Climate change: Adopting the right position

4th June 2014


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Felicity Crawford

With IEMA reviewing its statement on climate change, Paul Suff hears the views of leading practitioners

In 2012, IEMA published its climate change position statement. It set out the policy directions IEMA would support and work to address through engagement with members, the government and other organisations. It also aims to help to build urgency across society for tackling global warming. IEMA is now reviewing this framework to ensure the Institute continues to promote effective action, best practice and thought leadership on climate change.

As part of the review process, the environmentalist hosted a roundtable to discuss and debate the key emerging themes and policy directions identified by IEMA members in recent workshops. The discussion focused on five areas:

  • striking the right balance between adaptation and mitigation;
  • communicating climate change risks;
  • dealing with embodied carbon;
  • updating the greenhouse-gas (GHG) management hierarchy (see p.18); and
  • providing climate change leadership.

Two sides of the same coin?

Nick Blyth, policy and practice lead on climate change at IEMA, sets the context for the first part of the discussion, asking panellists whether the balance between mitigation and adaptation in the existing climate change position statement (CCPS) is the right one. “Should IEMA push mitigation over adaptation or are they two sides of the same coin?” Blyth asks, adding that a number of participants in the workshops had voiced concerns over the lack of prominence given to adaptation.

Anne-Marie Warris, a sustainability consultant and chair of both the UK emissions trading group and the ISO committee on environmental management systems, has some sympathy with that view. “We aren’t doing enough on adaptation,” she argues. “We’ve been busy talking about mitigation, but we haven’t been talking about how we are going to cope now that global carbon dioxide levels are around the dangerously high level of 400 parts per million.”
Nonetheless, Warris believes that adaptation and mitigation are two sides of the same coin, and that neither approach should have priority. Anna-Lisa Mills, head of sustainability at the Marishal Thompson Group, however, believes that, although there is a need for both, mitigation should take precedence. “IEMA should focus on mitigation. We’re already on track for a 4ºC rise in global temperature by the end of the century. If we change the focus to adaptation, that might mean a 5ºC or 6ºC rise.”

The Environment Agency’s Kay Johnstone points out that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make it clear that neither mitigation nor adaptation are sufficient on their own. Johnstone, who works in the agency’s climate ready team, agrees that the two-sides-of-the-same-coin metaphor applies in policy terms, but not necessarily for businesses, because an adaptation strategy differs from a mitigation strategy. Warris agrees, describing adaptation as a process of making decisions in the face of uncertainty, whereas mitigation is focused on wanting to reduce emissions.

Jae Mather, co-founder of the Carbon Free Group and non-executive director at Newform Energy, believes that more needs to be done to highlight the costs of combating climate change effectively, which he argues is absent from decision-making processes in both the business community and government. He blames this on the short-termism that dominates business and policy thinking. “Climate change involves taking a long-term view and none of our business and political leaders can do that because their futures are based on now,” he explains.

Mather, a member of the all party parliamentary climate change group (APPCCG), recounts how no cabinet or department ministers were present at a recent APPCCG presentation by the IPCC on the findings of its fifth assessment. “They weren’t even in the room,” he exclaims. “The reality is that climate change is not a decision-making factor for them.” Jonathan Foot, chief environmental strategy and compliance officer at EDF Energy, believes the level of engagement depends on the sector. He explains that EDF Energy takes a long-term perspective because its assets typically last for 30-plus years. “We look beyond one- and five-year timeframes, and plan for adaptation,” he says.

Warris focuses on how the built environment will withstand the impacts of a changing climate. “How will our cities and infrastructure survive? If a rise in sea level floods our ports how will we import the goods we need to survive, given that 92% of all goods sold in the UK come by sea?” she asks.

Kirit Patel, environment manager for DHL Supply Chain in Europe, reports that Deutsche Post DHL has studied how a changing climate will have an impact on its business up to 2050 as part of its “delivering tomorrow” series. One of the five scenarios highlighted by the research was the rise of “megacities”, which he describes as being super in size and largely self-sufficient. “In such a scenario, logistics companies like DHL would need to adapt to that reality and develop transport systems that connect these cities,” he says.

