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Business leadership for a climate neutral economy
UK Business Climate Leaders' Summit cover card

16 July 2021 - On the 1st July 2021, in its role as chair of the UK Business Group Alliance for Net Zero (BGA), the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) hosted a UK Business Climate Leaders Summit. With only a few months until the major COP26 climate summit, speakers and panellists showcased and discussed concrete action that UK businesses can take to help the UK achieve targets by committing to Race to Zero.

Chairing the Summit, Clare Shine, CEO of CISL, welcomed speakers and participants and introduced the discussion by highlighting that UK business is leading the way in the Race to Zero; nearly 1,200 UK businesses have now signed up to the UN sponsored campaign. She added, however, that despite significant progress, “it is far from enough.” She went on: “we're seeing that net zero is becoming a household term, but that can raise its own problems. We can see complacency, a lack of coherence, a lack of sustained follow-through.” Clare alluded to the recent 50-degree temperatures in Canada as a reminder of tipping points and stressed the need for urgent action. “For the UK to lead and to make good on these pledges, we need more UK businesses to make these commitments, and for the whole of the economy to shift.”

Andrew Griffith MP, the UK’s Net Zero Business Champion, was introduced by Clare as the first speaker. He commented that the G7 commitments to net zero by no later than 2050 were welcome but “preferably should be earlier.” When it comes to business “the actions of every single business are going to be central to our successful transition,” he said, adding, “if we get it right, we will open up large and attractive sectors of the world economy of which British businesses will be able to take significant market share.” He urged businesses to join the Race to Zero and commit “to a credible short term action plan that sees you halve your emissions by 2030.” It was good news that over 45 of the 100 leading UK businesses in the FTSE100 have joined, he said, and there is “lots of innovative and exciting things that business is doing to help mobilise employees, customers and shareholders.”

The second keynote speaker Dr Enass Abo-Hamed, CEO of H2GO Power and One Young World Ambassador, followed on by saying it was critical to include the younger generation in conversation and decision making because “innovators, especially when they're young do really well”, and that the young are more motivated to help, “for obvious reasons.” She spoke about good work in the energy sector, citing her own experience in hydrogen fuel and energy storage.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE, Director of Cambridge Zero, was next to speak and highlighted the polar regions. She said they are "like sleeping giants, if you unleash the changes that occur there, then it's effectively impossible to reverse them, and we will be on course for that sort of scale of change that will revert to the sort of climates that we last saw at the time of the dinosaurs.” She also spoke about interconnected risks, species extinction, inequalities in wealth that all need to be examined at the same time as net zero. “We need to behave like this is the existential threat that it is. The next ten years will be critical. But at the same time, this does present the investment opportunity of the 21st century.”

Next, the Summit heard from Emma Howard Boyd CBE, Chair of the Environment Agency, and the UK Commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation, who began by emphasising that net zero is not enough. “Alongside the race to zero, we have a race to resilience becoming nature positive.” Despite economic output being highly dependent on nature, “we don't measure this risk and can't properly manage it. So, the market pretty much ignores it.” She mentioned efforts to reverse this problem, such as the ‘Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment’, and urged businesses to join the ‘Get Nature Positive’ campaign led by the Council for Sustainable Business.

The first panel of the Summit, chaired by Eliot Whittington, Director, UK Corporate Leaders Group, then discussed the topic: “Exploring Sectoral Challenges and highlighting Sector Campaigns”. Eliot Whittington began the conversation by acknowledging that “different progress is being made in different sectors” and the need to advance and accelerate particular sectors. Panellist Emma Pinchbeck, Chief Executive, Energy UK, agreed, stating that “the whole energy sector is reorienting itself around the idea that variable renewables are the future.” Emma gave examples of change and said, “The future challenges will be in heat and building strategies and having high-level targets. We've probably only got ten to twelve years to get that done”, she said.

Panellist Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive of the UK Green Building Council, acknowledged significant climate pollution from current construction, construction materials, new builds, retrofit in homes and commercial buildings – and that all these areas need to work towards net zero goals. “The biggest part of the challenge from a UK context is we just don't have the policy framework to drive that down in meaningful ways,” she said, adding, “most of our planning requirements don't make reference to embodied carbon… So, we're really behind.” Julie Hirigoyen was hopeful, however, as the sector is “really trying to arrive at a common consensus on what does net zero carbon mean for buildings for new construction.” Last to speak on the panel was Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group. She was optimistic that most of the technology we need already exists but talked about the current supply challenges in the electric corporate fleet sector as there aren’t enough vehicles. Helen Clarkson said solving the challenges is partly about communication. That, as well as signing up to net zero, getting the internal messaging aligned in business is crucial as “we still see businesses where the sustainability people want one policy but the lobbying people inside” want something else.

Next, the audience heard from another keynote, Alberto Carrillo Pineda, Co-Founder and Steering Committee Member of the Science Based Targets, CDP. He drew attention to how companies can join the race to zero immediately by signing a commitment letter, then get targets in place. “We still see some gaps, especially with some of the largest emitters,” he said, but there is significant momentum and “we want to see more and more companies joining this movement.”

