I am so pleased that such a large number of you have managed to attend the three events which – through the wonders of technology and with the sterling assistance of BT – I rather hope I am simultaneously addressing!
I really don’t think there is a more urgent issue for any of us to be addressing, at work, at home, and indeed in every facet of our lives, than climate change. Business is not only a major contributor to climate change, but can also play a key role in tackling the problems and reducing their impact. So if anyone here feels that they were a spectator this morning, then they were probably in the wrong meeting!
Reassuringly, the level of participation today suggests that many businesses do recognize the level of urgency of the issues you have all been discussing – and judging by the report back I have just heard, it has been a frank and engaged discussion.
But of course when it comes to tackling climate change, discussion isn’t enough. If the scientific consensus is right – and it really is a consensus now - we have to move from discussion to some deadly serious actions, very rapidly.
Taking action to address an issue like climate change – largely invisible, somewhat nebulous, still rather unpredictable in its precise consequences, is not an easy decision, I know. And I suspect there are quite a few sceptics here still. But the evidence you heard earlier from either Sir Crispin Tickell or Chris Rapley, depending on where you’re sitting, could not have been more compelling, or frankly more frightening. I find a lot of the evidence really alarming. It must surely be clear by now that the longer we leave it before taking effective action the more dire the situation will become and the more desperate the measures that will be needed. As you heard, one of the real concerns of the scientists is that climate change will begin to change gear and move ever more rapidly, making it even harder to slow down. When I was talking to Sir David King – the Government’s chief scientific advisor - earlier this year he emphasized that the climate change we are seeing now stems from the greenhouse gas emissions of thirty years ago – so you can imagine what has been going on ever since and how our inaction is rapidly increasing the danger. But everything we do now will reduce that risk. And all good businesses know about managing risks.
Difficult though it may be to get started, I know you’ve also heard excellent examples of the progress that different businesses are making. I do hope you found it useful, even perhaps inspiring, to be able to share ideas on both the challenges and the opportunities and to discuss ways forward.
Of course, there are actions which will be specific to a particular company. But there are also things that every company can do, and should do – such as using energy with maximum efficiency. There is a huge area there I think which needs tackling. It is clear to me that no one company has the solution – we all still have a long way to go. And sharing ideas and lessons will speed up that journey immeasurably.
Now ladies and gentlemen, I do understand that many of you have quite enough on your plate already – particularly those of you who run the small and medium-sized companies that are the backbone of our national economy – and nowhere more so than in Wales and Scotland. And I do know a little bit about this thorugh my work over the last 31 years with the Prince’s Trust helping young people start their own enterprises, many of which have gone on to be quite large and successful.
But this really is a challenge for everyone, in both our professional and personal lives. And let’s not forget that there are also real cost savings to be made, and market opportunities to be realized.
I hardly dare admit to this audience that I had a similar conversation with companies in England in May. Some of you may consider that giving the English six months start, and then overtaking them, is nothing unusual, but of course I’m completely neutral in such matters!
In establishing the May Day Network, which I know was described to you earlier, I wanted not only to identify individual examples of best practice, but also to try and identify new ways in which companies can collaborate on issues of common concern. Let me just explain that a bit, because I know it goes against the grain of some people’s thinking about how businesses succeed. Competition is an important driver, of course, but equally it seems to me that long-term success in any business is achieved at least partly through minimizing risks and building value. And we have to ask ourselves if either of those things is going to be possible in the kind of unstable world that climate change will bring us.
In the 19th Century we learned that to keep our economies growing it was necessary to invest in maintaining the social conditions necessary for that growth. We no longer argue about the importance of making investments in health or education or a social safety net – even though we will probably always argue about how best to do this. In the 21st century, I suggest we are going to need to learn to invest seriously in maintaining the environmental conditions for continued economic development – starting with a stable climate. And talking of learning – how much of this approach is taught in business schools? Yesterday I read some research into the seven top business schools and not one of them had climate change as part of its curriculum. Not a helpful situation I would have thought.
