Climate Change

How businesses are preparing for a green future

Climate change is the business of everybody

September 24, 2019
Photo: PA
Photo: PA

The Labour conference assembled in Brighton, only a few days after a wave of climate strikes had rippled round the world. The phrases “Green New Deal” and “climate justice” were popping up in the hall and in fringe meetings about topics—including industrial and economic policy—which would once have been seen as only tangentially connected to the environment.

The centrality of climate change to political thinking is, then, evident as ever before. But the question for our beautifully-timed Prospect/Heathrow discussion is whether it is also at the heart of business thinking and practice—and, if not, how we can instil it there.

From the Labour front bench, shadow environment minister David Drew confirmed the passion on the ground in his own Stroud constituency, a small town where 5,000 people had taken to the streets in the climate strikes. He cautioned, though, that in parts of the population there was also a backlash against this huge mobilisation of youthful opinion—particularly among hard-pressed and older people who were worried about being bullied into making potentially costly choices, like replacing a car with a greener model.

He was, however, confident that citizens—and businesses—could adjust as long as there was “clarity” about the direction they were being asked to take. At the moment, he felt, this was not forthcoming. It was the absence of leadership about, for example, the future of the electricity grid and what sort of infrastructure we would have (and when) to support electric cars that made it difficult for individuals and firms to commit the resources that were required.

Interestingly, he worried, too, about the danger of Labour undermining its own credibility in this field by setting unrealistically rapid timetables for transition before figuring out exactly how they would be implemented. The party couldn’t hope to give a lead without a fully worked through plan. These remarks raised some eyebrows, seeing as Jeremy Corbyn had spoken in the days before about potentially speeding up the timetable for carbon neutrality which the government recently agreed to, without yet fully fleshing out its own plans.

Next up was Professor Joseph Alcamo of Sussex University, an expert in climate systems and a man with ranging experience of official and other international discussions on the problem going back many years. He stressed the need to reframe the whole discussion as it affects business. Instead of asking businesses whether they wanted to sink huge resources into potential solutions to climate change, the message needed to go out that “this is happening,” it’s not a choice but a different reality, so “now let’s talk about how you are going to approach it.” If businesses looked at the coming disruptions and changes in this way, many would spy opportunities lurking in the challenge.

After all, the amounts of resources that were going to have to be invested worldwide were absolutely vast—measured in the tens of trillions of dollars annually. Those who got ahead of the curve with doing the work of converting and rekitting homes, vehicles and energy supplies could expect to do well. And for workers too, there would be openings, with the number of “green transition” jobs eventually created worldwide likely to run into the hundreds of millions.

Matt Gorman from Heathrow didn’t duck the challenge facing business in general, and aviation in particular. It was, he accepted, one of the sectors where progress in reducing emissions was more difficult than others. Nonetheless, he was adamant that progress could be made. One part of the puzzle was offsetting, with huge opportunities to reduce emissions in areas like land management. He cited work around the drainage of peat lands as one easy win. Passengers, he believed, have already shown they are willing to pay for the opportunities flying affords, and could be persuaded to pay more again if it were ploughed towards such schemes. The second front to pursue is greening the airport facilities themselves: progress had already been made here, and in future geothermal heating may allow further strides to be made. The third front was technology. The most immediate gains were to be made by changing the fuel mix. Moves towards synthetic kerosene are coming fast, and new second- and third-generation biofuels (which do not disrupt food production like the early biofuels did) were rich with potential. Only a little further down the track are electric planes, which within a few years might be able to carry 100 people for as much as 500km.

Depending on how rapidly this technology becomes available and how successful it proves, one might begin to imagine emissions from short-haul flights beginning to drop away, a heartening thought, and the crowd was in a relatively upbeat mood. Delegates asked questions and made suggestions about how cities could give a meaningful lead at the municipal level, about how towns and schools could be encouraged to make the transition sooner if citizens were given regular information about the progress on emissions their community was making, and about how international aid could be better used to protect the principal victims of climate change, particular women and children in the developing world.

There was broad agreement that climate change is the business of everybody—and the business of business in particular.