UK general election: How can businesses support cross-party consensus on climate action?

The debate as to whether the UK’s net-zero targets, which are being periodically redrawn, are realistically achievable has long been a favourite for political point scoring, rather than being used as a measure of the UK’s progress towards reducing its environmental impact.

We’ve seen progress towards net-zero targets stall and stutter in many areas where policies have been extended or watered down. For example, the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars has been pushed from 2030 to 2035 and plans to phase out the installation of gas boilers by 2035 now aims only for 80% phase-out, rather than 100% as originally intended.

In May, for the second time in two years, the High Court ruled that the government would have to redraft its net-zero strategy because it did not provide enough detail about how future targets could be met. It stated: “It is not possible to ascertain from the materials presented to the Secretary of State which of the proposals and policies would not be delivered at all, or in full.”

Evidently something needs to change. We’re currently stuck in a system that’s leading us away from a sustainable future and the climate is a far too big and important of an issue to be reduced to political tit-for-tat.

To drive change, we need to facilitate proper collaboration between all parties on the single issue of the climate and transitioning towards science-based targets. But with so much debate and disagreement around the subject, how do we remove politics from the equation and make it a long-term cross-party priority that rises above political discourse?

Aligning with science

One of the more significant challenges in the UK’s transition towards net-zero is finding consensus among the sheer volume of ideas, possible solutions, and opinions that politicians, business owners and individuals have to offer.

Some believe that we need to install solar panels on farmland, there are arguments about onshore and offshore wind, heat pumps or hydrogen for heating, and discussions as to whether we should be spending billions on insulating people’s houses. Combine this with different interests and pressure groups influencing these ideas, and suddenly it becomes exceptionally challenging for everyone to work together politically on delivering tangible solutions.

To overcome this, I believe the key is to seek agreement on the one thing that really matters – the science. We need to focus on getting all political parties aligned on the science behind the strategy before looking at delivering solution-based approaches from the bottom up.

For example, you could argue that putting solar panels on land makes good business sense, but it may not be the right solution in terms of land use, as there are other potential installation locations such as car parks and pedestrian paths which may be better suited.

Often local communities and businesses will already be innovating towards green solutions, but again, they will not always be wholly aligned with the science. Take ourselves as a case in point. In the Gusto Group construction business, we’ve built low-energy homes using a variety of technologies and then had post occupancy analysis completed by Lincoln University to assess our methodologies. The study found that whilst some of what we had done had been positive, other elements had not worked as effectively in terms of embodied carbon and cost benefits.

Without scientifically proven, agreed solutions, businesses are very much left in the dark to explore their own solutions via trial and error, which many will not be able to afford to do. Research such as the Building for 2050 Report highlights concerns from housebuilders around a lack of knowledge required to develop effective solutions and uncertainty about future requirements. If politicians can at least agree on the science, they can then consider ways to empower businesses and communities to work on the solutions.

What does empowering businesses look like?

There needs to be a carrot-and0stick approach. On the stick side, businesses must pay the environmental cost of putting carbon into the atmosphere via a carbon tax. On the opposite side, particularly in scenarios where a business is developing a technology that is still in its infancy but has a clear environmental benefit – similarly to the development of solar panels – then there must be financial incentives for those businesses to facilitate the scaling of the technologies.

There are already some brilliant grant schemes to help businesses, such as those offered through Innovate UK, but this only scratches the surface of business’ needs and provides nowhere near enough support. Not to mention often being time-consuming and expensive to apply for.

Rather than putting the climate crisis at the top of the agenda, we’re currently taking too much of a siloed approach. Supporting one small sector with a grant is not going to fix the underlying challenges systematically and, more importantly, it does little to address the urgency of the situation, which tends to get lost in the detail. The entire system needs to be put on steroids.

As a business owner myself, I often consider what would incentivise and empower my business. Take the construction side of Gusto Group. Currently, it is significantly cheaper to use materials to build houses that have a high level of embodied carbon in them, such as concrete, bricks, blocks, plastic, fibreglass or polyurethane insulation, rather than natural materials. This is simply because natural materials haven’t been sufficiently scaled as a viable alternative.

There is no reason why natural materials couldn’t be cheaper than fossil-derived materials, so we come back to the carrot and the stick analogy. We need a carbon tax to make fossil fuel-derived materials more expensive to buy, and, at the same time, there need to be incentives to grow the market around natural building materials. Then we can start to build homes that lock up carbon within the fabric of the house rather than omit carbon in the whole supply chain of materials. In fact, some are already exploring this – I recently invested in Hemspan, a start-up that is developing a range of natural building materials that lock up carbon into the building fabric.

It all comes down to making the solution work commercially and reaching a point where the sustainable choice also becomes the most logical and cost-effective choice. In this scenario, it would be the point at which builders widely choose to use natural materials because it makes financial sense to do so.

But empowering businesses in this way is not a fast process. There also needs to be legislation to propel forward a much greater rate of change. So, in this case, we need policy that will require any new homes to be built with materials that have a low level of embodied carbon and to be energy efficient when in use.

Improvements are on the horizon – the Future Homes Standard (FHS) for example, focuses on improving heating, hot water systems, and reducing heat waste in new homes and is expected to be implemented in 2025. It doesn’t, however, tackle the embodied carbon during construction. Legislation must go further.

An attitude shift

To realise the full economic benefits of the transition to zero carbon, we must put climate change at the centre of everything and rebalance the economy to be focused on a low carbon outcome. The entire system must be committed to this transition, including the production of low-carbon solutions.

Businesses need to be supported in refocusing the type of services and products that they offer. In the UK, we need our manufacturing sector to grow, but we can’t do this based on old fossil fuel technologies, it will only scale through new technologies and solutions. Only at this point will the wider population change their lifestyles – with a wider variety of materials and services on the market, consumers will be able to make more environmentally friendly purchasing choices.

Unless the whole economy has low-carbon as a core priority, the way in which we do business, the types of materials and supply chains that we use and the way we live, simply will not change.

Providing businesses with a science-backed framework to develop their solutions and supporting purpose-led organisations in balancing profitability and sustainability will allow for a more collaborative and practical approach to the UK’s net-zero transition.

Steff Wright is chairman of Gusto Group and of the Climate Party

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