BusinessGreen Leaders Awards: It is the green economy that can turn crisis into opportunity

James Murray
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BusinessGreen Leaders Awards: It is the green economy that can turn crisis into opportunity

Last night we hosted the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards - here is the keynote speech in full

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to sixth annual BusinessGreen Leaders Awards.

Without doubt the most prestigious, most progressive, and, judging by the temperature in this room, soon to be most perspiring green business awards on the planet.

More coveted than a credible plan for Brexit,

More sustainable than Al Gore's solar panels

More desirable than Mark Ruffalo in an anti-fracking T-shirt,

The BusinessGreen Leaders Awards are the foremost example of the continued strength and inspiring innovation of the UK's green economy.

We are all here this evening - as the pound and the England football team continue their on-going battle to see who can plumb the deepest depths of despair - for three reasons...

 

Firstly, after the last two weeks I think we can all agree that you deserve a proper party - we may not be able to agree on much else, but we can surely agree on that.

The pound is through the floor, the markets are volatile, and at the current rate of resignations at least three more frontline politicians will have handed in their notice by the time I sit down.

To paraphrase John Oliver these past few weeks we've come to realise the UK is not just the country of Boris Johnson, it is very much the Boris Johnson of countries: completely contradictory, too clever by half, and yet strangely amused by the catastrophic mess we find ourselves in.

In short, there has never been a better time for a good party.

So, tonight let's unite in celebrating not just the achievements of the green economy, but also the values green businesses embody, many of which have been sadly missing from our national life these past few weeks - values such as basic competence, informed expertise, long term perspective, and common decency, to name but a few.

If the current crisis is to be turned into an opportunity, it is businesses such as yours that will do the heavy lifting. Before you get started on that daunting task you deserve a fun evening, and we've got the band, the host, and the guest list to ensure you get one.

 

Secondly, we're obviously here to recognise the great companies, individuals, organisations and projects who made it through to the finals of the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards.

Each year judging these awards becomes more demanding. We had hundreds of entries and over half of them did not make it on to the shortlist.

All of the companies and organisations represented here this evening have already demonstrated they are at the forefront of the green economy.

As you will have seen from our comprehensive new Meet the Finalists report, which we produced in association with our headline sponsor AECOM, the level of innovation, investment, and expertise on display from all the BusinessGreen Leaders is truly remarkable.

So thank you to all our BusinessGreen Leaders.

Thank you to the BusinessGreen team for all the work that goes into hosting an event such as this evening.

And, of course, thank you to our sponsors: DLL, Egyptian Steel, and our headline sponsor AECOM, who have helped make this celebration of the best of the green economy possible.

Now, the growing strength of green industries has many advantages - clean air, a habitable planet, unimportant details like that.

But it also has one big disadvantage, these awards are now longer than the Oscars and more competitive than the Welsh football team.

So, as I say every year, if you are unlucky enough to miss out on the prize this year, y'know, be cool.

 

Finally, we are here this evening to celebrate the green economy and the wider environmental movement's defining characteristic - a trait that is needed now more than ever: Optimism.

Environmentalists are inherently optimistic. We believe in a better, cleaner, healthier future, a more resilient, prosperous, and greener economy.

All the companies and individuals here this evening embody that belief, that hope.

But you don't sit around and wait for a better world and functioning economy to materialise.

You work every day to deliver it.

And for that, regardless of whether or not you leave here tonight with a trophy, you should be extremely proud.

 

Of course, holding on to this hope is not always easy, especially after the last 12 months.

It has been a year of extremes, a year of high and lows. In fact, this past year has been as inconsistent and unpredictable as a Michael Gove pledge of allegiance. At times it has been as disorientating and depressing as a Donald Trump stump speech.

We cannot ignore the considerable challenges the green economy has faced over the past year.

Just as the renewables industry was starting to motor, the government unexpectedly slammed on the brakes. Energy efficiency programmes were axed, green building rules were demolished, plans for a world leading carbon capture and storage project were fitted with concrete boots and dispatched to the bottom of the North Sea.

Jobs were lost and the blow to investor confidence was as comprehensive as it was foreseeable.

 

Meanwhile, in the background the drumbeat of terrifying climate warnings became ever louder.

Month after month, temperature records have been shattered. If you are 30 or younger, there has not been a single month of your life that was cooler than the 20th century average.

Climate change is not some distant threat.

We must stop talking about it through the escapism of the future tense.

It is happening now, destroying livelihoods and reshaping economies in the process.

We must be bolder and more ambitious in our response to this existential threat.

