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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the Business in the Community Awards Dinner

Published on 2nd July 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, it is marvellous that so many of you (Julia Cleverdon says it is 1,800) have been able to join us to celebrate Business in the Community’s twenty-fifth anniversary as well as this year’s Awards for Excellence. Perhaps it is a sign of advancing decrepitude that it doesn’t seem like a year ago that we were celebrating the outstanding achievements of so many excellent and innovative companies. On the other hand, it could be a sign that I am dreaming all this and that I shall wake up and find that I am in fact Rory Bremner after all (!); that I am the light and amusing entertainment this evening, rather than the heavy, ponderous, pedantic and pompous part of the proceedings…!

Ladies and gentlemen, earlier this year, Business in the Community organized one of the most important events in its twenty-five year history. The May Day Business Summit brought together more than 1,000 business leaders at ten venues to discuss climate change and make commitments about what they would each do about it through their own businesses. The response was remarkable, not just for the level of attendance, nor for the level of commitment. The remarkable part was the extraordinarily high degree of agreement that climate change is happening, that our actions are causing it, and that unless we can make radical changes to the way we live and do business, our future is bleak. The result was that 600 companies made 5,500 individual commitments to take action. When you think about it, that is an astonishing result and I would like to congratulate each and every one of you who has now become part of our May Day Network of companies. You may have agreed to this out of excess enthusiasm on the occasion for I can only warn you that I am looking forward to welcoming you back on 1st May next year to report on the progress you have made! There is no escape!

Ladies and gentlemen, the reaction to the May Day Summit is, I think, proof that, increasingly, business is recognizing the role it can play in combatting climate change. Thank God, is all I can say, for there is a desperately urgent need for business to play that role. Your lobbying influence can be substantial, but together, united and in large enough numbers it could prove decisive in turning the tide.

I know there is much work to be done in many areas, but this evening I want to focus on the biggest single opportunity we have to combat climate change which can be started immediately and reap benefits fast. And that is the protection of the remaining, but rapidly dwindling rainforests of the world. I wonder how many of you are fully aware of the benefits – to all of us – if we could stop what is happening to them?

I think most people may be aware that rainforests are some of the most beautiful and mysterious habitats left in the world, richer in the number of plants and animals they support than any other. But much, much more important is the contribution that rainforests, and indeed forests in general, make to maintaining our climate at a level that supports our very existence.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s forests need to be seen for what they are – giant global utilities, providing essential services to humanity on a vast scale. Rainforests store carbon, which is lost to the atmosphere when they burn, increasing global warming. The life they support cleans the atmosphere of pollutants and feeds it with moisture. They help regulate our climate and sustain the lives of some of the poorest people on this Earth. And they do these things to a degree that is all but impossible to imagine. Amazonia’s forests help to store the largest body of flowing freshwater on the planet. The trees release 20 billion tonnes of it into the atmosphere every day. Rain from the forests of the Congo waters half of Africa. (Intriguingly, some scientists are now asking if Australia’s devastating years of drought may be linked in some way to the loss of forests in Indonesia?) Just take Ethiopia which has suffered decades of famine. One hundred years ago, 35 per cent of Ethiopia was covered in trees. The figure today is barely 4 per cent.

And the destruction goes on at a truly terrifying pace – out of sight and out of mind. Every year 50 million acres – an area the size of England, Wales and Scotland combined – are destroyed or degraded.

And yet we know that emissions from burning forests are responsible for at least 18 per cent, and perhaps as much as 25 per cent, of global greenhouse gas emissions. Only the energy sector has a larger share.

Ladies and gentlemen, we used to call them the lungs of the earth, but we now know that rainforests act as a powerful thermostat governing our temperature and our weather patterns, and yet we are destroying them without a thought for the future and often to produce cheap goods for wealthy countries.

You might think that for all these reasons the world’s forests would be treated with respect, and their preservation assured. But this simply isn’t happening. At least not yet.

The problem is that the true value of forests to the world community is not understood. Somehow we have to find ways of putting a price on them which makes them more valuable alive than dead. Sir Nicholas Stern’s review clearly stated that improving incentives for forest conservation would be ‘a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions’. He thought that expenditure of $15 billion a year could reduce deforestation by half. That figure might sound high. But just reflect on this fact. It is less than half of one per cent of the $3,500 billion the world spends on insurance every year. I would say that looks like a bargain and a very much better bet!

And – and this is the point – unlike some of the technological solutions being talked about, we know how to do it already. If we had the will, we could cut emissions of carbon into the atmosphere by up to a quarter and remarkably quickly. There is no other single course of action open to us that could deliver an outcome like this. And that is why saving our remaining rainforests simply must be a priority.

