BY TILDA TEALE
"We can’t afford for the climate agenda to become a political football," said Rhian-Marie Thomas OBE, chief executive officer at Green Finance Institute, speaking at the recent Blue Earth Summit. "This is a clean energy arms race and the UK is lagging behind."
Thomas was one of an eclectic group of sustainable business entrepreneurs, climate lawyers, green finance leaders and politicians who had gathered to discuss climate intervention and the UK’s net zero future at Propyard, Bristol for the eagerly anticipated Blue Earth Summit this October. The event, targeted at ‘purpose-led’ businesses, attracted more than 5,000 participants over a three-day programme of talks, workshops and panel discussions.
Many of the panels and speakers expressed frustration, even anger, at the waning momentum of the UK's climate policies after Rishi Sunaks’s net zero speech in late September. All were united in their message that the UK government is failing the general public and the corporate climate agenda.
This article covers themes from four standout summit sessions:
- ‘Keeping net zero alive,’ with Chris Skidmore MP and Kerry McCarthy MP;
- ‘Financing the UK’s green transition’ with Bevis Watts, CEO of Triodos Bank, Rhian-Marie Thomas OBE, CEO of Green Finance Institute, Kate Rogers, global head of sustainability at Cazenove Capital and Rob Doepel, UK&I managing partner for sustainability at EY;
- ‘Is regenerative business possible?’ with Andres Roberts, co-founder of Bio-Leadership Project, Juliet Davenport, founder of Good Energy and Kresse Wesling CBE, founder of Elvis and Kresse; and
- ‘What will the new business paradigm look like?’ with Fran Woodward, COO at Good Energy, Jayn Sterland, managing director at Weleda, Oswald Anonadaga, founder of FloodGates Limited, and Safia Minney MBE, founder of Fashion Declares.
Keeping net zero alive with policy interventions
While their politics may differ, Labour's Kerry McCarthy, MP, and Conservative net-zero champion Chris Skidmore, MP, were unanimous in their criticism of the current government’s backtracking on climate policies.
"Net zero is the economic opportunity of this decade, if not this generation. If we create a stable economic environment where we don’t divert, there is a lot of private sector money ready to be invested," Skidmore said.
Comparing the UK’s progress with the US, McCarthy was keen to promote Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan. "We are looking very closely at what Joe Biden has done with the IRA," she revealed, "particularly where he is using subsidies to help areas of high unemployment and energy intensive industries move into green jobs".
McCarthy called for Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt to respond to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, citing it as a great example of impactful government intervention in the US economy. The reform has attracted $270bn in private investment so far. "UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF) have got trillions ready to be spent — as long as they can have the confidence that the government will be behind it," she added.
On the investment side, Bevis Watts, CEO of sustainable banking pioneer Triodos Bank, spoke about the lack of progress in decarbonising the finance sector.
"We are in a very nascent phase … the ugly truth is we are so slow in addressing this in this sector," he admitted. "We started talking about regulating banks for climate risk years ago". Watts acknowledged that large banks inevitably find net zero targets daunting, given the billions of dollars tied up in high ghg emissions-related investments. "The highest burden of proof lies on the greenest institutions, yet there’s very little burden of proof [required of banks] that you are doing no harm and [avoiding] financing polluting business. We need to be a lot stronger on that", he added.
"Currently green finance is not a regulated space, there is not a standard definition, and it’s leading to a huge amount of greenwashing and a fear of mucking up, which is stifling innovation," said Rhian-Marie Thomas, who co-chaired the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) working group.
One of Thomas’s priorities has been advocating for a UK green taxonomy, so as to provide standardised classifications for economic activities, to signifiy those that are genuinely green and aligned with the climate agenda. Progress has been made: a taxonomy is now included in the UK’s ‘Mobilising green investment’ strategy, to create clarity and consistency for green and sustainable investment. However delays in the consultation process for the strategy have caused dismay and frustration, Thomas admitted.
A regenerative future
Honesty and humility can lead to collaboration and action, according to Andres Roberts of the Bio-Leadership project. "The vulnerability of ‘we are not there yet but we are doing our best’ is the seed to a regenerative culture," he proclaimed. The Bio-Leadership project supports businesses working towards a regenerative model focused on protecting human and natural capital.
"We believe companies should expand the frame of responsibility out of the boardroom," he said. "When a company is governed by investors who want to maximise profits, sustainability will be impossible."
Roberts advocated for a regenerative shift towards low carbon industries, to achieve net zero and provide secure jobs for the future. He also touched on the instability of the Western world's economic model of growth maximisation. The Bio-Leadership project promotes an ‘optimisation’ model accompanied by honesty and transparency. Robert used Patagonia as an example; they admit to not being a sustainable business but are doing everything they can to get there, he said.
This model should also be applied to supply chains, said Jayne Sterland, Weleda’s UK & Ireland manager. Weleda is a natural skin care brand founded by Dr Rudolf Steiner. "We can’t have a winner or a loser in a supply chain; both want to continue doing business with the other. [In the] long term, regeneration means fair and equitable partnerships," said Sterland. Weleda is a member of the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), meaning it has signed up to tracing its raw materials to their source and ensuring they are grown under strict social, economic and ecological criteria.
"Whenever they say it’s really difficult, we couldn’t possibly be regenerative, I just explain that with no budget and no real experience and no professional marketing team we can do precisely that — so what’s your excuse?" said Kresse Wesling MBE, provocatively. Wesling is co-founder of Elvis & Kresse, a retail brand that reclaims waste materials into high-end clothing. They started by collecting London’s decommissioned firehoses, and donate 50% of profits to charity.