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Climate change: how can we move beyond the committed few?

Climate change: how can we move beyond the committed few? 

A decade on from a landmark letter arguing for business and government to work together to address climate change, there’s still a long way to go says Polly Courtice

First published: 27 January 2015

“The government is risking the sacrifice of UK jobs to the altar of green credentials,” proclaimed the Confederation of British Industry in 2004. Just a few years later it was arguing that “green is a vital driver of growth”.

Over the last decade the business community’s approach to climate change has transformed; the progressive voice has become more mainstream and carbon emissions are firmly on the agenda. With the Paris climate talks approaching at the end of this year, business influence is more important than ever. But are we going far and fast enough?

In 2005, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership brought 13 pioneering business leaders together to challenge the CBI’s original claim. In an open letter to the prime minister, they called for ambitious and long-term climate legislation, and offered to work with the government to achieve it. It was a watershed moment, helping to create the conditions needed for the UK’s world-leading Climate Change Act and future ground-breaking legislation across the European Union.

With the support of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s patron, the group became established as The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) and reflected the need in a growing number of companies for long-term policies that would give them the certainty to start investing in low carbon technologies and more efficient supply chains.

The CLG’s communiqué to UN negotiators gathering in Bali in 2007 was the first time a major business group had called for a strong outcome from international climate talks. Two years later, more than 900 companies signed the group’s Copenhagen Communiqué – a remarkable consensus among the world’s most senior corporate leaders, even if the final outcome left many impatient and frustrated. Just last month, the Trillion Tonne Communiqué, calling for cumulative CO2 emissions to be kept below 1trn tonnes, was amongst the business calls that led to a target for net zero emissions being included in the Lima Call for Climate Action – a concrete step forward towards Paris.

The CLG has also worked hand in glove with José Manuel Barroso in his former role as president of the European Commission, on EU climate commitments, most recently galvanising businesses to support at least a 40% emissions cut by 2030. And the group’s 23 member companies, including Skanska and Unilever, which span industrial sectors from construction to consumer goods, are influencing climate policy around the world.

In the meantime, many businesses are grasping the commercial opportunities that are already out there: low-carbon is good for the bottom line. Global investment in clean energy reached $310bn in 2014, and innovation in technologies like LED lighting and solar power has led to major new growth areas.

But an even greater number of businesses are still failing to factor carbon constraints into their strategic planning. The speed and scale we need requires mass mobilisation of companies that recognise the risks and seize the opportunities, not just action from the committed few.

And it’s no easier for the policymakers: the failing UK Green Deal and the less than perfect EU emissions trading scheme are proof that they can’t get it right on their own.

CLG members feel the answer lies in greater collaboration between governments and business to ensure we get pro-green, pro-business policies that drive forward the innovation we need. That’s why the CLG supported the establishment of the Green Growth Platform in 2013, which allows investors to engage with progressive EU member-state governments to develop and promote the ambitious decarbonisation of their economies.

Collaboration holds the key for unlocking solutions to sustainability challenges that will strengthen the economy and create new jobs, while keeping goods and services affordable and accessible. In my view, there is an important role for academic institutions like the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership to bring groups like these together and add valuable research and thought leadership to the mix.

Today, marking 10 years since that ground-breaking business letter to Tony Blair, The Prince of Wales will gather more than 300 business leaders, policy-makers, MEPs, academics, environmentalists and the media to call for strong business leadership on climate change. At the same event the CLG will launch its vision for the UK economy. It envisages a secure, efficient and decarbonised power sector, a resilient and low-carbon built environment, a cleaner and integrated transport system, and support for more sustainable consumption. Who wouldn’t aspire to such a world?

In this pivotal year, business needs to act with a sense of urgency in securing a transformative outcome from Paris. The alternative risks seriously undermining future global prosperity and inflicting unnecessary social, economic and environmental costs on the world.


Article first published in Guardian Sustainable Business.

About the author

Polly Courtice

Polly is Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership

Polly is a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee and the Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a Director of Jupiter Green Investment Trust and a Non-Executive Director of Anglian Water Services Ltd, and is on the environmental/sustainability advisory boards for AstraZeneca, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Lloyds Banking Group and Nespresso. In 2008 Polly was made a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO) announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours list.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.