No matter what Lord Lawson or Donald Trump says, any Prime Minister, any President, any government, any business, that dismisses or delays or diminishes our efforts to tackle climate change is quite simply not worthy of the confidence bestowed in them. We must do better.

 

And if that isn't all downbeat enough for you, then there is Brexit.

Whether you voted to remain or leave I think we can all agree we hoped the repercussions would be managed a little better than has been the case.

As we now move towards negotiating an exit from the EU we must all remember three basic truths.

One: Environmental challenges know no borders and low carbon innovation benefits from a climate of international collaboration.

Two: From beaches covered in sewage to streets choked with smog, EU legislation, while often imperfect, was designed to help tackle some of our most pressing environmental challenges.

Three: It is free trade and shared endeavour, not divisive nationalist populism, which offers the best hope of tackling global challenges that threaten us all.

There were good, credible reasons for wanting to leave the EU and I remain optimistic the UK green economy can continue to prosper in a post-Brexit world.

But a Leave campaign that drew heavily from the climate sceptic, post truth playbook at times only served to amplify the very worst of our politics and threaten the very best of our economy.

It is too early to know how things will play out, but progressive businesses will need to be on their mettle to navigate the forces of volatility and short termism that have been unleashed.

And they, we, also need to harness one of the defining lessons of the successful Leave campaign.

Political victory is not delivered solely through incisive and expertly honed analysis; it is also delivered through emotional appeals and the promise of a better life, a better future. It is a lesson environmental campaigners and green businesses must now heed, not least because ultimately the pursuit of a better future is what the green economic transition has always been about.

 

And it is a pursuit, which despite all the challenges we face, is succeeding.
Our optimism should remain undented - because for all the setbacks, this has still been a year of unprecedented green achievement.

Last year clean tech investment set new records around the world, renewable energy costs continued to fall, and green innovation was to be found everywhere, from ocean crossing solar planes to mind-blowing electric race cars.

Only this week it was announced a new offshore wind farm off the Dutch coast is to generate power at about half the cost offshore wind farms delivered only a few years ago. In just over a decade the renewables industry has moved to a place where it is now competing on cost with a fossil fuel industry that has been dominant for over a century.

Companies signed up to ambitious new green targets and clean energy commitments at a rapid clip, underlining yet again that commercial success and environmental sustainability are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing.

The case for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in clean technology has never been more compelling.

Meanwhile, a poll earlier this year revealed that you sustainability executives are a happy lot, revelling in record levels of job satisfaction.

And who can blame you? It is an honour and a privilege to work at the forefront of the most exciting economic and industrial transition in centuries.

 

The momentum of this transition is now unstoppable - a fact that was highlighted by the one truly historic event of the past year: the Paris Agreement.

I was lucky enough to be there on that night in Paris as applause echoed round the giant hall, hardened diplomats and business leaders shed a tear, and it became clear decades of work and a fortnight of sleepless nights had culminated in a truly global deal to tackle the biggest threat we all face.

The Paris Agreement has many implications, but none more important than this: December 12th 2015 marked the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. The commitment to deliver a net zero emission economy within the lifetime of a child born today will reverberate through the decades to come.

For the rest of us, as President Obama observed, "we may not live to see the full realization of our achievement - but that's okay". He's right, but it's more than OK, it is perhaps the greatest gift we can bequeath the next generation.

A lot has been written about the Paris Agreement, not least on BusinessGreen, but there is one final important point that should not be overlooked.

Soon after the Copenhagen Climate Summit I found myself having dinner with Yvo De Boer, the UN chief in charge of the talks. He ascribed the failure of the summit to the fact world leaders were not quite fully convinced the green economy and clean technology could deliver decarbonisation without compromising development.

In the ensuing six years you and your peers convinced them.

The diplomats brokered this historic agreement. But you demonstrated what was possible.

You showed that deep emissions cuts and continued prosperity were deliverable.

You blazed the trail for other businesses to follow.

In many ways, this was your deal.

This was your victory.

It is for that achievement, as well as the myriad achievements of your own organisation, that you all deserve to be celebrated this evening.

Please enjoy the evening, please enjoy our host Hal Cruttenden, but most of all, please continue to protect and nurture the optimism that defines the green economy.

We are living through challenging times, but we have the strength, the wherewithal, and the clarity of purpose to turn crisis into opportunity.

And if anyone doubts that, just take a look at the amazing developments we report on every day at BusinessGreen. Just take look around you at the remarkable organisations and individuals in this room. They should provide all the inspiration you need.

Please join me in raising a toast to all our BusinessGreen Leaders.
Thank you.

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