From Green GB Week to baffling Budgets: There’s still much to be done on sustainability

A lot can change in a fortnight. The UK's first Green GB Week highlighted the benefits of clean growth on an unprecedented level. But after this year's budget proved to be a mixed bag for the green economy, inspiration needs to convert into ongoing action if we are to bring about meaningful change.

From Green GB Week to baffling Budgets: There’s still much to be done on sustainability

A fortnight ago, I was fortunate enough to sit in on several of the events held to mark the UK’s first ever Green GB Week – a Government-led initiative to help champion clean growth and spur the nation’s low-carbon transition.

Covering topics from science-based targets to sustainable investing, these discussions left me feeling hopeful and inspired. The lasting impression was that the attention of the public, business and policy spheres had all been turned towards the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues once more – and for good.

This feeling was no doubt compounded by the fact that 67 businesses had made an array of bold new sustainability commitments on edie’s virtual Pledge Wall, covering everything from fleet electrification to plastic phase-outs.

Fast-forward two weeks, and Chancellor Philip Hammond used his budget announcement to freeze tax increases on petrol and diesel fuel duty and confirm further tax breaks for the North Sea oil and gas industry, while scrapping all plans for a “latte levy” on disposable cups.

With the messages sent by the Budget and Green GB Week seemingly at loggerheads, concern is building that – after all the talk of clean growth – motivation to tackle sustainability will peter out.

What if business and public ambition to drive the low-carbon transition will continue to outpace government action for more than 12 years – the timescale which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims is all we have left to limit global warming to 1.5C?  

As Climate-KIC’s chief executive Kirsten Dunlop put it at a Question Time event (15 October), climate challenges are the biggest issue that the “common good of humanity” has ever faced.

But despite the growing amount of case studies proving that sustainability and profitability now go hand-in-hand organically, the urgency of the situation – and the benefits which could be reaped from tackling it – still has not been universally realised.

So, when will the tipping point to permanent change on an unprecedented level arrive? And what will be the straw that broke the camel’s back?

From global to local

Perhaps the path to continued action lies in the publication of the IPCC’s report itself, which laid bare the stark differences between a global temperature increase of 1.5C and a 2C trajectory – the loss of two million square kilometres of permafrost, the extinction of almost all coral and ten times as many ice-free summers in the Arctic.

The fact that the report has already led to a string of actions by companies across many sectors – and by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) itself – is, in my opinion, down to three key factors.

Firstly, it’s based on 4,000 pieces of scientific evidence, exposing the stark differences between 1.5C and 2C in the most detail any publication has been able to date – from coral reef spreads and ice coverage to clean water access and heatwave frequencies.

It also outlines multiple scenarios which businesses and governments could align with to limit warming to 1.5C, providing C-suite executives and global leaders with the chance to weigh up the pros and cons of taking each approach and the knowledge that they are not powerless to act.

But perhaps most importantly, it makes far-reaching global climate challenges relevant and personal, highlighting that a 2C world would result in 10 million more homes being lost to rising sea levels and twice as many people experiencing water scarcity. This approach has already led the UK Government to seek advice from the Committee on Climate Change on how best to bolster its carbon reduction targets and create a net-zero economy.

While conversations about “saving the planet” persist, Dunlop explained at the Question Time event that the report hammered an important point home, namely that while the world will carry on turning on a 2C trajectory, the ways in which we live our day-to-day lives will change forever.

The planet as a whole and all of the ecosystems which depend on its resources, in other words, are an abstract concept. The thought of your city being submerged in floodwater, your child falling ill with heat stroke or finding plastic in your food is not.

“We are talking as if there is something that we have to fix about the planet in order for the planet to be OK,” Dunlop argued.

“This is not what the conversation is about – the planet will be fine, but we will not. If we are not paying attention to our own survival, what else are we paying attention to?”

Change for good, for good?

Off the back of this unprecedented warning on what a 2C world could look like for humanity, dozens of press releases have come into my inbox alluding to the IPCC report – and I have no doubt that this is because it personalises the global, explains the difference half a degree can make and shows that a 1.5C world is possible (given, of course, that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” are made “in all aspects of society”).

As the Bank of England’s head of major life insurance groups Mark Cornelius put it at the Question Time panel, the report makes the case for tackling climate change “in a way a seven-year-old could understand”.

In the wake of the 2018 Budget – which held only a new tax on the manufacture of plastic packaging as its headline sustainability commitment – the onus is now on the Government to bolster the Clean Growth Strategy with specific information on how the UK will meet its carbon budgets. The level of explanation must be so simple that a child could understand it.

I can only hope, as I watch pledges from the likes of Amazon, PwC, Ocado and Royal Mail come in in the wake of the IPCC report, that this has not only spurred fresh ambition – but highlighted the importance of continual, bold action, even in the face of weak governmental policy.

In Cornelius’ words: “It may be the case that the impact of climate change on your business is uncertain, or that the main impact will be felt beyond your normal business timelines of between three and five years, but the time for action is now.”

Comments (2)

  1. Luke Douglas-Home says:

    Ken, why are just picking up on the issue of warnings of global warming? "The main impact [on all of us] will be felt beyond our normal business timelines …… but the time for action is NOW [ reducing pollution of all shapes..?]

    should be shouted from the rooftops, whatever waste it is – don’t you think? Now, reducing the generation of waste does not mean increasing your costs, I think.

  2. Nigel Aylwin-Foster says:

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for this helpful analysis, but I’m bound to say that I don’t agree with your view that the IPCC report brought it to life. I think the main issue is that it did not bring it to life ‘in a way a seven year old could understand’. It was not ‘from global to local’ as you suggest. Quite the opposite. It was too remote, generic, mathematical, and statistical in its presentation. Of course, it had to be scientifically accurate and present data clinically. But I would like to have seen a section that brought some of the data to life in a regionalised and personalised way; and I would also like to have seen greater connection between the data and the climatic events that we are currently witnessing. Example: the report stated that there is a risk that 10 million more homes could be lost to rising sea level. That invites a big ‘so what?’ from decision-makers in governments. There are millions already dying of hunger around the world and we don’t react en masse to that. Likewise, I do not believe most people actually care about the coral reefs. What we need are predictions that really do localise the likely outcomes of a global failure to act. For example: ‘do you like holidaying in Majorca? Well make the most of it because it will soon (insert likely date) be impossible owing to the regional increase in devastating storms’. To put it another way, we need some headline grabbing Sun and Daily Mail style journalism. I’m afraid the Guardian/Independent approach will not win the argument and win people over.
    By all means show me how I’m wrong…
    Best wishes,
    Nigel Aywin-Foster

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