skip to content

Corporate Leaders Groups

Business leadership for a climate neutral economy

18 December 2020 - Peter Simpson, Chief Executive of Anglian Water and co-chair of The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group, reflects on why the business community has its own responsibility to act, and must give the government confidence to provide bold action towards a climate resilient economy.

Five years on from the Paris agreement, and with less than a year to go until global leaders come together at COP26, we stand at a pivotal moment in our battle for sustainability in the face of climate change.

In the five years since that landmark agreement, the need to take urgent, decisive action to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change has become ever clearer. We’ve experienced extreme weather patterns across the globe to devastating effect, with records broken almost faster than we can keep up with them. Whether hotter, drier or wetter, the impact is stark, with floods and droughts impacting many millions of lives across the planet.

Where my business operates, in the East of England, we feel it acutely. Our region is one of the driest areas of the UK, and simultaneously particularly prone to flooding, with more than a quarter of the land lying below sea level. We’re also contending with rapid population growth – so for all those reasons we have factored climate change impacts into our planning for many years.

But all of us in the business community have a responsibility to act. There is palpable progress being made on the Race to Zero, with targets – and importantly, plans – becoming ever clearer. Here in the UK we now have a Ten Point Plan laid out by government, in parallel with a stretching Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and a level of ambition set out in the recent Sixth Carbon Budget that will see ‘UK plc’ cut emissions by 78% by 2035, on the way to net zero by 2050. There is progress at a sector level, too, with my own industry, water, recently becoming the first in the world to set out a sector-wide routemap to net zero, and by an even more challenging date of 2030.

Yet our response to climate change needs not merely to mitigate its impact but to adapt to it, remodelling our operations and our infrastructure to strengthen the resilience of our communities and the environment in the face of climate change.

That need for adaptation formed the focus for the recent webinar I chaired as part of a series run by The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) on transforming infrastructure investments to deliver a resilient, net zero world. The webinar also formed part of the UN CCC’s Race to Zero dialogues, and we were privileged to have a contribution from the UK’s High Level Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping. He highlighted resilience as the ‘poor relation’ in climate change preparedness and gave a very compelling call for a Race to Resilience to run in parallel with the Race to Zero and elevate the issue of adaptation.

Both Nigel and his fellow speaker Emma Howard Boyd, the UK Commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation and Chair of the Environment Agency, highlighted the risks of doing nothing, drawing out the projection that the 3.6 billion people who currently lack sufficient water (already an appalling number) will rise to a staggering 5 billion by 2050 if the right actions are not taken, and taken now.

And taking action now doesn’t simply play a vital part in protecting lives and livelihoods – it makes sound business sense. As Emma pointed out, climate change adaptation investments deliver high returns: every £1 used to improve protection from flooding and coastal erosion avoids around £5 in property damages. Early warning systems save lives and assets worth 10 times their cost.

Elena Visnar Malinovska, Head of the EU Commission’s Adaptation Unit, echoed the call for climate-proof infrastructure, and emphasised that public/private collaboration will be vital to its delivery.

Rowan Douglas, Head of the Climate and Resilience Hub at Willis Towers Watson, picked up the baton, highlighting how mandatory reporting against the Task-Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures framework will drive progress on evaluating and responding to climate risks and drawing out the role of finance as the steward of our transition to a resilient, low carbon economy.

And many businesses – among them the members of the CLG, from a whole range of sectors – are already well on the way, cutting carbon and driving resilience in their own operations but also supporting and enabling state-led action.

In our webinar we explored the transformational power businesses from across sectors can have by coming together with government and NGOs to find holistic solutions to regional challenges by taking a place-based approach. Dr Robin Price, Managing Director of the cross-sector water management organisation Water Resources East, and I shared an example of just such an approach being taken in the Fens in the East of England.  By taking a cross-sector, multi-agency approach to water management in an area held back by significant flood risk, we plan to unlock opportunities for businesses and communities, by introducing flood barriers in parallel with open water transfers and reservoir to serve multiple sectors. The potential benefits are huge, not least in terms of boosting agricultural production in this area – the breadbasket of the UK – but also unlocking housing growth, job creation, growth in biodiversity and increased tourism.

We got a different perspective from Chilean water company Aguas Andinas, whose Director of Operations and Circular Economy, Daniel Tugues spoke compellingly about how the impacts of climate change are being felt there, highlighting how profound changes in rain pattern have affected the ability of the Andes to be used as a reservoir.

Our webinar closed with a rallying call from Lord Goldsmith (speaking in his role as minister at both Defra and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), to make sustainability and resilience the lens through which we map out every decision in our recoveries from Covid and beyond.

Through the work of the CLG in the UK, we hope to demonstrate that leading businesses are wholly committed to this agenda, acting not simply to fix our own houses but working with others to help shape the way forward for whole communities. In short, we seek to give the government confidence that not only do we support bold action – we’re already delivering it.

For businesses, for governments and, crucially, for people and the planet, the Race to Zero and the Race to Resilience are too important to lose.

Explore the Corporate Leaders Groups' Green recovery knowledge hub

Find out how the UK can build back a strong net zero economy.

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; his previous roles include Managing Director of Anglian Water from January 2010 and Chief Operating Officer from 2004. He is a founding member, and now co-chair, of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group in the UK, run by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which provides a strong voice to support UK leadership nationally and internationally on the transition to a climate neutral, resource efficient, socially inclusive economy by 2050. He works with Business in the Community as Chair of the Climate Adaptation Taskforce and Regional Chair of BITC’s East of England Leadership Team. He also sits on the Board of Trustees of WaterAid. Peter is a Chartered Water and Environmental Manager, a Chartered Scientist and a 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.


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.

Connect with us