Companies operating key infrastructure, such as energy firms and Network Rail, were required in 2011 to submit climate change adaptation reports to Defra under the Climate Change Act 2008. Several panellists believe these reports could be useful for companies not covered by a similar statutory duty, helping them to see how climate change relates to their operations and assets.

The environment department, however, is not using them for such purposes. This, says Mather, is because both Defra and Decc have little influence in government. “Both departments have weak leadership and their sway over policy has plummeted as the government’s interest in the environment has waned,” he argues.

Phil Cumming, group sustainability manager at Kingfisher, offers a word of caution, arguing that some adaptation measures will drive up carbon emissions. “Air conditioning will be key to the ability of people in some regions to adapt to climate change, but it’s hugely energy intensive.” Consultant Ben Vivian agrees that adapting effectively to climate change raises a number of contradictions, like the greater use of cooling equipment as temperatures rise. “It is going to be very difficult to articulate simply and effectively all the complexities of adaptation in the position statement,” he warns.

The art of seduction

There is consensus across the panel about the need for IEMA to ensure it strikes the “right balance” in the position statement between mitigation and adaptation. Blyth reflects that this requires avoiding the “trap” of an adaptation trade off and instead using both agendas to build understanding of climate change This leads the conversation to focus on the langauage that surrounds climate change. Blyth asks whether messages should instead accentuate some of the opportunities that do exist for positive action.

“It’s worth noting that climate change brings with it business opportunities,” says Sara Fry, senior environment, health and safety manager at engineering company Edwards. “My firm makes a range of abatement products that are in demand from several industries, such as manufacturers of semi-conductors.”

Nonetheless, there is concern that these positive messages around climate change are failing to reach their audiences. Mather outlines two approaches to communication: “persuasion” and “seduction”. He explains that although communication designed to persuade tends to be based on evidence and logic, messages of seduction appeal to people’s emotions. “Too often the climate change message has focused on the scientific evidence and it hasn’t worked. Now there are 20 reports, but people believe less than they did when there were 10,” he says.

Jamal Gore, co-founder of carbon management company Carbon Clear and managing director at Confluence Sustainability, argues that organisations tend to be more “logical” than individuals. He says this is important when framing communications. “I think organisations can be persuaded on climate change, particularly if the action to address it makes financial sense.” He concedes, however, that if sustainability measures make financial sense they tend to be labelled “sensible business”, leaving sustainability practitioners responsible for the less attractive measures. “The challenge for environment professionals is to ensure initiatives that save money, such as installing energy efficiency lighting, are also acclaimed as helping to address climate change,” says Gore.

“Organisations can be logical,” says Cumming, “but they are also made up of people.” Even in those companies that have bought into the need to address climate change at the chief executive level, he believes that engagement tends to diminish at the next level of management. Foot agrees that climate action can flounder due to inertia in parts of a business. He believes that organisations wanting to improve engagement on sustainability issues need to provide the right incentives to enable all people to understand the need for change and to engage with the new culture.

Cumming too recommends introducing incentives to improve awareness of sustainability issues. “You can do as much engagement as you like, but initiatives are likely to fail if managers are not offered incentives to act,” he says. Cumming advises firms to include tackling climate change in managers’ targets.

Warris has noticed a change in the language around climate change. “The messages are increasingly about energy and energy efficiency,” she says. “It is a language that businesses understand.” Fry agrees, commenting that framing action on climate change around energy efficiency is a more positive message.

