“The view of our company is clear: the time to act is now”

Graffham Water by Phelyan SanjoinThis post is by Peter Simpson, CEO of Anglian Water.

Tackling coronavirus is rightly the current priority of governments, healthcare institutions, individuals and business. Key workers, like the team here at Anglian Water, have stepped up, keeping taps running, toilets flushing and drains draining. We are humbled daily by stories of courage and bravery as we share our deepest sympathies with colleagues and friends whose lives the virus has touched.

The brute force of this pandemic has highlighted just how interconnected we are, not only that we all face the same indiscriminate risk, but how joined up, positive responses drive change. We’ve collectively demonstrated the power to reimagine our operations, often considerably, and frequently for the better.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the risk, or the resulting speed of change. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report identifies ‘infectious disease’ in its top ten risks in terms of impact and the vulnerabilities it would expose in our healthcare services, economies and society. Yet, in that same report, failure to take action against the climate emergency is considered to be the biggest risk of all.

Imagine that, for one moment: a threat even greater and more disruptive to our lives than the global pandemic we are currently living through. Knowing what we now know about the catastrophic impacts of Covid-19: can we possibly be doing enough to tackle the most significant challenge we face?

Acting on climate change should be aligned with ‘build back better’
The impacts of our changing climate, temperature rises and extremes of weather are happening in the East of England where Anglian Water operates. It is the driest part of the UK and is already feeling the impacts keenly. And we are a very significant energy user: getting water around our large and flat region requires a tremendous amount of pumping.

The view of our company is clear: the time to act is now and this obligation should be aligned with the opportunity to ‘build back better’, as many are now calling for, presented by the imminent recovery from COVID-19.

Some people have observed that, with economic activity suspended, our environment is cleaner and quieter, our carbon emissions have been much reduced and we’ve given the planet some breathing space. But this will not be lasting change, nor is what is happening now the viable route to a sustainable future.

What we are experiencing now is categorically not the more prosperous society net zero and climate-resilient ambitions would build. While we should actively consider how to lock-in some of the benefits we’ve seen, we need to do this through changing how our economy runs, not by shutting it down.

Collaboration is the key to maximum impact
Our company has brought forward some ideas in our recently published Climate Change Adaptation Report. The report, which will be submitted to the UK government, describes our climate-related risks and the steps we are taking to deliver sustainable adaptation action through innovation, collaboration, investment and education. (We would welcome public input to this and there remains a short window of time to add your thoughts  in response to our considerations at the link above.) In doing so, we hope we can lock in the benefits without enduring a cost. Meeting the targets we set almost a decade ago has grown our confidence in the belief that the water sector can be carbon neutral by 2030.

It’s a tall order, but we’re making progress. This has been achieved in collaboration with others, by designing carbon out of our construction projects, delivering more energy efficiency schemes and generating more and more renewable energy. And while it can be tempting to think about the climate emergency solely in terms of risk, we also see climate adaptation as an opportunity, not least in terms of unlocking sources of capital perhaps otherwise unavailable via Green Bond finance.

Of course, we know collaboration drives the greatest impact, hence our commitment to groups such as The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG). One of my final engagements before lockdown was to help launch the CLG’s new initiative, Acting Together, which sets out a cross cutting agenda for business and government to work collaboratively to accelerate climate action. I’m keen that we update that and the group’s work to account for this new context.

Openness, transparency, holding each other to account and collaboration must underpin a post-COVID-19 recovery plan. When we emerge from lockdown we must draw all of society closer together than ever before. Because that’s the way, brick by brick, we’ll build back better.

[Image of Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, courtesy of Phelyan Sanjoin, via Flickr]

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