It's about protecting civilisation: Four reflections from the BusinessGreen Leaders Summit

James Murray
It's about protecting civilisation: Four reflections from the BusinessGreen Leaders Summit

From green business credibility to net zero thought experiments, the BusinessGreen Leaders Summit offered plenty to chew onJam

This week's BusinessGreen Leaders Summit proved to be an extremely busy day, which the team did a great job of condensing down into our live blog. But 24 hours on which insights stuck in the mind?

There were certainly plenty to choose from, ranging from Ecosphere+'s compelling argument for a reappraisal of carbon offsets, through PwC's warnings on the complexity associated with tackling plastic pollution and Centrica's journey towards becoming an energy services specialist centred on clean technologies, to BBC News' call for green businesses to be more proactive in pitching their positive news stories.

However, for me four lessons stood out:

1. If you are going to be credible you need to engage with the scale of the challenge - During the day we heard from two companies that have taken a shellacking from environmental campaigners in recent months: Burberry and Heathrow. And yet both did an impressive job of explaining how they were working hard to identify weaknesses in their sustainability strategies and striving to improve.

Burberry were unequivocal in their commitment to end the practice of destroying unsold clothes, while Heathrow's CEO John Holland-Kaye mounted a politely bullish defence of the airport's vision to become a catalyst for green aviation. You can present a compelling counter-argument that both companies should be doing still more to tackle their environmental impacts. But at the same time the public acknowledgement of the scale of the environmental challenges businesses face and a willingness to work towards overcoming them does create the foundations for a constructive dialogue with those Holland-Kaye describes as "critical friends".Iyt is an approach that can and should lead to further improvements.

Sweeping problems under the carpet rarely works; engaging with difficult questions, however challenging, is almost always a significant first step in the right direction.

2. The government's climate strategy remains upbeat, but confusing - In her speech Claire Perry was almost everything you would want from a climate minister. She was optimistic, pragmatic, and utterly dismissive of those who insist climate change should be ignored and green growth is not possible. She was also genuinely angry at those countries - Germany, she's looking at you - that have taken self-interested and ideological policy decisions that have undermined decarbonisation efforts. And she did a good job of talking up the government's Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy, and Green GB Week marketing blitz.

And yet attempts to defend some of the glaring contradictions in the government's green strategy fell a little flat. People were left bemused by the rationale for not revisiting existing carbon budgets as part of the CCC's review of whether to set a net zero target. Surely if you are going to make the long term target more ambitious, then the short term target needs to change too? Not so, argued Perry, without quite explaining why, beyond an insistence the CCC had already looked at the near term targets. It only served to fuel the impression the government does not want to talk about bolder near term action for the simple and cynical reason it will be more politically challenging to secure support for such measures from a divided Conservative Party.

Equally, Perry's marshaling of the CCC's endorsement of fracking as part of a low carbon strategy to justify her enthusiasm for the poorly-timed recommencement of shale gas development at the start of Green GB Week effortlessly glossed over the fact the CCC's backing is contingent on stronger measures on green heat, CCS, and methane emissions safeguards. Perry insisted such measures were being taken. Many of those working in these areas would counter progress on these crucial fronts ranges from the sluggish to the non-existent.

More broadly the sense remains that the government's genuinely impressive climate policies are being pursued with the handbrake on. From DfT watering down the Road to Zero strategy, through fracking, cutting EV grants, and freezing fuel duty, to Theresa May's failure to utter the words 'climate change' in her conference speech or carve out any time (in an admittedly busy week) for a Green GB Week appearance herself - the evidence continues to mount up that Perry and her green allies are waging an unending battle against the indifference (and occasional hostility) of certain influential colleagues.

And yet, as the New Economics Foundation's David Powell observed in an excellent Twitter thread, now is not the time to point out these well-documented flaws.

When a committed and capable Minister is talking publicly about the critical need to turbocharge the green economy and investing funding and political capital in support of that vision, then one-note attacks on the government's failures will only prove counter-productive. Sometimes deserved, if cautious, applause is what is required.

3. The future is unknowable - Corrine Le Quere's terrifying opening keynote on the latest climate science confirmed what we already knew: we can say with a high degree of confidence that warming will exceed 1.5C this century without an utterly unprecedented economic and industrial transformation. The climate impacts that will spiral ever upwards as emissions rise are bleak in the extreme.

And yet, as Plan B's Tim Crosland reminded us, in other ways the future is unknowable. He offered a provocative thought experiment. If you asked people in 1939 as Europe descended into war what the world would look like in 1969 you would struggle to find anyone who could successfully predict that the Axis forces would be vanquished, a new world order would be developed based on universal human rights and the rule of law, the West would enjoy a prolonged economic boom, and a man would walk on the moon. A lot can change in 30 years, much of it completely beyond our powers of prediction. We cannot say the development of a net zero emission economy is impossible, and as such we must strive to deliver it.

It's an inspiring and optimistic argument, but for one tiny fly in the ointment. We have to hope that this time 30 years of rapid progress can be triggered without the need for a World War.

4. Green businesses should be proud of their work - Orsted's Matthew Wright offered an insight into the company's historic decision to quit oil and gas and ditch its DONG Energy moniker in favour of a renewables future. Yes, the move was informed by the realisation the world will have to wean itself of fossil fuels at some point so there is strategic value in making the transition early. But he also acknowledged that you should not discount the moral considerations at play behind such a decision.

James Thornton made a similar point in a softly spoken yet incisive keynote address that left no one in any doubt as to how ClientEarth has emerged as such a powerful campaigning force. He noted that given the risk of runaway climate change documented in this summer's Hothouse Earth report and the near impossibility of humanity prospering under a 4C+ warming scenario, the work to tackle climate change is, in a very real sense, about nothing less than protecting human civilisation.

That, at its core, is what green businesses and environmental campaigners are striving towards. It is a noble cause, and for all the challenges, fears, and frustrations it presents they should be proud of that fact. 

This article first appeared on the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing

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