies of carbon capture and storage, solar and wave power.”

The world had to move to a low carbon economy, the WWF chief executive said.

“With the right leadership from the CBI, British business can be both financially competitive and profitable and also lead the world in moving to a one planet economy with really competitive environmental costs.

“That will be good for business, good for the environment which WWF seeks to protect, and good for the planet upon which we all depend.”

Sam Bond

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