Is business action on climate change believable?

By John Probert

One of a series of Guardian Members’ events, hosted by Guardian Sustainable Business in partnership with Nordea Responsible Investments, the focus of this discussion, facilitated by a Guardian environmental journalist Karl Mathieson, was nominally on the “plethora of pledges from major businesses… in the lead-up to the UN talks”.

In fact, the panel discussion, whilst demonstrating a healthy degree of scepticism, centred mostly on how business can be encouraged to lead in opposing climate change. It was salutary, though, that the longest round of applause came early on from the somewhat pessimistic voice of Professor Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, who berated all and sundry for twenty-five years of knowing what needed to be done and not doing it, making it clear that all of us have a responsibility for letting that happen. He also expressed his preference for obligations, rather than targets or goals that can be missed without repercussions.

Anderson observed that, once renewable energy solutions were in place, we might be able to return to the current economic model, but the transition will demand profound changes to the way we live whilst we get everything in place. He was not convinced that we had enough time to achieve what we need.

Steve Howard, Ikea’s head of sustainability, and the only representative from the commercial sector, offered a more optimistic view. Ikea now sells only LED lighting, which is highly energy-efficient, and represents 5% of their business. This is one small but significant point that Howard used to demonstrate his company’s move towards a carbon-free future. He also revealed that Ikea would be 100% renewable-based by 2020, that the company was investing £1 billion into climate action, and that Ikea employees were involved in a number of modes of dialogue and action towards a renewable future.

Such credentials allow Howard to be a leader in creating business partnerships working towards sustainability. Such experience also leads him to believe that the companies at the carbon-intensive end of the spectrum are now looking like losers rather than “masters of the universe”.

The investment community was well represented on the panel, with Sasja Beslik from Nordea, event sponsors, and Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO of Alliance Trust, both clearly leaders in moving investment strategies towards companies with progressive views on sustainability, and conversely against companies stuck in a fossil-fuel past.

Nordea have already blacklisted 40 coal companies from their portfolios. Beslik echoed Anderson’s need for a significant change in the way we live, and asked what sort of world we wanted to live in and leave for our children. Beslik’s main issue with current investment models is their short-term nature. Nordea is moving towards 3-7 year investment planning, but struggles to get companies to understand the need. He was also vocal about the need to change the current model of education in economics, and the need for collaboration between investors and business over sustainable investment decisions.

Like Belslik, Garrett-Cox, whose focus is now on 100% on sustainable investment, believed that progress was being made but not fast enough. She felt that 2015 could be a tipping point, with so many of the new Sustainable Development Goals tied to climate change, but bemoaned too much lip service by business, and frequent conversations with CEOs of major corporates who still don’t believe climate change is real, or if they do, that climate change is low down their list of risk factors. The financial crisis has also provided an excuse for companies to take no action on climate change. Garrett-Cox’s excellent message to business was “If you choose to act against society, in time society will act against you.”

There was general agreement on the importance of more companies changing direction, and of forming partnerships of forward-thinking companies. But it was equally important to hold to account companies who made commitments they did not keep, and to “call out” companies who made no commitments.

There was also strong agreement about the role of Government in setting appropriate policies and regulations, but also that businesses actually need to press for a Government framework in which it is in their interests to move fast towards a carbon-free future.

Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, was in a good position to observe the British Government’s performance in this area, and referred to it as “a Government that doesn’t like scrutiny”. She criticised the lobbying power, and even the influence on policy, of fossil fuel companies, and the Government’s backtracking on green promises. She implied that much needed to change before the UK Government, at least, would offer the direction that is self-evidently required. She also said that businesses need certainty to invest, and that the current Government is moving the goalposts.

In general, audience questions did not give rise to many new threads of discussion, possibly with one exception. A questioner said that the solutions already existed, and what was really needed was better networking of them. His suggestion was twofold: setting up “environmental solutions centres”, and having media organisations like the Guardian setting up a special section to discuss environmental issues. The Guardian journalist replied that he was already part of exactly such a section, and that effectively shut off discussion, which meant that the rather interesting idea of environmental solutions centres was ignored.

In summary, a relevant and thought-provoking discussion for an interested layperson, and probably for the experts as well.

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