'The world is ready for climate change action'
The tide has turned and both the business community and governments are waking up to the urgent need for action to address climate change.This was the core message when Dr Steve Howard, CEO of the Climate Group, spoke to business leaders in London on Monday.
speaking at a Green Power Energy Conference on corporate climate response Dr Howard argued is was possible to cut carbon while increasing profits and claimed we had finally reached a point where this was becoming widely recognised and the world was starting to face up to its responsibilities.
Talking about changing attitudes in the past 15 years, he said: "'There were some real visionaries at Rio [in 1992] but the world wasn't ready for that level of action.
"Kyoto was a brave step but the world still wasn't ready [in 1997]. But now things have changed.
"You had climate change at the heart of the agenda at Gleneagles and Russia says it will be looking at energy security when it hosts the next G8 summit.
"And [since the introduction of the EU's ETS] carbon is now money in the EU - and that's a key shift."
He painted a picture of what we now know and asked whether we still have time to avoid being seen by history as the generation who destroyed the world.
"Let's imagine you're looking at a video of today's events sat it with your grandchildren in ten, twenty, thirty years' time," he said.
"People are asking 'was that good enough? Did they do enough?'.
"We know we've raised CO2 emissions to a level greater than at any other time in the last 880,000 years, that humans are largely responsible for that and that the impact is likely to be severe.
"And we know we've already started to see the effects."
A European heat wave, record temperatures from Tokyo to Berlin, flooding in central Europe, extraordinary rainfall events in many parts of the world, record droughts elsewhere and Australia seeing a radical reduction in available water were just the tip of the iceberg, he claimed, as was the devastation of hurricane Katrina.
There was every indication the entire eastern seaboard of the USA would soon be vulnerable to hurricanes and New York was fifth on the 'risk list', with the first four cities already hit.
"You have to wonder what a Katrina-like event would mean for New York and how that would effect perceptions," said Dr Howard.
He also pointed to the much-publicised threat of the Gulf Stream switching off and plunging countries in northern latitudes, such as the UK, into a Siberian winter.
Despite all these warning signs, there was still a tendency for many people to bury their heads in the sand.
"In the words of the REM song, it's the end of the world as we know it - and I feel fine," said Dr Howard.
Although the situation is far from reassuring, there is, he said, a growing acceptance that climate change is real.
"Public understanding is improving, but it's still low," he said.
"People are increasingly frustrated and confused but they want to know more.
"It's becoming a key issue and it's moved out of the environmental box and into the mainstream.
"Politicians are now having to deal with it and business too.
"When faced with change you can choose to either fight it, ignore it or embrace it and the opportunities it presents.
"There are still a small number of companies trying to fight it and they are influential companies but most companies ignore it as there are too many other pressing business concerns for them to put it at the top of their agenda.
"But there are a growing number of companies that recognize that this is something will become part of everybody's business strategies and there is value to be realised by making sure you are ahead of the game."
"You can reduce emissions and make financial saving at the same time."
He listed a number of big-name companies who, as part of the Climate Group, were taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint.
When Europe's biggest bank, HSBC, decided to go carbon neutral it sent a sent a ripple through Wall Street, said Dr Howard, and last week Sky became the second FTSE100 company to announce its intention to become a zero-carbon company.
"They are in around 8 million homes in the UK alone, so they well placed to engage the public on this and that's what they're going to do," he said.
And while energy companies are usually perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution, BP has very effectively reduced its emissions, cutting its carbon output by18% in three years.
"That is like a country meeting its Kyoto targets in three years," said Dr Howard.
It has invested in refieneries and launched BP alternative energy, a specialized division to push solar, biofuels, hydrogen power stations with carbon storage and capture - exactly what we need a major energy company to be doing at this time, according to the Climate Group.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the rise of Walmart from a company that was on few environmentalists Christmas card lists to one whose performance is rapidly improving.
"If you went back two years nobody would have said Walmart is synonymous with environmental and social progress," said Dr Howard.
"But they've made some big changes, partly on the back of Katrina - they got such positive feedback from helping out that it made the CEO think about their position.
"They are a big energy consumer with huge fleets of vehicles supplying them plus customers coming to them in their millions every day.
"Who's better placed to take a low cost, fuel efficient future to their customer base?"
Walmart has set itself targets to ensure that new sites will be 25% more energy efficient, as will trucks that supply them.
The advantage big business has over governments in pushing forward the environmental agenda is that, once committed, they can push things forward fast, said Dr Howard.
"Government's have prevaricated and not moved forward - it takes time to create policy and push through legislation.
"Where governments have found it difficult, Walmart have stepped up and said 'we'll do this'. That will change truck fleets all over the world.
But, he concluded, companies could not rest on their laurels as their customers would expect more and more of them in the coming years.
"Corporate climate response is very different today than it was two to five years ago, and will be very different again in a few years' time," he said.
"Climate change is going to keep getting worse even with our best efforts.
"People have to take more responsibility than they actually feel is theirs in the corporate sector, otherwise customers will think they don't care."
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