Behind the headlines: UK swims against the green tide

Now the climate change deal has been signed in Paris new regulations are a long way down the Conservatives’ agenda.

By the time you read this there may already be a global deal on climate change in place. The COP21 talks end on December 11th, and the odds that an agreement will be struck are pretty decent.

Copenhagen five years ago may have been a disaster, but this time around there is an air of positivity for the Paris talks – despite the terrorist attacks in the city in November. Some observers, including the US president, suggest the attacks could galvanise greater solidarity and urgency.

Much has been done to pave the way for a legally binding agreement that will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, as well as the investment required to ensure developing countries can adapt to the changes that have already been set in motion during decades of fossil fuel addiction.

Countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) showing how far and deep their own cuts will be. It’s no secret that these are nowhere near enough to keep temperatures within that 2°C tipping point, but this is no reason to be defeatist.

The critics and alarmists miss the point, wrote David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, in a recent issue of New Scientist. “The Paris pledges already put the world on track for a lot less warming than some feared a few years ago. And governments in richer countries are on track to honour a commitment to free up, by 2020, about $100 billion per year to help the poorest countries.”

He went on: “Deep greens will call Paris a failure. But it could do more to establish practical mechanisms for co-operation than any other deal since the early 1990s. It would, of course, have been better for this to have happened long ago. But better late than never.”

The INDCs will keep rises to about 2.7°C rather than four or five if business continued as usual. Even the hardened sceptics of the past think that kind of deal would be a monumental achievement. Talking to the Independent in November, Jonathon Porritt noted that the shift in political will was already ebbing across into the psyche of the investment community.

“Investors carried on putting shedloads of money into fossil fuels because they did not believe that governments would really act to deal with climate change” through strict curbs on fossil fuel use, he said.

“That pretext for inaction has simply disappeared – it is a complete line in the sand. Now no investor can honestly say ‘we clocked theoretically that climate change was on the horizon, but we never thought politicians would do anything about it’. That’s of huge importance to investment flows over the next 10 years.”

With this in mind, it’s also positive to see corporate leaders more vocal (perhaps, even, than politicians) in the run-up to COP21, with a number of commitments agreed by various coalitions. This industry leadership is critical given the current political climate in the UK.

As the world signs up to take charge of climate change, the Conservative government appears willing to pull the plug on renewable energy. The spending review has hit DECC and DEFRA hard and, given their recent pronouncements, neither Amber Rudd nor Elizabeth Truss – the respective heads of each department – have placed much emphasis on the carbon agenda. The chancellor even less so.

Since the elections the energy policy choices made in Whitehall are likely to increase emissions in the UK, according to an analysis by the BBC. The broadcaster’s assessment is far from conclusive, said Adrian Gault, the chief economist for independent government advisory body the Committee on Climate Change, but the impact in terms of carbon dioxide is hard to quantify precisely. “Probably the bigger impact will come from the large amount of policy uncertainty which will lead to reduction in low-carbon development. Industry is very, very unhappy about the uncertainty that’s been created.”

Large numbers of businesses – especially small and medium enterprises – are now wondering whether renewables are the no-brainer they were before the election. A new subsidy regime is expected in the new year but proposals suggest massive cuts for technologies such as solar, which the Conservatives believe is big enough to stand on its own two feet.

But if the sums don’t add up then there is plenty more to do in terms of energy efficiency. Catering companies still waste vast amounts in kitchens, for example, and if manufacturers can provide accurate data on returns on investment for “greener” warewashers and the like then carbon reduction becomes an aside to bettering the business’s bottom line.

Of course, the emissions inside a company’s four walls are only part of the problem. Sitting through a number of sessions on “sustainable food systems” at Food Matters Live recently it was clear that many companies are still struggling to account for their impact up and down the supply chain – the emissions created by the food they sell, for instance.

Accounting for this is fiercely complicated at a global level – COP21’s deal has focused on product-based reporting rather than consumption-based metrics – or even a national level. But it’s becoming a reality at company level.

Sodexo, for example, is developing a tool with the help of WWF to determine the carbon and water savings from its new “Green & Lean” menus. There is no political pressure for it to pilot the scheme, in which meat has been shaved off a number of the most popular school meals, but there are social, environmental and perhaps commercial benefits in doing so. This is business taking responsibility despite, not because of, regulation.

Whatever the outcome of COP21 there is unlikely to be a huge shift in regulation at UK level to curb carbon emissions. Defined rules will always make a game easier, but the ball – as the government undoubtedly desires – is in the court of business. Game on.

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