In looking at the progress of the May Day Network companies so far, three areas seem to have worked particularly well. First, working with peers. Companies that choose to work together on climate issues really can learn from each other and create a powerful force in society. I know that more than 20 legal firms have come together to form the Legal Sector Alliance. They are looking at how they can work together to create a step change. And if the lawyers can work together, then I’m sure the rest of us can stop worrying about collaboration being anti-competitive in any way! The insurance sector is another example of what I am talking about. Last year I asked the Association of British Insurers and leading insurance companies if they might consider working together to find ways of tackling climate change. I can only say that I have been delighted by the way in which they have engaged with Business in the Community and my Business and the Environment Programme on this, and only in September I launched the ClimateWise Principles – a set of principles that will form a minimum standard for action on climate change for the sector. This just shows that where there’s a will, there really is a way….
Secondly, working with suppliers. We all need to look at our climate change impacts in the round, otherwise known as our carbon footprint. And in many cases that footprint will be affected as much by our purchasing decisions as by our direct actions. Companies such as BT and BSkyB, both of whom have relatively small direct climate change impacts, have been leading the way in supporting their suppliers to reduce their carbon footprints. And, of course, the suppliers have every incentive to do this because in a competitive market place ultimately companies can choose to take their business elsewhere.
Thirdly, working with customers. I said earlier that tackling climate change is a task for every single individual. Public awareness of the issue is now, at last, at a high level. Indeed 91 per cent of people are said to be concerned by the threat climate change poses to their way of life. But turning that awareness into the millions of everyday personal actions that will cumulatively make the difference is still a major challenge. So businesses who come into close contact with the public, such as retailers, have a hugely important role to play in engaging their customers. A shining example in this respect is Marks and Spencer, Business in the Community’s Business of the Year, but many other major retailers have been developing innovative approaches from which others could learn and develop their own campaigns.
In looking at the feedback so far there was another general point which I think it is important to stress. This is that whilst businesses are naturally keen on incentives, they are not averse to regulation. But whatever mix of incentives and regulation is provided, it simply has to be intelligently designed for the long-term, so that businesses have the consistency and clarity they need for planning their investments and their operations. Quick fixes are clearly not the answer! And I think there has also been a consistent message that tackling climate change will bring new opportunities for businesses throughout the whole country. This is something which we shouldn’t perhaps forget.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I am immensely heartened by the number of pledges made at our three meetings today. In fulfilling them, as I am sure you will, I do just urge you to take up the support being offered by the Carbon Trust, Business in the Community, Scottish Business in the Community and other expert organizations. And, of course, I will look forward to hearing reports of your progress and highlighting some of your achievements at future events of this sort, including the May Day Summit 2008, at which you will have the opportunity to join up with the 800 companies in England who are already part of this network.
I would just like to leave you with some thoughts which explain why I was so keen for these events to take place. The first is that in the face of the evidence doing nothing is simply not an option. It can’t be any more because of the urgency of the situation. What on earth is the point of waiting till we test the world to destruction, because we believe really rigidly in empirical, evidence-based science, before taking decisive action? On this occasion it will quite simply be too late. The second thought is that we can each, surely, do something to play our part in tackling the problem. Exactly what that might be, and how it might be managed within the constraints of running your own particular business is something only you can decide at the end of the day.
Finally, I would just like each of us to spend a little time thinking about the costs of not getting this right – asking ourselves what our children and grandchildren will say when they look back and assess what we did about climate change, in the light of what we knew. At the current levels of progress it seems likely that their assessment of our generation will be rather harsh. This really is the most important issue facing us as a society – and as a species. Let’s be clear, our planet will survive a high degree of climate change. Planets do survive. But only one planet – as far as we know – currently has the very precise conditions our species needs to survive – this is the problem. And, please make no mistake about it, we are well on the way to destroying those conditions, and making our planet uninhabitable. I know – I’ve been talking to the plants and trees for years now and you’d be amazed at what you can pick up!
So this is not about saving the planet. It’s about saving us. That’s the point. And that is where each and every one of us has a responsibility to do what we can. The response I have heard from you all today has given me cause for at least a measure of optimism. It isn’t yet too late – if we act now and together in that way I know we can make a real difference. So I am indebted to you all for being here today and for your contribution.