Business Declares: Three top tips for engaging policymakers on pressing sustainable business challenges
EXCLUSIVE: With the UK’s general election growing ever-nearer, Business Declares’ director Ben Tolhurst gives his top tips for sustainable business leaders seeking meaningful and impactful engagement on green policies.
Last year, 2,000+ UK professionals collaborated through Business Declares to ask all major political parties for stronger energy and environment policies. Three specific calls to action were made:
- Ending new oil and gas licencing as part of a more rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels
- Accelerating the deployment of clean energy and related infrastructure
- Developing stronger, joined-up plans to conserve and restore nature
The first 300 of those backing the call to action lined up across London’s Millenium Bridge on an unseasonably sweltering September afternoon in a ‘queue for climate and nature’. Sectors represented were diverse, from retail to professional services to the built environment.
News spread and hundreds unable to make it to the queue added their signatures retrospectively. The final letter was hand-delivered to 10 Downing Street and read out in Parliament by Net-Zero Review author Chris Skidmore MP.
Since the queue, the Government has remained steadfast in its attempts to criminalise demonstrations and continues to be accused of backsliding on climate. It has also indicated plans for a General Election to be called in the second half of 2024.
As Parties shape their manifestos, this is undeniably a crucial time for businesses pushing for progressive and robust green policies to be engaging with policymakers. But it can be challenging amid the hustle, bustle, point-scoring and uncertainty around which MPs will stay and go.
Business Declares’ director Ben Tolhurst spoke exclusively to edie, offering advice from his business activist work and his 25+ years in the outsourcing side of the corporate world (he has worked for the likes of BT, Serco, Capita and JLL).
Tolhurst encouraged readers to always start with a thorough understanding of why it’s so important to get clear messaging across to policymakers, and to return to this when competing short-termist priorities arise.
The current Government has notably backtracked on key decarbonisation-related policies in heating, buildings and transport, citing the immediate need to respond to the cost-of-living crisis. In doing so, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke of the need for “long-term decisions for a brighter future” – which was ironic, given that the Government’s climate advisors believe the changes have built in costs and risks for the 2030s and beyond.
Tolhurst said: “I think the key to this is education and understanding. Reading the science, reading peer-reviewed papers, and really understanding how dire the situation is makes it very clear that there’s no business on a dead planet.
“Start from the point that this is not party-political, it is not a matter of getting a competitive edge – it is actually about the survival of businesses and, of course, our families and ourselves. Surely, if the survival of our own businesses doesn’t focus the mind, then nothing will.
“Some might call it ‘doomism’ or ‘alarmism’ but I think we constantly need to drag ourselves back to the facts of the matter, to focus our minds and not get swayed into any types of polarisation. We cannot afford to do that now. We have to face the reality head-on and stick with it.”
Rule of three
In the face of the twin climate and nature crises, progressive businesses “must do everything in their power to speak out”, Tolhurst argues. This is especially true when most of their competitors stay silent or continue, directly or indirectly, to promote static or weakened green policies.
But how the speaking is done is key. All good communicators come to the table knowing exactly which outcomes they want, and the likely most effective ways of getting it.
Tolhurst offers three recommendations around communications channels he believes will be effective in this general election year: industry body lobbying; collaborative campaigns and new business-citizen assemblies.
Industry bodies will doubtless be closely consulted by policymakers as they seek to shake off the risk of the UK entering a recession, selling plans for skilled jobs and prosperity to voters. But many still either have no clear position on the energy transition and nature crisis, or are actively blocking progress. This, Tolhurst says, can undermine any business’s standalone strategizing and lobbying.
Beyond assessing the stance of trade bodies on specific topics, business members can also urge them to “be more forceful” with Governments by emphasising the need for change at scale and pace, Tolhurst argued.
Some channels already exist for this kind of engagement, such as Corporate Knights’ Action Declaration on Climate Policy Engagement. The Declaration, launched in 2022,
On collaborative campaigning, Tolhurst continues to see a need for events like the queue which are “very visible and relevant”. “With enough volume of businesses, and enough big businesses, this is going to make a difference,” he explained.
Moreover, beyond the channel of communication opened with policymakers, these kinds of campaigns can create a ripple effect of awareness raising and future participation if they catch the eyes of other businesses and/or the general public.
Last but by no means least, Tolhurst floated an innovative mode of engagement that has not been tried and tested to as great an extent.
“We need to be talking to the Government about transitioning at pace to a non-fossil-fuel era and that, in my view, means we need to discuss using citizen’s assemblies and business assemblies in a sortition-led democratic process…. I have no idea whether businesses are even beginning to have this conversation yet.”
Demystifying a just transition
These sorts of assemblies would be set up to convene a representative mix of businesses and/or individuals impacted by a specific problem. They would be informed by experts before debating and proposing policy interventions.
MPs commissioned the UK’s first citizen’s climate assembly in the lead-up to COP26 in 2021. The problem at hand in that case was broad – climate mitigation and adaptation in its entirety. But the process could be replicated for more specific issues such as grid connection delays or upskilling in a particular sector such as vehicle manufacturing or heating installation.
In this way, policies could be created and implemented that address the actual – rather than the perceived – situation for workers and businesses. This will be especially crucial as issues such as job losses resulting from the decarbonisation of heavy industry are navigated by businesses and Ministers.
Sunak’s changes in September 2023 were badged as a boost for working people. While Boiler Upgrade Grant applications increased 50% year-on-year for December 2023 due to an uplift in the maximum amount available per home, it was highlighted that other interventions on energy efficiency standards and electric cars would benefit landlords and wealthier homes to a greater extent than the average person.
And, overall, trust in the UK Government’s ability to deliver net-zero by 2050 remains low; survey results published by Deloitte this week reveal that 70% of Brits have doubts on delivery. 45% expressed confusion about why the Government was not more committed to switching away from oil and gas.
Existing policy frameworks have also fostered little overall confidence in the private sector. edie’s own recent poll of 250 sustainability and energy professionals found seven in ten doubtful about delivery due to a lack of ambitious and joined-up policymaking that maximises the benefits for businesses.
It is now or never to clearly communicate this with policymakers.
HEAR FROM BEN TOLHRST AT EDIE 24
Business Declares’ Director Ben Tolhurst is appearing at edie 24, on 20 March, delivering a Q&A session on identifying,harnessing and communicating business purpose this year and beyond.
edie 24 is the brand’s largest face-to-face event of the year and will convene hundreds of sustainability and energy leaders in central London on 20-21 March 2024 for two monumental days of keynote speeches, panel debates, unparallelled networking opportunities, interactive workshops and more.
Experts speaking alongside Toklhurst on this year’s packed agenda include:
- Chris Packham, renowned naturalist and presenter
- Chris Skidmore MP, author of the Net-Zero Review
- Claire O’Neill, chair of the WBCSD and former UK Minister for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
- Chris Stark, outgoing CEO of the Climate Change Committee
- Rachel Solomon Williams, executive director of the Aldersgate Group
- Natalie Belu, co-CEO of Belu and independent candidate for London’s Mayoral Elections
Tickets for the event are available now on an individual, group and sharing basis, with a full price list available here.
With places limited, edie users are encouraged to book edie 24 tickets now. You can secure your place here.