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Blog: Hot air won’t power our green recovery – the time for action is now

last modified Jul 24, 2020 10:57 AM
16 July 2020 - Peter Simpson, Chief Executive of Anglian Water and co-chair of The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group, makes the case for business to step up and build a green recovery by acting on ambition.

If it’s true that “to govern is to choose”, can it also be said that “to lead is to act”?

This is the thought that has been exercising my mind recently as I read, listen and watch with increasing frequency the many and various calls to Build Back Better, to drive a Green Recovery, to create resilience where there once was none, and to plan for a more socially and environmentally prosperous future.

And I confess, my own hands are not clean! I have many times recently expressed a desire for our recovery from the global pandemic to act as a springboard for a better future. These have been sincere and heartfelt requests, as my industry – the water sector – is very near the front of the queue when it comes to feeling the impacts of a changing climate.

But with the platform that is afforded to a leader also comes the responsibility to act, as well as to hypothesise about what we might do. I am feeling this particularly acutely at present, for three reasons.

Firstly, because we need to show that amongst all the rhetoric there is good evidence that action will follow. This is particularly true in the run-up to COP26, itself postponed a year. We must now use that year to show what we can do when the pressure is on and the door is ajar – not just highlight problems we expect others to solve when the spotlight is on in November next year.

"If we can align the interests of policy and private investment, underpinned by Government support and facilitated by engaged regulatory frameworks, a great deal can be achieved in a short time."

Events such as the (very well attended) Council for Sustainable Business leaders event held recently – addressed by HRH The Prince of Wales, as well as multiple senior government figures – are really putting the Race to Zero on the agenda. I was struck by the shared ambition around the virtual table. If we can align the interests of policy and private investment, underpinned by Government support and facilitated by engaged regulatory frameworks, a great deal can be achieved in a short time. If the will is there – and I feel it is – action must follow.

The second reason we must focus on action over words is perhaps more selfish. Along with other Corporate Leaders Group network partners, I will (later this year) be supporting a series of dialogues between companies that similarly aspire to address the climate challenge. We must at all costs ensure these dialogues aren’t the proverbial coming together of the preacher and the choir.

The best way to achieve this, in my experience, is to underpin such conversations with evidence, action, case studies and proof that principled thoughts can become high-value deeds. Each conversation and each case study will be a stepping-stone on our journey to COP26, building credibility as we go, while cementing the reputation of the CLG as a guiding light in the green recovery.

My third and final reason for pushing action over words is because I’ve seen first-hand the impact it has had within my own company. Our customers have been clear with us that they expect us to act, and when that desire is placed alongside the needs of the environment for rapid progress, action becomes an obligation rather than a choice. This should not be seen as a burden, however – more an opportunity. Contrary to much popular opinion, low carbon can be low cost. Investing now is categorically cheaper than kicking the can down the road. And when the result is that you are tackling one of the biggest challenges on any company’s risk register, why would you not step up?

Action has also unlocked tremendous opportunity for innovation and collaboration. And once you start, progress snowballs. In the case of Anglian Water, we’re making continued reductions in capital and operational carbon; the industry, seeing what is possible, has collectively backed a pledge to hit net zero by 2030; and the value unlocked by our early progress encouraged our Board to amend our Articles of Association, the very fabric of our organisation, to enshrine a commitment to purpose such that this progress can never be reversed. It is thanks to action – not words – that we are on a one-way journey to a better future.

" It’s the steps we can take that will give confidence to Governments to act. Much like words, targets alone won’t deliver. But by making reference to what we already know is possible, targets can be both ambitious and achievable."

Finally, you may ask why I believe businesses and private capital should shoulder so much of the responsibility for action when it comes to the Race to Zero. Should we not follow the lead of policymakers and Governments? I don’t believe so for the simple reason that our rapid action can be contagious. It’s the steps we can take that will give confidence to Governments to act. Much like words, targets alone won’t deliver. But by making reference to what we already know is possible, targets can be both ambitious and achievable.

I have therefore concluded that it is true – to lead is to act. To stretch the metaphor, the script for the Race to Zero is being hastily redrafted, and it’s time for the cast to take to the stage. We may not have time for a rehearsal, but we do have an ever-growing library of good examples to emulate. As leaders, this is our time to get into the limelight; to deliver our lines; and put on a performance that brings the house down.


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About the author

Peter Simpson lb

Peter Simpson is co-chair of the Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group. He has been Chief Executive of Anglian Water Group since October 2013, and was previously MD of Anglian Water from January 2010, and Chief Operating Officer from 2004. He was Chairman of Water UK from April 2012-October 2013, and is a Past President of the Institute of Water. Peter also works with Business in the Community as Chair of the Water Taskforce, and has recently joined the Board of Trustees of WaterAid. Peter is a Chartered Water and Environmental Manager, a Chartered Scientist and Chartered Environmentalist. In 2016 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Society of the Environment and an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, as well as Companion of the Chartered Management Institute. He holds an MBA from Warwick Business School.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership or the wider University of Cambridge.