Working towards a sustainable environment

As thousands of climate protestors continue to blockade key London landmarks as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests, businesses have been warned that action or inaction to combat climate change will define their role in future societies.

Extinction Rebellion organisers claim that demonstrations are planned in 80 cities across 33 countries Image Julia Hawkins, flickr

Extinction Rebellion organisers claim that demonstrations are planned in 80 cities across 33 countries Image Julia Hawkins, flickr

The Extinction Rebellion protests across London and other cities have entered day three and show little sign of slowing. The “civil disobedience” protest group was formed in the UK last year, using the provocative protests to demand action on climate change.

Amongst the group’s mission statement is a call for the UK Government to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025, as well as establishing a citizens’ assembly to create plans that tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss.

Up to 500,000 people were believed to have been affected by the climate activists. As of Wednesday morning (17 April), four sites – Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Oxford Circus – have still been blockaded by the protesters.

While the protests are predominantly aimed at government action, they build on a growing notion that citizens are intensely aware of climate change, and are willing to disregard common societal behaviours to ignite wider debates and spark change.

Christian Aid’s UK advocacy manager Tom Viita said the Extinction Rebellion is the latest in a long list of signs that “people are losing tolerance for the excuses and inaction of those in power”. In the case of Extinction Rebellion, and indeed the wider climate conversation, those in power aren’t limited to policymakers, but instead impact the corporate sphere as well.

“The warnings of climate change have been clear for decades, yet too many governments and multinational companies have deliberately delayed and avoided the necessary action,” Viita said. “Meanwhile the consequences of climate damage have become more and more brutal – most obviously among the poorest who face dying crops, prolonged droughts, or devastating typhoons.

Mainstream media coverage of the protests has largely focused on the disruption to transport services, which, in truth, is a minor inconvenience compared to the connotations drawn up by severe climate impacts.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report has formed the crux of many a climate strike. The report warns that the world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and that an increase to 2C would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

But there is hope. The report predicts that if the world can become carbon-neutral by 2047, we will have a 66% chance of meeting the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement pledge. It notes that such an achievement will require “deep” and “urgent” actions from policymakers and corporates alike – but that it is possible with significant investment.

As evidenced by both Extinction Rebellion and the continuous climate youth strikes taking place across the world, climate change is front and central to societal demand. These protestors and the general public also form the majority of corporate consumer bases and evidence suggests that companies would do well to appease concerns.

A timely survey of more than 2,000 UK consumers, released today by Barclays, has found that more than half are seeking ways to lower their individual climate impact. The research found the 57% are emphasising low-carbon actions and 45% are seeking products or services from businesses that have a good track record when it comes to climate change.

These preferences can also be found in the workforce of UK business. Seven in 10 works believe it is important that a current or prospective employer is considered a green business; this figure rises to 80% for younger generations.

Barclays has warned that the survey findings could have a big impact on UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SME).

“In recent years, consumer trends and habits have clearly swung towards a more eco-based focus, and SMEs need to ensure they are adhering to the same values in order to strengthen and grow,” Barclays Business Banking’s chief executive Ian Rand said.

Fortunately, the survey suggests that SMEs are listening to consumer demands, with 22% acting on their carbon footprints, while 41% planning on making changes next year to introduce green policies.

Disunited Kingdom 

The ramifications of failing to act on climate, even if it is just to appease consumer demands, are potentially transformational. Some carbon-intensive sectors have been notoriously sluggish to transition towards the low-carbon economy, and research suggests that this could leave fossil fuel companies with trillions in stranded assets and spark a global financial crisis.

The 2019 Trust Barometer is Edelman’s 19th annual trust and credibility survey that measures trust across sectors and institutions, gauging the opinion of more than 33,000 respondents.

The 2019 Barometer found that 40% of Brits feel others are more likely to take part in violent protest, while 69% believe citizens are angrier about politics and society since the Brexit referendum. Edelman claims that these trends have resulted in a “Disunited Kingdom” polarised by Brexit.

Brexit is likely where some of this climate activism has stemmed from. In a time where 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has told EU officials to ignore Brexit to focus on climate change, UK policymakers seem intent on focusing solely on a failed departure policy.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas recently asked whether Theresa May would meet Thunberg to debate the matter of climate change, but May shirked the question.

As has been the case since the referendum, advocacy and leadership on climate change have become the responsibility of business.

Businesses and governments could deliver economic growth worth at least $26trn by 2030 through strong action on climate change, and in the UK at least, business has done well to bring the public with them on the low-carbon transition.

Whether it’s the rollout of new electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, or the delivery on plastic-free packaging, some businesses have a good recent history of listening to consumer demands that are being driven by ethical and environmental understanding.

Aligning to a 1.5C world requires these leading businesses to again listen to the public, this time in bringing small firms and policymakers with them on the transition.

Financial focus

A key step to accelerating action is the role of finance.

Writing in the Guardian this week, the governors of the Bank of England and France’s central bank have warned that the global financial system faces an existential threat from climate change and must take urgent steps to reform.

Mark Carney, the Bank’s governor, and Villeroy de Galhau, the governor of the Banque de France, said financial regulators, banks and insurers around the world had to “raise the bar” to avoid catastrophe. The heads of two of the world’s most influential central banks urged other financial regulators around the world to carry out climate change stress tests to spot any risks in the system.

As is often the case when investors get involved, business tends to listen. According to Gudrun Cartwright, environment director at Business in the Community (BITC), the finance sector is a “perfect” catalyst to align business practice with growing consumer concerns.

“As the Extinction Rebellion protests continue in cities around the world,  with a clear call to action to reverse our course towards the collapse of our civilisation due to climate change and the destruction of natural habitats, Mark Carney, Villery de Galhau and Frank Elderson of the NGFS have added long overdue and needed pressure from the financial system,” Cartwright said.

“Recognising that climate change is an existential risk for all of us, including business, and the financial system being at the heart of driving change are critical if we are to deliver a planet fit for our children’s future. 

“These clear steps to action must now put into practice at speed and scale. The financial system is in the perfect position to act as a catalyst to deliver the global sustainable economy we need to turn this existential threat into new models for prosperity and wellbeing. If the financial sector acts decisively, we could see a rapid knock-on effect within the businesses that depend on it. This is a momentous opportunity to design a future we are proud to pass on to future generations, rather than a risk that is too big to face.”

Extinction Rebellion organisers claim that demonstrations are planned in 80 cities across 33 countries, suggesting that the climate protests will not be slowing down. In response, businesses must show and articulate how seriously they are taking climate change. It’s not just consumer trust that is at stake, it’s the role of business in society as well.

Matt Mace