Andrew Griffith then shared with the Summit audience an earlier conversation he had with Ken Murphy, the CEO of Tesco, where Ken Murphy talked about Tesco’s commitment to be net zero amongst their own operations by 2035. “We're very conscious that food production is a big contributor to climate change and therefore feel a huge responsibility,” he said. He spoke about Tesco targeting energy, food production, diets, and how it is working with supply chain growers, farmers, and producers to minimise food waste, as well as with customers on reducing home waste. That Tesco is also electrifying all fleet vehicles by 2020. One challenge Ken Murphy highlighted was the impact on deforestation, where he admitted, “We're going to need support from governments on regulation." When asked for his business advice, he said to “galvanise your organisation, no matter how small or big you are…Get them behind the agenda, and they'll find solutions for you.”

The Summit agenda turned to the second panel of the day, chaired by Andrew Griffith, on: “Exploring what role can big UK businesses play in the transition to a net zero economy in the UK.” Speaking first on the panel, when asked about targets and actions, Rachael Everard, Head of Sustainability, Rolls-Royce plc, emphasised that technology leads their own transition to net zero, which starts with the emissions within operations within their direct control and extends into partnerships. Climate is core to all stakeholder conversations as well, she explained, and Rolls Royce is hosting sustainability conversations with high performing suppliers to move the conversation forward and to give them “the opportunity to talk to each other, and learn from what they're doing in their own operations and geographies.” When providing advice to businesses thinking about doing more, Rachel said, "dive in, take action. Start small if you need to, and the big will follow.”

Panellist Wouter van Tol, Head of Government, Community Affairs and Sustainability, DS Smith, a FTSE100 company, explained how DS Smith works with customers on circular design principles. He also spoke about the ability to transfer knowledge within supply chains to get to net zero faster. And shared that DS Smith has found that “protecting nature also energises employees…There's a real buzz among employees around biodiversity, and their enthusiasm for embracing biodiversity on-site is really important." Ben Wielgus, Head of Sustainability, Informa plc, a specialist media business and FTSE100 company, shared Informa's experience of having a net zero goal by 2030. He said it encourages partnerships and “more productivity and engagement because they're working on projects which allow them to feel like they're doing something meaningful.” He made a final point that when it comes to working with supply chains, it is also critical to protect nature.

The Summit audience next heard from the third and final panel of the day, chaired by Amanda Mackenzie OBE, Chief Executive, Business in the Community, with the theme: “How large businesses can act as accelerators in the Race to Zero by working with their supply chain.” The first panellist addressing the supply chain challenge was Gabrielle Giner, Head of Environmental Sustainability, BT Group. She explained BT has been setting carbon reduction targets since 1992 and reduced carbon emissions by 80% by 2016. However, supply chains make up two-thirds of BT’s emissions, so BT came together with the ‘1.5 Supply Chain Leaders’. “Through collective action, businesses can make progress faster and scale and inspire others to come on board,” she said. When asked about the role of leadership in making net zero happen, Gabrielle Giner spoke about BT’s sustainability contract clauses. “Suppliers are asked about their net zero targets and whether they’re buying 100% renewable energy, and also whether they’re engaging their own suppliers,” and this is working. “It’s about pointing people in the right direction” and speaking to them about it.  

Andreas Ahrens, Head of Climate, Inter IKEA Group, spoke next from the panel and said, like BT, two-thirds of IKEA’s critical climate footprint comes from their supply chain. He emphasised, “just because it's part of our suppliers, it doesn't mean that we're outsourcing our responsibility. Everything connected by business is our responsibility, and we need to take action on it. So, we've set the science-based targets to reduce our footprint from our direct suppliers by 80% by 2030.” He stressed that collaboration is crucial to share experiences and provide tools that medium and small enterprises need, adding, “Something that's really the key, especially if you're big, is that you also need to be more kind.” When asked to elaborate about providing leadership to suppliers, he stressed the importance of speaking with long-term partnerships and clarifying and using a roadmap.

Another panellist, Christopher Nieper OBE, Managing Director, David Nieper, spoke from the perspective of a fashion industry SME, admitting the industry is a heavy polluter. He explained his company reduced energy consumption and consequently saved money and wanted to share to other SMEs that the Race to Zero isn’t about additional costs. Bringing the supply chain in-house is another way of taking action, he said and emphasised the importance of setting an example in your own sector. “We would like to introduce a fashion labelling scheme… so that any customer buying something can decide to choose planet-friendly garments.” Andy Gomarsall MBE, Executive Chairman, N2S, then spoke about how the race to zero can galvanise an SME. In the sector of recycling technology, it is about the circular economy. “The challenge is to embed this thinking in the boardrooms of SMEs”, as well as at an employee level. When asked what advice he would give, he said, “Just be inquisitive about your sectors and understand the climate change challenge that we have.”

The final keynote speaker, Gonzalo Muñoz, High-Level Climate Action Champion, UN Climate Change Conference COP25, said companies wanting to make change should be reassured that the complex challenge of having to reduce emissions by 2030 can be broken down into small steps. “We must all race as fast as we can”, he said, and action will snowball. He added that business must also be “demanding policy changes and encouraging and facilitating lifestyle changes.”

In her closing remarks, Clare Shine reiterated some of the resonating themes from the Summit discussion. That business must not focus on net zero in isolation, but also see nature as integral, that government has a part to play, and that we will only achieve net zero, “if we demonstrate both the benefit to, and the buy-in from, people who are the source of the solutions.”

Watch the recording of the UK Business Climate Leaders' Summit.

The coordination of the BGA is led by the CLG UK, hosted by CISL, and guided by a core group of members that includes the Aldersgate Group, Business in the Community, the CBI, CDP, the IIGCC, the UK Business Council for Sustainable Development and the UK Green Building Council.

If you are a business group interested in the joining the BGA, please contact