When it’s no longer business as usual, how should we work with business?
“We are facing an unprecedented global emergency… we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”
“Our house is on fire…. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
“Winning slowly is the same as losing.”
“To pursue never-ending economic growth – or even to keep things ticking along as they are – is to gamble with the fate of humanity. We need nothing short of a transformation of the way we live our lives.”
Statements like these, from Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, Bill McKibben and Caroline Lucas, might once have been dismissed as scaremongering. Increasingly, as the evidence of climate and ecological breakdown piles up, they are being heard as the sober truth.
This heightened sense of urgency challenges politicians, but it should also prompt environmentalists to ask themselves whether they have been too cautious, too willing to tolerate bad things in order to make small gains (winning slowly). For Green Alliance, it means thinking about both our change model and our relationships with business.
Our line has been that environmental progress and economic growth can go together and that businesses will thrive as they get greener. When ministers say that the UK has reduced carbon emissions while growing its economy, they are adopting a frame Green Alliance has been pushing for years.
This approach has been effective, but has it run its course? In the current emergency, must the country embrace the climate equivalent of a war economy: blood, sweat, tears and all?
Well, maybe. But while the urgency of the present moment is slowly dawning on politicians and citizens, there is still a gulf between accepting the need for decarbonisation and taking the steps to achieve it.
The crisis we are in is one of thirty years’ duration at least. The more we do now, the less drastic will be the changes we have to make later. Consciousness-raising is essential, but we do not have ten years to persuade people to transform their lives. We need to cut carbon now.
Fortunately, with the right policies we can get on track to net zero relatively easily, improving lives without massively disrupting them. People will still be able to eat some meat, take some flights, buy new clothes. This is not heroic and it may sound complacent – “our house is on fire…” – but it is a strategy that can achieve the immediate carbon reductions we need to get on track to net zero, while changing the country’s infrastructure so that we all use less carbon in the future as we go about our daily lives.
What of our relations with business? Green Alliance has engaged with businesses almost from our beginning in 1979, often provoking the suspicion of other environmentalists. Our 1999 annual report thanked BP, British Airways, Mobil, Rio Tinto and Shell, among others. Our latest report records support from BP, Shell and Heathrow – and from NGOs campaigning vigorously against these companies.
In working with business, we have aimed to win public policy changes that reshape markets and encourage companies to change their practices. We have a good record of success, notably on energy and resource efficiency, offshore wind and coal, often achieved by working with businesses who were (and still are) deeply invested in unsustainable practices.
There can be no solution to the environmental challenges the world faces without engaging constructively with business, but there is always a danger of greenwash. Jonathon Porritt, who has spent a lifetime trying to get companies in a better place, has recently written a powerful blog on why he will no longer work with BP. Oil companies, he argues, use engagement with environmentalists as cover for indefensible practices that they are simply unwilling to change.
Over the summer Green Alliance will be considering how it should engage with business in future. Working with businesses is deep in our DNA and we value partnerships such as our Circular Economy and Tech task force. We will continue to work with business, but only where we can achieve positive outcomes. We will be working this through over the next couple of months with our staff, trustees, members and associates, and of course we will be talking to our business partners. It would be good to get the views of readers of this blog.
One current project, ‘Aviation in a 1.5 degree world’, has brought the issue of our business engagement to a head. In this project, sponsored by Heathrow, we will be asking hard questions about the value of offsetting in achieving an aviation sector compatible with net zero. This is not about Heathrow’s third runway, which we oppose. It is about the massive growth, planned or underway, of just about every airport in the UK. And it is about the proposed CORSIA emissions scheme. This risks repeating all the flaws of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which was subject to significant fraud, with at least 85 per cent of its carbon reduction projects not reducing emissions beyond business as usual, compared with just two per cent of projects likely to do so.
This is the sort of practical work Green Alliance has always done. People, not least environmentalists, will continue to fly. How can this be made consistent with net zero? How much can we cut the carbon intensity of flying, what should we do to reduce demand and to what extent can emissions be offset? How much offsetting is appropriate and how do we ensure that it does not end up as a licence to expand direct emissions from aviation?
If we conclude that it is not possible to offset the increase in aviation emissions, or that offsetting can only work if people in the UK take fewer flights, we will say so.