Several participants are concerned that action by leading businesses appears to be failing to filter its way through the supply chain. Vivian, for example, has found that many suppliers do not know what their main customers are doing on climate change. He reports that the board members of a company working with a number of well-known high street retailers were unable to name one sustainability initiative adopted by their customers. “The message is not reaching the bottom of the supply chain,” says Vivian. “If that failure is partly down to the language then, as environment practitioners, that is our problem. We need to be clearer about the outcome.”
Mills also believes that the language used by environmentalists must be clear. “We need to talk about the risk of overshooting the 2ºC threshold that scientists believe is the limit to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Some panellists believe that companies might be more inclined to address their climate change impacts if the language shifts away from adaptation to resilience. “It’s a more business-friendly word,” concedes Johnstone at the Environment Agency. But although she believes that is important to use business-friendly language to raise awareness, Johnstone points out that an approach that is based only on building resilience could miss some significant risks or opportunities for cost-effective adaptation.

Taking responsibility

Blyth is keen to seek the opinions of the panel on the issue of carbon embodied in products imported into the UK and the possibility of carbon leakage, as firms consider moving energy-intensive production processes to countries with weaker environmental regulation. He asks whether the Institute should encourage all companies to adopt a lifecycle approach that factors in consumption-based emissions.

Fry believes firms’ attempts to calculate the embodied carbon in products are stymied by the lack of available data. “I find it extremely frustrating that embodied carbon is one of the areas where the necessary information is not in the public domain,” she says. Fry acknowledges that Defra publishes some very good information on GHG emission factors and that the ICE database at the University of Bath also provides freely available information. However, she argues that there remains insufficient data to allow companies to properly measure the embodied carbon in products made in China and Russia, for example. “It would be good if those were factors available,” she says. Mather argues: “I should be able to compare a sustainably sourced piece of wood from Kingfisher with a piece from an Indonesian rainforest.”

This leads to a conversation on how best to generate a database containing the necessary information. Mather points out that the EU attempted to develop such a tool nearly 18 years ago. “The plan was to cost out the environmental impact of every major product in carbon terms, but that plan was vetoed,” he says.

Mather still believes that trading blocs like the EU are best placed to establish the standard methodology for capturing such information. Fry, meanwhile, would like to see the GHG protocol lead on developing a database, but is wary of some of the information on carbon that it supplies. “Some of it is very out of date,” she says.

Gore notes that major corporations are driving the collection of supply chain data via the internal databases of the carbon in products. “Walmart, for example, is asking its suppliers questions about the carbon content of their products. This is the kind of information that all companies need.” He also draws attention to the UK’s introduction of mandatory GHG reporting for quoted companies and the specifications of the scope 3 guidance accompanying the GHG protocol, both of which may help improve existing datasets.

Guaranteeing the reliability of data is a concern among some panel members. “We need to be confident that the data is reliable,” says Foot.

A hierarchy of sorts

The existing IEMA CCPS contains a GHG management hierarchy (see p.18). Avoiding emissions is at the top of the hierarchy followed by reduction measures and then substitution approaches, with compensation at the bottom. Blyth reports that members participating in the workshops generally still value the hierarchy, though some have questioned whether the “compensate” section should still be accompanied by the red warning, arguing that purchasing carbon offsets is increasingly considered legitimate. “In some cases, offsets help to set an internal price for carbon that can incentivise avoidance and reduction measures,” he says. Blyth wants to hear what the panellists think of the hierarchy and how IEMA can help drive activity at the top.

Vivian warns IEMA to be careful about raising expectations that practitioners can deliver the high-end measures in the “avoid” section now. “We can’t. We have to accept that it is going to take time for many businesses to make decisions that eliminate GHG emissions,” he argues. “We should be saying ‘avoid’ measures are the ideal, which companies should strive for, but also support them practically in how they can evolve to scale those heights.”

One way to do that, explains Foot at EDF Energy, is to break down the hierarchy into what can be achieved now and what is feasible later. “As a business, we have set short- [2016/17], medium- [mid 2020s] and long-term [2030] targets. The long-term ones are about avoiding emissions altogether,” he reports. “I think you need to present businesses with a model that can be broken down in this way. It makes complex issues simpler and manageable, provides challenge, and improves transparency in terms of aspiration and performance reporting.”

