Over the past hour or so, it has been an enormous pleasure I promise you as far as I am concerned and inspiration to meet some of the people behind practical examples of sustainable energy systems which are being deployed across the world to make a positive difference to communities as we have seen.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so glad to be here with you this evening to help mark an annual event that quite rightly celebrates the tireless work of some quite remarkable people who I know are working hard to help communities and societies make the transition to a more sustainable future. Since 2001, the Ashden Awards have not only highlighted the huge potential for more sustainable energy technologies, but have also demonstrated the determination and creativity of the people behind them.

If we are to be successful in somehow reconciling the immense and daunting challenge of rising numbers of people with the diminishing capacities of our planet, and in dealing with the scourge of climate change, then it is not only new clean technologies that will be needed; it is also the inspiration of the people who help change to occur. That is why I happen to believe the Ashden Awards are of such importance and why I have been so pleased to be their Patron for the past four years. For while these awards show what it is possible to do now in saving resources and cutting emissions, they also remind us all how, as individuals, we can actually make such a huge difference to the world we live in. Put simply, acting locally is, in fact, acting globally.

Thanks entirely to the inexhausable Sarah Butler-Sloss’s foresight and determination and the Sainsbury family, the Ashden Awards have helped more than 100 projects develop their work and, today, they are an internationally-recognized yardstick for excellence in the field of sustainable energy. They draw the attention of a wider audience through the international Media, seminars and presentations. The awards introduce the winners to decision-makers and opinion-formers, thus helping to influence thinking and policy on sustainable energy right across society.

Over the past hour or so, it has been an enormous pleasure I promise you as far as I am concerned and inspiration to meet some of the people behind practical examples of sustainable energy systems which are being deployed across the world to make a positive difference to communities as we have seen. I can only offer all the award winners my warmest congratulations and I can only hope that the awards will give them more encouragement for the future.

Meeting the winners has, as always, raised my spirits and it has convinced me all over again that in looking for solutions to Mankind’s many pressing problems, not least climate change, we should not pin all our hopes on massive and risky technical ‘fixes’. So much of what we need to build cleaner and more efficient communities is already with us often in the form of working more in harmony with Nature’s genius and re-discovering abandoned techniques. We already have much of the technology, and the human ingenuity, to apply it to best effect. What we lack, if I may say so, is the humility, courage, restraint and, indeed, the long-term thinking which surely are at the heart of genuine sustainability. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the crisis in which we find ourselves. It appears to me that perhaps the most urgent challenge of our age is to find ways in which we can take the kinds of solutions that you will see this evening, to gain widespread acceptance of their viability and to apply them on a massive scale.

It is difficult, I think, to overstate the urgency and pressing nature of the climate change issue. Almost every time the specialist scientific community updates its projections, the prognosis looks worse. Scientific evidence is showing that the Earth’s climate system is more sensitive to pollution than we previously thought. Most terrifying of all, it shows that we have less time - much less time - to tackle the problem. I have, for some months now, been warning that if CO2 emissions carry on rising after 2016 we are unlikely to avoid tipping into catastrophic climate change. That is less than 100 months away – ninety-seven since I first drew attention to this “ticking time bomb” in a speech in Brazil earlier this year. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have very little time to respond – and yet, on the whole, we continue with “business as usual,” happy to clutch at any straw thrown out by those who are in denial about the stark scientific realities.

Scientists as I am sure many of you know have repeatedly warned us that, alongside urgent action to slow down deforestation and to cut emissions from transport and industry, we must put into effect sustainable energy systems as a matter of priority. Now, achieving a peak in emissions growth by 2016 and overall cuts in emissions of eighty per cent by 2050 can certainly be done, but not without major changes to how we produce and consume energy. Sustainable energy is not only about fighting climate change. It is one of the solutions we must adopt in securing future energy supplies. It is also one of the ways in which we can create jobs, generate new business opportunities and fight poverty. In other words, putting the environment at the top of the political and economic agenda is ironically the surest way for us to pull ourselves out of the financial crisis from which the whole world is suffering. If only we could persuade people to “join the dots,” as it were...!

Almost whichever way you look at it, there is good reason for us to be setting huge ambition for ourselves in making a rapid transformation to a sustainable energy future. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is another major value of these awards – demonstrating what is possible not only for small-scale projects, but what is achievable for the whole world. The organizations with which I am most closely connected, such as Business in the Community, place a premium on “Seeing is Believing.” Nothing builds confidence more than seeing how different appropriate technologies work and make a practical difference.

Interesting only two months ago I made a visit to Germany and found out there how the huge potential for more sustainable energy can be realized through some relatively simple measures. That country is set to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, but has also gone so much further in setting out its future plans. It has become the first industrialized country to target a forty per cent reduction by 2020 and is putting in place the measures to achieve this. Already, some 1.8 million people in Germany are employed in providing environmental goods and services, and the delivery of the forty per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions is expected to create another half a million jobs. If I may say so, this example demonstrates admirably that we do not need to choose between on the one hand protecting our planet’s life support systems and, on the other, creating jobs and securing the kind of innovative, balanced economic development that reflects the urgent need to live off our planet’s income rather than Nature’s rapidly depleting capital. The truth is that we can, and must, do both of these things, especially during a period of such desperate economic uncertainty. Scaling up our response, driving appropriate forms of sustainable energy into the mainstream can be done. The Ashden Awards are playing a vital role in showing the way.

Ladies and Gentlemen, can I just conclude by saying that, at this time of economic and financial stress it is perhaps only too natural to find our attention drawn to what appear to be more pressing short-term challenges. I fear, however, that our grandchildren will not care very much about whether in these early decades of the twenty-first century we managed to sustain twentieth century-style economic growth based on the combustion of fossil fuels. What I suspect they will be far more concerned about is the state of the Earth’s climate and remaining, overstrained ecosystems on which we all depend; about whether there is sufficient food and water; about the security measures and economic resources needed to cope with millions of environmental refugees. Achieving positive outcomes will rely upon both a different, more holistic, way of looking at how we live and the emergence of a genuinely sustainable society. This is quite simply, I’m afraid, going to have to be based upon durable energy systems, far better waste utilization and we have seen some wonderful examples this evening, and a more gentle way of working with Nature and not against her. We must recognize that we cannot continue without Nature’s support; we cannot have Capitalism without capital – Nature’s capital. And once we have spent our natural capital, it cannot be replenished. As I have tried to explain this evening, this is not only our most urgent priority, but also our greatest opportunity.