31 Jan 2011 04:01:13
A warning on green growth
We will only create the low carbon economy that Britain needs if our captains of industry radically change their attitudes and investment priorities. BP's new Siberian joint venture with Rosneft is proof that, for all the talk of taking sustainability seriously, our major companies still prioritise traditional high carbon ventures over genuine green growth.
Research published this week by the Carbon Trust reveals that, while 92% of business leaders agree that green growth represents an opportunity for business, only one in three is actually developing new low carbon goods and services. The ambitious green rhetoric employed by some of our leading businesses is, alas, rarely matched by bold action.
In my nine years leading the Carbon Trust, I have become well-tuned to the tactics business leaders use to give the impression they are greener than they really are. Most of us are now familiar with "greenwash", where companies deliberately distort the truth about their environmental track records. Other ploys are more subtle. I sometimes come across chief executives who, rather than doing all they can, eke out progress to have some good news to tell their stakeholders every year.
However, the CEOs that disappoint me are the ones who, when I ask them about sustainability, reply: "Oh, yes. We take 'that' very seriously". In other words, sustainability doesn't sit at the heart of corporate strategy – it is an optional add-on at the periphery of the business.
This complacency has to end. Otherwise business leaders will fail to exploit the opportunities that will ensure this country can enjoy a healthy and – that word again – sustainable recovery.
According to the British government's own figures, the low carbon market is already worth £3 trillion a year globally, and, crucially, is set to increase in size by 25% over the next four years.
In my view, green growth is the only show in town. No other sector can drive the recovery. The consequences of British business failing to grasp this opportunity are almost too horrific to consider: anaemic growth, a jobless recovery and the risk of a return to the economics of boom and bust. We cannot afford to carry on as we did before.
The UK does have innovative world-beating companies that lead the way in the green economy. One of my favourites is RLtec, whose technology underpins revolutionary new domestic appliances that switch themselves off at times of peak demand for the National Grid, such as when the kettles go on at the end of .
However, as I look out over the business landscape I still see too many light green "fir trees" and not enough dark green "oaks". This candid comment made by a senior corporate executive to our researchers as part of our research in to business attitudes exemplifies the attitude of the light green majority: "All companies outside the green industry are run on short visions. It is about reaching those targets for the year, unless it is in its interest from a perception point of view."
Government can encourage business to behave better by providing a stable regulatory environment. Consumers have a part to play too by voting with their wallets. However, ultimately, business leaders – whether they be manufacturers, retailers or oil men – need to look beyond the short-term financial reporting cycle and place some smart, early bets on the future. The announcement by Siemens today to build a new offshore wind manufacturing plant in Hull and generate 700 new jobs is a perfect example of this.
We need others to follow, not just for the country and the planet but also for their own corporate survival. If they fail to do so, one day not long from now, the quarterly revenue figures will start drifting south and they will be too late to halt the slide.