Cumming reports that Kingfisher has a plan that includes an aspiration to net positive in key areas, including energy, by 2050. He explains that these moves are being driven by resilience and security of supply, which are major areas for Kingfisher.

Gore highlights one area of concern with the existing GHG hierarchy: the structure implies a chronological sequence, suggesting that companies must complete the “compensation” section before moving on to “substitution” and beyond. “The ‘avoid’ actions listed in the hierarchy often have a greater impact, even if they are harder to do. There’s an argument that if they are strategically important companies should do them first,” he says. Gore believes the hierarchy should be restructured so businesses are encouraged to address all of the aspects simultaneously.

Cumming, meanwhile, cautions against moving the purchase of green tariffs from the bottom of the hierarchy, even though a recent consultation from Defra suggests it is a “reduction” measure. “I disagree with that view. Green tariffs are definitely a compensation action, not a legitimate reduction strategy.”

Blyth asks whether carbon offsetting should be viewed in a similar light.

Several participants argue that there are plenty of actions companies can take now to reduce emissions and that offsetting should be used only when it is too expensive or impossible to deliver further carbon reductions. Vivian, however, believes that if companies engage in measures at the bottom of the hierarchy, such as offsetting and green tariffs, this can help to build support for further action to tackle emissions. “It can raise the level of understanding. Even if it is not the ‘correct’ approach, it can encourage firms to do more.”

Mills at the Marishal Thompson Group defends the use of carbon offsetting. She explains that an insurance company she works with has a robust GHG emissions calculation and reduction plan in place, but uses offsets only for emissions it cannot realistically eliminate.

Several panellists would like to see IEMA do more to encourage firms to ensure that the offsetting credits they purchase have the biggest impact. “The most cost-effective carbon abatement measure is the $25 concrete stoves for people in sub-Saharan Africa, which reduce fuel consumption by 80%, but they don’t qualify as UN-certified emission reduction projects,” reports Mather.

Taking the lead

Vision 2020, which was developed by IEMA in 2013 to guide its activities over the next few years, requires the Institute to be more vocal on a range of issues, including climate change. How IEMA and it members provide leadership on climate change was the final topic of conversation among the panel.

Warris says practitioners should provide leadership now and not wait for international climate negotiations to reach a consensus on the way forward or for national governments to develop strategies to tackle GHG emissions effectively: “We need to step away from the assumption that there will be a politically led solution. That’s not going to happen unless we take action first.”

In Mather’s opinion, IEMA would be better placed to provide leadership if it ensures environment practitioners are knowledgeable about climate change. “They need to know the basics, what the global macro trends are, what is being done, and so on,” Mather advises. Several panellists believe IEMA should urgently address this, citing evidence that many in the profession do not possess sufficient knowledge. One, for example, describes a “painful” recent recruitment process for junior environment positions at his firm. “The vast majority of applicants simply did not have the skills set to deal effectively with climate change issues,” he says. “IEMA needs to be a trusted voice on climate change,” says Mills, but she too has concerns about the lack of subject knowledge among some members.

Mather suggests that IEMA develops materials for practitioners that contain core information on climate change. He also advises that the Institute runs courses for senior people in businesses to raise awareness. “Most executives are 25-year-plus veterans who did not have to know about climate change to get to their positions, so they don’t believe it’s important.” Cumming agrees that IEMA should target key influencers in organisations. “There are a lot of people in key positions who, quite frankly, do not have the skills or expertise to deal with environment issues,” he says. “That is becoming more apparent as everyone tries to get on the sustainability bandwagon.”
Meanwhile, Gore suggests that IEMA concentrates its efforts on developing a cohort of practitioners and senior business people to help spread the climate change message. Vivian advises that IEMA establishes an annual barometer to monitor progress on a range of environment issues. “The Institute could use the findings each year to start, and then develop, a conversation.”

Both Fry and Mills want IEMA to develop a clear message on climate change and its impact. “What we need are good examples that practitioners can use in their professional life to really make a difference in their organisations,” says Warris.


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