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Greening the Blue Chips: RSK live from COP26

Published on December 14, 2021

RSK’s Green Dialogues series successfully culminated in our event, “RSK live from COP26: Greening the Blue Chips” on 10 November. Bringing together specialists from across the environmental sector to speak on the diverse range of issues we face in our move towards a sustainable future, “Greening the Blue Chips” brought to a close four months of conversation and debate on defining business’s challenges and opportunities as we seek to finalise the Paris Rulebook.

Opened by Alan Ryder, RSK Chief Executive Officer, the event hosted discussions, poetry and film on four topics that confront business in its endeavour to tackle the climate crisis. In his opening speech, Alan emphasised that “every one of us has a role to play” and that bringing forward positive change is “about doing something – your individual bit and working with others” to create meaningful actions.

Beyond net zero? The scale of change facing business

Businesses play a fundamental role in efforts to reach net zero. They have the potential to both contribute to environmental degradation and to be the driving force to bring forward change. Business relies on ecosystem services in all that it does, but understanding performance in terms of sustainability and a business’s role in supporting these services is a much greater challenge. Scope 3 emissions, those indirect emissions incurred through value chains, remain a neglected area when considering business sustainability measures, whether from a biodiversity net gain or a carbon net zero perspective. Research conducted by the team at Nature Positive, through its FTSE 100 biodiversity report card, highlighted that businesses need to take a closer look at scope 3 emissions and value chains as a whole when measuring their own sustainability and environmental footprint. As Stephanie Wray, Managing Director of Nature Positive, said, “Climate change is a symptom of the unsustainable use of resources” and it is something businesses have the potential to influence and make a positive impact on.

The capacity to make headway in building sustainable business, however, remains a particular challenge. Though it is understood that change needs to be made urgently, and evidence from climate science is stronger than ever, there is notable competition on sustainability that is limiting progress. Competing on and monetising sustainability credentials, rather than considering the cost of inaction, is stalling the progress business is making towards achieving sustainable operations. As Jo Gilroy, Head of Sustainability at Kier Group, explained, “The end goal [for business] is not net zero, it is sustainable development”. Achieving this will not be possible without shared learning and development practices that enable progress in protecting the environment and without advancing efforts to achieve sustainable development across business practices. “Climate change in the language of environmentalism and not [the language of] business” means the value of investing in the environment and the benefits of action risk not being realised.

Quantifying the value of investment and the role this plays in sustainable development will be crucial in catalysing positive impact on environmental issues. This is fundamentally because for business, financing can influence and ultimately yield results. For example, linking debt financing to ESG targets can incentivise companies to achieve sustainability targets and potentially drive more ambitious ESG-focused efforts in business operations. As Adam Heltzer, Head of Environmental, Social and Governance at Ares Management, said, “Something that I think has started with a trickle but will become more of a flood, a good flood is ESG linked loans.”

Sector focus: How can businesses across sectors drive Britain’s transition to net zero?

Every sector in every corner of the world faces challenges linked to sustainability and tackling the climate crisis. Whether that be water, construction, fashion or energy, to achieve net zero carbon and build sustainable practices, the task ahead of business is steep. To successfully transform practices across business sectors, the approach to resources and industry needs to change at a fundamental level. Considering resource use and sector services holistically, rather than in isolation, will present opportunities. This is especially true in areas that provide a service, such as the water sector. Considering the utility and value of water as a resource beyond the tap is necessary for attaining a sustainable and ready supply. As Ian McAulay, Chief Executive Officer of Southern Water, explained, ensuring man-made infrastructure and nature-based solutions are balanced correctly in managing water as a resource will be vital in efforts to “harness the forces of mankind for the benefit of nature”.

Water is a resource that is vital to all sectors. Considering the wider implications of our resource use and the impact this has on different localities when outsourced will be crucial in efforts to achieve sustainable operations across all sectors. The fashion industry is a massive consumer of water resources to the extent that “we are literally prioritising making clothing over people having drinking water” in some parts of the world, as Frankie Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of The Rubbish Fashion Company, cautioned. Adapting existing business practices to ensure supply chain responsibility can have a transformational effect across many industries and will help to guarantee fairer prices, fair and secure labour and responsible, sustainable resource use.

Making the most of and adapting the infrastructure we already have is particularly important when it comes to decarbonising our energy supply. Described by Anna Cameron, Head of Legal and ESG at Ventient Energy, as maximising existing assets, “generat[ing] renewable energy to secure the future of people and the planet” needs to utilise existing infrastructure and resources as efficiently as possible. In so doing, we can ensure that various co-benefits to society that stem from these actions, such as cutting energy costs to make heating homes more affordable, are also maximised. Optimising these co-benefits is equally vital in other key sectors such as housing. Decarbonising homes and improving waste management and energy efficiency are a huge part of the solution. There is a need, however, to go further by paying attention to biodiversity net gain. This can be achieved by adopting “hedgehog highways, bug boxes and bee bricks as standard”, as Ian Heasman, Director of Sustainability at Taylor Wimpey, explained.

Making the most of potential co-benefits presents as many challenges as it does opportunities. Described by Julia Baker, Biodiversity Technical Specialist at Balfour Beatty, as “coming in at a place in nature that is already degraded”, ensuring we “leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it” is a difficult task to manage, as sites are often significantly degraded before work begins, meaning contractors are starting from a far lower baseline.

And the enormity of this challenge is felt outside of business. Government, business, people and nature, a film created by Justin Davey and Natasha Warren, discussed the “journey of someone going through both anxiety and curiosity about what the planet now requires of us”. Though global climate issues can often seem abstract and distant from our individual immediate circumstances, the interconnectivity of the modern world only makes these crises more real and present. How do we translate the pressing need for action and our understanding of what needs to be done into real, effective change?

The way forward

Though we know what action needs to be taken and of the ever pressing need to do so, how to take this action forward is a challenge in its own right. As Professor Patricia Roberts of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, explained, change is about the how not just the what. Coming to a consensus on how to bring about change will be just as important as agreements on what it is that needs to be done.

The how, however, will require significant behavioural change. Changes to habits and practices are as important at an individual level as they are at a business level. Luke Ravenscroft, Director at The Behavioural Insights Team, explained that this needs to be seen in a framework by which “as soon as good becomes good business sense, then everyone will follow as well”. To make behavioural changes stick, closing the gap between intention and action requires support and encouragement from outside forces. Businesses and governments have a critical role to play in driving necessary changes and providing the resources to enable their global fellows to play their parts too.

From a business perspective, this means fully understanding the impact that activities have on the UN sustainable development goals (SDG). Developing an increased understanding of a business’s dependency, control and positive and negative impacts on the 17 SDGs will facilitate progression towards more sustainable practices, as described by Ian Thomson, Professor of Accounting and Sustainability at Birmingham Business School.

Through the presentations, panel discussions, film and poetry presented at “RSK live from COP26”, it is clear there is a way forward. Progress can be made towards achieving net zero emissions and a sustainable future. The know-how and ambition are there and the sharing of this knowledge will only accelerate our drive towards change.

We at RSK know that there is much to do to build a climate-secure and sustainable future, so we are working on our contributions to what has to be a global effort.

You can watch the entire livestream here.

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