Businesses Must Think Strategically
With time running out, organisations need a strategic, rather than tactical, approach to sustainability, which companies like Unilever, Marks & Spencer and BT Group have had for years. These companies assess climate risks and opportunities and have plans to mitigate and exploit them; set targets on carbon reduction and measure their progress; incentivise employees to practise sustainable behaviour; and work with suppliers and customers to produce and use their products sustainably. CDP estimates that companies’ supply chains produce, on average, more than five times the emissions of their direct operations.
Awareness of the need to act quickly on climate change is rising, but action is lagging. EcoAct’s Lemmon believes transparent reporting is an essential precursor to action, “because it allows stakeholders to hold companies to account and helps companies themselves to focus on their progress”. The blueprint established in 2015 by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has rapidly become the benchmark for sustainability reporting.
Before the pandemic, EcoAct was optimistic that businesses would step up to the plate in helping to avert a climate catastrophe. Now its co-founder and global CEO, Gerald Maradan, is warning of the danger of ‘revenge pollution’: “Experience tells us that, post-crisis, economic activities accelerate at pace during recovery, along with emissions.” He believes that to preserve the fragile gains made during the crisis, government aid to companies affected by the lockdown should be allocated according to their current or promised climate performance.
But Laure de Preux, assistant professor of economics at Imperial College Business School, warns that this approach could create greater inequality. “Many businesses will emerge in a weakened state from this crisis, and this could be a challenge too far,” she says.
Will we revert to emissions as usual?
Alastair Lewis is professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York, a science director at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, and chair of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Air Quality Expert Group. He says the reduction in vehicle emissions we are experiencing – largely the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that is visible from space – gives a taste of what we can expect in 2035, the date by which all new sales of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars in the UK will be banned.
“But taking cars off the road doesn’t appear to have made a big dent in other pollutants, such as fine particles (PM2.5). This reaffirms the need to think beyond cars and lorries as sources of pollution, to less obvious sources like agriculture, wood burning and solvents.”
Lewis anticipates we’ll return to “emissions as usual” at some point in the next few months, as cars get back on the road. This is already happening in China, as satellite images attest. “But globally many countries with very poor air quality have had a taste of what is possible for emissions and clean air, and this could well intensify pressure for action and change,” he adds.
We have been warned that coronavirus might not be the last pandemic we see in our lifetimes, and there is evidence suggesting climate change can contribute to pandemics – Ebola’s jump from animals to humans, for instance, was linked to deforestation as disease-carrying species sought out new habitats. Many organisations have identified opportunities to make their operations more resilient and sustainable – things like shorter supply chains, more energy-efficient manufacturing and increased digitisation of sales and marketing. It would be a short-sighted organisation that failed to capitalise now on those opportunities in the interests of their own and the planet’s survival.