How do we do it? I would suggest there are two ways. First, the international community needs to act. Already, there are some important efforts being made by Governments, not least by our own which is supporting the Congo Basin Initiative. But, and this is such an important point, as the Kyoto protocol now stands tropical rainforest nations have no way of earning credits from their standing forests other than by cutting them down and planting new ones! The European Carbon Trading Scheme excludes carbon credits for forests from developing nations.….This has got be wrong and we must urge the international community to work together to redress these failings urgently. The forthcoming meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change this December in Bali is a major opportunity.

But this is all taking time – time that we simply haven’t got. Therefore I would suggest that the second way we need to address the problem is by looking to the private sector, with all its ingenuity and enthusiasm. We need to develop a new credit market which will give a true value to carbon and the ecosystem services that rainforests provide the rest of the world. If we could get this right – and there are some exceptional people from the finance world who are working on exactly this problem, the market could generate enough to out-compete the powers of destruction – mostly driven by demand for palm oil, beef or soya – and the indigenous peoples who live in these remarkable places could share in the benefits. Imagine how the situation could change if those countries wise enough to have retained their forests, found themselves the owners of the new billion dollar ecosystem industries of the future…?

Of course none of this is going to be easy, but surely it is the ethical duty of wealthy nations, which have – perhaps unwittingly – created the problem of climate change, to find a solution. Developing nations, who may suffer most from climate change and, consequently, unheard of levels of poverty, are now calling on us for help. One way we can do so is to find an ingenious, innovative way of paying for the ecosystem services provided by the world’s great forests. The trouble is that we need to do it very fast indeed. Climate change means that their survival and ours is surely now more closely linked than ever before. Can we “stiffen the sinews and conjure up the blood” in time? It would be a great prize and an act of corporate social responsibility that would literally transform the situation for our children and grandchildren. While others argue, the world of business could put its best brains together to produce a workable solution.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have probably gathered that I could talk for much longer on this subject, but I only hope that what you have seen – in those wonderful photographs from WWF – and heard from me tonight might encourage some of you to start asking the same questions, before it really is too late.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a climactic change in the proceedings with the presentation of two of tonight’s awards.

The first is the EDF Energy Environmental Leadership Award in association with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.

The Example of Excellence goes to a company that has been remarkably innovative in the way in which it has assessed the environmental impact of its products and services, and then used this information constructively. As a result it has accessed new markets and is helping customers reduce their own carbon footprint.

I will give you a hint. The winner is a bank that has worked collaboratively with the United Nations to develop environmental risk guidance for lenders and has now made this available to some 170 banks worldwide. In addition to its five-year programme investing in energy efficiency, and making their UK operations carbon neutral last year, the bank is launching a new Green Credit card that will donate £1million to carbon reduction projects in its first year.

Ladies and gentlemen, the winner is Barclays and perhaps I could invite a representative to come and collect their award.

Finally, I come to the announcement of my annual Business in the Community Ambassador Award.

Each year I make this award to an individual who has demonstrated real leadership and the ability to bring about change. And, of course, it is always my hope that he or she will work with me to spread the message about what Business in the Community is trying to achieve.

This year I want to acknowledge a leader who has, quite literally, transformed a great British business. In the process, and through astonishing personal engagement at every step, he has set a benchmark for addressing climate change in the retail sector. For “Plan A” and for a most remarkable example of personal leadership which I can only imagine will be written about for years to come, I am delighted to announce that Stuart Rose, Chief Executive of Marks and Spencer, is my National Ambassador for 2007.

Perhaps I could ask Stuart to come up and receive his award…

I am left now with just one further, very happy duty and that is to introduce our next speaker.

I am thrilled that my old friend, Former Vice-President Al Gore, has agreed to join us this evening. Both of us were born in 1948 – a remarkably good vintage! – and we go back more years than I think either of us cares to remember, to those days over twenty years ago when the environmental cause wasn’t always so fashionable! Through his film, “An Inconvenient Truth” he has done more than anyone to sound the wake up call on climate change and I have nothing but the greatest admiration for his truly remarkable commitment to crucial environmental issues over a long period of time. At this event last year I invited those who were present to come and see the film and to bring with them a younger relation. By all accounts, this seems to have had the desired effect and many of our most senior corporate figures went away being asked by their young companion what exactly they were going to do to tackle climate change! That is the effect of Al Gore’s advocacy and passion in the film and, ladies and gentlemen, I cannot think of a more fitting way of celebrating Business in the Community’s silver jubilee than by having such a giant on the global stage to address us this evening. Al…