Members of IEMA’s policy team outline the key issues facing sustainability professionals in 2023 and beyond
What's in store?
A month has already passed since we said goodbye to 2022 and began looking forward to the many challenges and opportunities in store for us in 2023. The landscape for environmental policymaking and implementation in England, and throughout the rest of the UK, is changing significantly as a consequence of the Environment Act. Following the progress that was made last year in developing the long-term environmental targets framework for air quality, biodiversity, water and resource efficiency – published in December – it will be in the months ahead that we start to see implementation and real action.
As this happens, it’s important that sustainability professionals are brought into the process and fully understand the implications of these requirements for their organisations and working practices. It is likely that the targets will affect how business performance relating to the environment is assessed, as well as other areas, including reporting and compliance.
The key to enabling this is for the government to ensure there is a clear governance regime in place to effectively integrate the different environmental requirements that have emerged from the Environment Act, packaging them up to drive positive change for nature and society. This includes the targets framework, the new Whitehall environmental policy principles statement and the role of the Office for Environmental Protection.
Understanding how any new governance regime will work will be key for sustainability professionals, who will also have to contend with a whole range of additional challenges in the months ahead, including an increasingly challenging economic outlook. The policy team at IEMA will once again be working hard to help you navigate the various challenges, providing regular guidance, blogs, papers, webinars and events to support you throughout the year. Here, the team highlight some of the other key issues that sustainability professionals will need to be aware of in 2023.
Inflation and the energy supply crisis
The ongoing war in Ukraine has triggered an energy supply crisis and drastic disruption to global trade in basic foodstuffs. These have combined to create serious inflationary pressures, which central banks will struggle to control without raising the cost of credit to levels that businesses and consumers are unaccustomed to paying. Spending patterns for both these groups tend to rely on cheap money for purchases and investments enabled by debt. As ever, impact will depend on starting points. For those with the deepest pockets, discomfort will be slight, while for businesses and households already on a knife-edge, insolvencies and hardship will surely follow.
Four core challenges emerge for sustainability professionals:
First, how to convince organisations and individuals to save energy if they can afford not to.
Second, how energy-intensive industries can finance investment in new technology for decarbonisation when costs and interest rates are high.
Third, how to generate the vision and momentum to deliver long-term structural change at a time of short-term and immediate pressures. From 1978 to 1988, following global oil crises, inflation and stagnating economies, the Dutch bicycle network grew by 73%, and has doubled since then. Despite intense pressure from the private transportation lobby, commitments to low-carbon travel won out.
Fourth, how to ensure that otherwise sound businesses and the poorest households are supported fairly during challenging times, both within and between national borders. None of this is easy, but then sustainability professionals didn’t pick their sector for an easy ride.
Understanding impacts and dependencies on nature
In the run-up to 2023, we continued to see greater importance given to biodiversity and natural capital – from national legislation to international biodiversity management initiatives. This year, organisations will be asked to do more on biodiversity and natural capital, and to report on it. The challenge for organisations across all sectors and of all sizes will be to understand their impacts and dependencies on nature, as well as the risks therein, and manage them accordingly.
Business relies on nature. Understanding an organisation’s dependencies and any threatened changes across the supply chain can help them understand and manage their risks, plan ahead and make good decisions. Biodiversity and nature can also provide robust solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation.
Government policies coming to fruition, such as biodiversity net gain regulations, environmental land management schemes and the Environment Act targets, will force more organisations to react.
Creating a business case for biodiversity and nature management and getting key stakeholders on board will be essential, as will integrating it into decision-making, policies, processes (including existing climate management processes) and objectives. In terms of measuring and reporting on biodiversity, questions remain around standardisation. Initiatives such as the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures, Science Based Targets for Nature and the Defra biodiversity metric have started to provide useful tools. Organisations may need to upskill staff and work more with environmental NGOs and charities as they strive to gain expertise in managing nature and find opportunities for robust off setting by creating useful partnerships.
Increased focus on a circular economy
This year will see new environmental legislation, regulations and targets come into effect – hopefully, alongside plans from delayed consultations on the Deposit Return Scheme and consistency in household recycling collections. The UN treaty on plastic pollution has been agreed and will develop a much-needed international framework for collaboration and a multilateral approach. Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging is now in force, making producers cover the costs for collection and management of packaging. This landmark UK policy is a positive step and can help guide international targets and the UN plastic treaty more widely.
A crucial piece of policy that will drive a circular economy is the resource productivity target – last year, IEMA published recommendations to highlight what must be covered. The UK government is expected to develop a new target in its Environmental Improvement Plan in 2023. Changes and updates to UK policy focus heavily on recycling. But a circular economy isn’t just about recycling – it’s more important than ever to promote circularity, move waste further up the hierarchy and develop sustainable prevention strategies. A key challenge is raising awareness of the wider range of activities that all businesses can do. Communicating the circular economy clearly is essential to shift mindsets. It is a common misconception that traditional business models need complete change and big investment to transition to a circular footing.
Measuring circularity continues to be a challenge. More data is needed for informed systems change, to unlock investment, innovation and growth, and to allow for clear communication.
High workloads in impact assessment
The key challenge in planning and impact assessment is managing high workloads on complex projects in a constant state of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Burnout and dropping out is common. Recent anecdotes from companies have indicated staff turnover rates of 50% in the past year.
First, we have the high workload. There is a limited number of professionals working in impact assessment, which is a complex area requiring many years of experience. Most work in the private sector for consultancies, serving both public and private sector clients. This pool of people is further depleted by senior and mid-level practitioners taking roles in adjacent fields or moving ‘client-side’.
In recent years, this has accelerated, with many new ESG roles being created in financial institutions and funds, and with marketing agencies, accountancy firms, planning firms and management consultancies all looking for environmental experts to service their hastily assembled sustainability offerings.
For those left, we have a massive and expanding infrastructure programme across multiple sectors, combined with political instability, changing public expectations of stakeholder engagement (including use of social media), digital innovation and technological advancement, intense legal scrutiny, and near-constant policy and legislative uncertainty. The projects themselves are often huge capital investments and generate significant pressure from unrealistic deadlines and work volumes.
Taken together, many question the wisdom of a career in impact assessment, further fuelling staff shortages. Unless the VUCA state is addressed, hostile working conditions will continue to reduce the talent pool in this challenging and vital field.