On 1 May 2019 the UK Government made a national declaration of an Environment and Climate Emergency. But what is this and what does it mean to businesses?
What is a climate emergency?
In the wake of Extinction Rebellion protests across London and elsewhere, school strikes for the climate and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK Parliament (Greta Thunberg is the 16-year old activist from Sweden who has been on school strike for the climate every Friday since August 2018), the UK Government became the first country in the world where a bipartisan parliament has declared a climate emergency. Globally 52 million citizens in nine countries are covered by local governments that have declared a climate emergency. 26 million of these people live in the United Kingdom. (These figures are correct as of 9 May 2019.)
There is no exact definition of what it means to declare a climate emergency, although many areas say they want to be carbon neutral by 2030. Furthermore, it has been likened to putting the country on a “war footing” and to have climate and the environment at the very centre of all government policy, rather than being on the fringe of political decisions.
The UK Government’s declaration of a climate emergency did not come with any greenhouse gas reduction targets but have since been followed by a report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) the independent advisor to the government on climate change) which, to date, has not been committed to by the Government. The CCC report recommends UK to set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
What climate emergency means to business
To declare a climate emergency and the fact that climate change is now making headline news (although cats are more often mentioned than climate change in a year's worth of TV programming according to British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Bafta) is unheard of in my 20+ year long career in the renewable energy and sustainability industry. In all my discussions with fellow sustainability professionals there is full consensus that this is truly exciting times; there seems to be a momentum, a hint of change in the air this spring of 2019.
Climate change has been discussed in scientific circles for more than 30 years and the clear majority of experts agree that the warming trends over the past century is due to human activities like burning fossil fuels, clearing of land and forests for agriculture and so on. Climate change causes higher surface temperatures, warming oceans, melting ice sheets, sea-level rise, more extreme weather events like storms, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires, and more. Current global policies on climate change has set us on a trend to reach up to a 4.4-degree Celsius average temperature increase by the end of the Century. In 2015 most countries in the world agreed to limit global temperature increase to well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, in the so called Paris Agreement on climate change.
The urgency which by we need to act has coined the phrases “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” - in particular as leaders are seemingly very slow to make changes to achieve the targets agreed in Paris. At least up to now.
The declaration of a climate emergency, the climate protests and climate change in main stream media (media mentioned “climate change” more in April than it did in almost any previous month) means that clients, customers, consumers and citizens are increasingly concerned about what is happening to the planet and how this will affect us. The proportion who say they are “very” or “fairly” concerned about climate change has reached its highest point since 2008. 63% agree with the statement: “We are facing a climate emergency.”
If you are concerned about something and agree that there is an emergency – it is also very likely that you want things to change. It is not likely that you will want your burning house to continue to burn down to the ground, right? Whether this change and action come from national or local governments and other authorities as legislation and regulations, or if it comes from pressure from clients, customers, consumers and citizens, the results are the same. Businesses will have to change too.
What the forward-thinking business owner, shareholder or investor can do is to take advantage of this heightened awareness from their stakeholders and act early, showing leadership in their sector. Have you seen the WWF ads on television? They are acting now for more members to join their cause to fight climate change. The other day I spotted this ad in the London underground:
These guys act now for more customers. iPhone ads are showing pictures of nature. This is not a coincidence. With increased awareness of climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss, organisations and businesses are engaging now to win customers, to win you over to their side.
The point that I would like to make is, that as to these increased calls for action, business has a choice. It can either be a leader, taking relevant and impactful action now. Or it can be a follower trying to play catch-up with the rest of the field, merely focusing on compliance, likely to lose out on winning new customers and supporters as well as engaging with their existing employees and attracting new ones.
For years studies have shown that organisations that set sustainability at its heart, from a financial, social and environmental perspective, perform better than those that don’t. In 2012 The Guardian matched a sample of 180 US-based companies, 90 of which were classified as high-sustainability and another 90 as low-sustainability, finding that companies that manage their environmental and social performance have superior financial performance and actually create more value for their shareholders.
The choice sits with the business. And I know which type of company I would bet my money on.
Don’t know where to start? Ready to take action?
Carolina Karlstrom, Jade Advisory Ltd, is an independent sustainability consultant and climate coach, helping organisations to reduce their environmental footprint. Get in touch now for a free 20 minute carbon strategy discussion and be a leader in your sector. #jadeadvisory