Now for clean growth - let's hope it's real this time
If, like me, you're downloading a burgeoning number of Government reports committing us to clean growth, low carbon infrastructures and greater disclosure on climate risk, you'll either be feeling 'at last, the tide has turned'; or suspending your lingering cynicism about commitments to the green economy. Is it all real this time?
Have we moved on this time from Cameron’s alleged ‘getting rid of the green crap’ to recognising the long-run benefits of environmental responsibility for the economy? I’m staying optimistic - after all, it is the festive season and there are genuine grounds to do so.
For once policies show signs of being joined up and focused on resolving the tension between resource extraction for economic activity and environmental protection for the regeneration of natural capital. Advanced economies see the green economy as a prime contributor to recovery with a wide recognition that an ‘absolute decoupling’ of growth from impact is now a necessity.
For this, business models that have been in the wings for some time are being explored afresh with vigour. And, in the context of economic need, the design of cities that are resilient to shock, the sustainable management of global supply chains; and the application of ecological principles to engineered systems are all generating opportunities for our sectors, through admittedly, we are in desperate need of professionals who think foremost about systems, materials flow and disruptive innovation.
Of course, one reason Governments have rediscovered this is because of the genuine prospects for growth, jobs, export, scale-up and skills in a lower carbon economy, but we should also be buoyant about the rising generation’s appetite for seizing an agenda where sustainability is a ‘given’ for products and services and not a ‘bolt-on’. And early career folk with the passion for making this happen through business strategy now have a vibrant palette to play with.
A historic focus on implementing environmental management systems and drumming up enthusiasm for green initiatives within the firm is developing into an influential C-suite role for most ‘Heads of Sustainability’. Increasingly sat alongside finance, marketing or consumer affairs, these leaders find themselves at the very forefront of strategic developments within their organisations, tackling:
- the all-pervasive role of 'digital' and the need to assemble responses within the firm that relate to environmental sustainability;
- the demands for leadership on aspects as diverse as autonomy, the ‘bankability’ of new technologies and self-regulation;
- decisions on how ‘pace-setting’ their firms should be on climate adaptation in the context of guidance on financial risk reporting;
- leadership on systems and circular thinking, and on sociological and psychological drivers of change, including the emotional elements of choice and lifestyle at as citizens connect more closely with their products and services; and critically,
- the absolute necessity of clear communications across all market channels, but also on longer-term thinking within the firm.
So, it seems the stars are aligned for once – clean growth offers genuine prospects, firms are better connecting with new customers and their future customer base has the appetite to make this all happen. Opportunity is firmly knocking at the door.
Professor Simon Pollard DSc FREng, pro-vice-chancellor for energy, environment and agrifoodCranfield University