business climate change current affairs environment

A zero carbon world will need everyone

A few years ago I was at a residential conference with the Royal Society, where we were discussing sustainable future technologies. During a coffee break I was loitering near the pastries (obviously), and struck up some awkward conference small-talk with a fellow attendee. We exchanged observations on the last session, and then I saw his eyes flick down to my name badge. There was an intake of breath, and he sidled away without a word.

My badge had my name, and the old name for this website: Make Wealth History.

I’d already read his badge. He was a director at Rolls Royce, manufacturer of aircraft engines and the world’s least efficient luxury cars. I had no problem talking to him, but he wasn’t going to be caught talking to me. To someone working at Rolls Royce, I can understand how Make Wealth History is going to sound like an affront. That conversation, and others like it, was one of a whole tangle of reasons why I re-titled the blog last year.

I mention it because in some ways the incident is a microcosm of the situation environmentalism finds itself in at the moment. The green movement in its modern form is a product of counter-cultural grassroots action, a reaction against the ecological destruction of industry. Fifty years on from its cultural emergence, it’s a much broader phenomenon. It has moved from the fringes towards the centre, to the point that governments can make declarations of climate emergency and set net zero climate targets.

For some, that’s a sign of success. The arguments are being won. For others, it’s a sign of appropriation, the old enemies co-opting the language of the movement. People begin to qualify their remarks, talking about a ‘mainstream environmental movement’ to distinguish between those who are working with corporations and those who still take that outsider point of view.

These are old debates and I don’t want to re-hash them. Greenwash and co-opting are real things that we should be alert to, but what I want to highlight is that if Britain and the EU have net zero carbon targets for 2050, everyone has to get on board and work towards carbon neutrality. It means companies like Rolls Royce will have to go net zero. So will airlines, oil companies, big agriculture and extractive industries that have been the traditional foes of the greens. McDonalds and Coca Cola will have to sort themselves out. They’re all going to have to fall in line if they want to continue doing business in the region.

In the past, there were corporations who were open to change, and those that fought to oppose change. That remains the case in many parts of the world, and of course multinational corporations can move polluting activities elsewhere. But I’m interested in how more robust climate targets change the picture. In some ways it settles the debate. They’re going to have to change.

Companies that are established in Europe aren’t going to want to pack up their operations and surrender their market share. They will adapt, and find commercially viable ways to operate on a low carbon basis. And this is where it potentially gets interesting: as they identify, test and adopt those low carbon ways of working, they may end up using them elsewhere, and making them global policy.

For many greens that I know, the assumption is that corporations are not to be trusted and are not part of the solution. Fundamentally, it would be better if they didn’t exist, and so there’s little point in talking about their transformation. But I can’t see them closing down or being forced out of business any time soon. And while many companies continue to use their power to thwart environmental controls, a growing number are facing up to the need for change. Net zero will involve everyone – including people environmentalists don’t like.

8 comments

  1. The most important step, ultimately, would be the change to a world parliament. The use of that term would demonstrate that an assembly had now become a part of a global legislative system which, under certain conditions and within certain parameters, could pass binding world law. (Andreas Bummel, 2018)

    1. In theory, yes. In practice, it’s very hard to see how countries like the US, Russia or China would agree to be bound to international law. Or Britain either, for that matter. Without the bigger countries, it would only be symbolic.

      This is something I would love to see eventually, so I don’t object on principle. But international relations is rushing the other direction at the moment, and I don’t see how a legally binding global parliament could be pulled together in a timeframe relevant to the climate emergency.

      I read Angus Forbes’ book on global governance earlier this year and found it unconvincing, though Bummel may do better!
      https://earthbound.report/2020/03/09/book-review-global-planet-authority-by-angus-forbes/

    2. I feel sceptical about any ‘grand plan’ for global government. But I think that numerous examples across natural science indicate that a diverse ecosystem of solutions is usually the most effective and resilient. In this context that could be various forms of government, but with smart and determined efforts at better interconnection and cooperation?

      1. I also think the ecosystem idea applies to enterprise solutions too: we need good ones at all scales. Definitely work to make a route for dinosaurs to reform, but we also need attention to supporting the smaller end, which can offer great future potential and seems pretty poorly supported at present.

  2. I take inspiration from Jeremy Leggett, who (his writings indicate) has always engaged in a very forthright but warm way with all key players in the government and corporate world, and indeed entered the major corporate world himself with SolarCentury and CarbonTracker while (I believe) striving to keep principles and transparency uncompromised. Now he’s learning and engaging in rewilding/sustainable-enterprise at Bunloit, so maybe he’s going to do it again in that whole initiative!

    1. A good example, yes. Johnathon Porritt has always operated in a similar way, though not a businessman himself. And I look forward to visiting Bunloit myself when the eco-tourism aspects of the project are up and running.

  3. This is fabulous Jeremy and very important timing for me personally. I will be starting a role as Group Head of Sustainability and Global Citizenship in a large education for-profit org starting soon. I have been feeling the impostor syndrome as I’m the guy who rides a bike and has a compost toilet, not someone who works in the corporate sector. But this is a true indication that sustainability is now becoming mainstream – someone like ME can hold a managerial position in a corporate! I’m not saying much new than I was 20 years ago, it’s just now it is more legitimised in these kinds of settings… No sell out for me but a chance to make influential change from the inside-out not the outside-in 🙂 Big thanks for your post!

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