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Businesses can drive low carbon without sacrificing growth

January 2015

Paul Connolly, director of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank, explores the role of business in the climate change debate

Debates about sustainability are vexed. The disputatious atmosphere around climate change has infected the word’s meaning and put some people off. We should remember that sustainability means the capacity of something to be sustained.

When it was first suggested that humans threatened the sustainability of natural resources through overuse, “conservationists” emerged. In the early days these were largely conservatives who wished to husband resources prudently so as to keep things as they are.

Prudent management in business, finance and taxation remains a hallmark of conservatism. But the contrast on environmental issues can be illustrated by Lady Thatcher. In the late 1980s she spoke passionately about the threat of manmade climate change. She suggested a rational conservative axis of business and science to defeat it. Yet as climate change, and other “green” matters, became associated with the ideology of her opponents, and as solutions tended towards regulation, she partially withdrew from this rationale.

However, there are still conservatives with strong green credentials, and not all business people are conservatives. But many notable climate change deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists come from the right. Their equation of action on climate change with unnecessary business burdens resonates, especially in times of austerity. An environmentally friendly David Cameron went to the North Pole during the UK floods. More recently, he characterised a pro-business budget as one without the “green crap”.

Scientific evidence for manmade climate change is overwhelming. Most people accept it and want to do something. But it is ineffective preaching to the converted, as they often lack the power to do something.

However, the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank’s recent report Low Carbon, Higher Growth focuses on those who can do something - businesses. But it appeals to their enlightened self-interest. Put crudely, the earth’s resources are finite. Some of them, such as oil reserves, are in the hands of people who are unreceptive to Western interests. Irrespective of climate change, it still makes sense to minimise waste, maximise reuse and seek new (and especially self-sustaining) sources of energy supply. Especially if in doing so we can reduce business costs and increase profits.

MCA members who work on sustainability and contributed to the report believe the enforcement of new regulation isn’t the answer. Instead they are translating low carbon and sustainability into business opportunities. Managing energy, through ESCO models and intelligent design and build, or minimising raw material use, can save money. Businesses that foreground their green credentials can garner reputational capital and the loyalty of new “green-aware” consumers.

Our members will also often respray low carbon initiatives as cost cutting ones – to overcome the scepticism that the pursuit of low carbon could possibly be beneficial to a business. In doing so, they are reorienting sustainability back to its base meaning and fostering an emerging grain of business thinking, focused less on managing sustainability’s compliance burdens and more on seizing its opportunities.

Sustainability consultants want to save the planet. Their trick is to do so in ways that even the most committed climate change denier couldn’t object to.

UK & NI Ireland | Sustainability


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