Unleashing UK business potential

4th April 2024

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

In January, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) published a report outlining a series of ambitious proposals to turbocharge the UK’s transition to net-zero emissions.

Specifically, the Building Sustainable Futures for UK Businesses report explains how to unlock the next wave of new, highly paid green jobs, and deliver billions of pounds of investment.

It is the first of five policy documents being published by the BCC as part of its ‘Future of Economy’ project, and the recommendations could be a gamechanger for meeting the country’s long-term environmental targets.

I sat down with Alex Veitch, director of policy and insights at the organisation, and Ben Goodwin, director of policy and public affairs at IEMA – who fed into the development of the report – to discuss some of the proposals.

Why did you decide to publish this report on sustainability first in your series of upcoming policy documents?

Veitch: Politics has entered the climate discussion in a way that it hasn’t for quite some time, and we wanted to make a statement on the importance of sticking to convictions, and trying to take the political heat out of the agenda. We are multisectoral, so we get feedback on just about every topic related to environment from businesses of any size and sector.

What are the main challenges for businesses looking to be sustainable?

Veitch: Most businesses want to do the right thing and make green changes, but we see a lot of confusion. Among SMEs, a lot of terminology doesn’t land well. One of the most interesting things that we find with the largest businesses is the challenge of very detailed non-financial reporting requirements, and having to get good-quality environmental data from huge supply chains. I think we’re on the cusp of a very significant private sector-led increase in environmental monitoring and action. At the same time, we have mixed messages coming out of government, and businesses are having to second-guess what their policies are going to be in the green space.

How damaging has mixed messaging been from a business perspective?

Veitch: With delaying the ban on diesel vehicles, for example, some car manufacturers were furious because they had really invested and geared up to meet the sales ban. Others were saying, ‘okay, this gives us more time to convert literally all of our production to be electric’. We’ve also had the negative rhetoric on heat pumps from newspapers, which really hurt, and not just for the manufacturers, but all the intermediaries who actually do the sales. Companies feel like they are trying to push water up a hill. The danger is that a lot of high-quality products end up not being made in the UK.

Goodwin: There is a wider issue about how these things are communicated, and how the benefits of these technologies are explained to the general public. With heat pumps, people pick up a newspaper and it might say they cost a lot and they’re not very effective. The same can be said for the way in which the potential costs and benefits of electric vehicles have, at times, been portrayed rather negatively. There’s a big role for government, businesses and professional bodies to work with the media to debunk myths about the green transition and to ensure that the public can access the evidence that enables informed consumer choices to be made.

On the public’s perception of the transition, polling has found that just 27% of young people have heard of a ‘green job’, and that 95% envisage them as exclusive to people who have gone to university. How important is it to change that public perception?

Goodwin: It’s massive. IEMA did similar research with YouGov a while back and we found that 56% of British adults had never heard of the term ‘green job’, and 64% didn’t understand or hadn’t heard of the term ‘green skills’. So, if you look at it from a general population point of view, the scale of the challenge extends well beyond the younger demographic. If we’re really serious about transitioning the economy to a more sustainable footing, we absolutely need more sustainability professionals, but we also have to recognise that all jobs across the economy are going to need to become a bit greener.

How can we improve the pipeline of young workers entering the green economy?

Veitch: As the whole economy goes green, the qualifications, career routes and apprenticeship standards also have to go greener to meet the needs. One of the projects that the BCC’s working on is the local skills improvement plan, and that is about joining up the needs of employees in a particular place with schools and further education, and working on strategies to help young people find skills and jobs where they are. There is going to be a massive need for green jobs, and so we’re pushing for government to support these kinds of initiatives in the future, whoever wins the election.

The BCC report calls for a new public body to oversee delivery of core climate policies. Why is that important, and could it help tackle the confusion that many businesses are feeling?

Veitch: We need an independent public body that lives beyond the life of parliamentary cycles to monitor, scrutinise and cajole climate policy to make sure it gets delivered with a multi-year delivery plan. This should be similar to the Vaccine Taskforce we had during the pandemic, which involved a massive dispersed network of thousands of people helping research the jabs and transporting them. That’s the scale that we need, and we must try to energise sectors and bring communities to deliver it at pace. We’ve got the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which needs more resources – that can recommend and scrutinise, and does a good job, but it’s not set up to do what we are talking about.

How stretched are the CCC’s resources?

Veitch: I’m on the CCC’s Advisory Group on Business, and when I was with them the other week, they only had around 60 people – which is a lot more than they had a year ago. If we think about what the CCC is trying to do, which is to monitor, analyse, and then make recommendations on every single part of our climate change strategy, 60 people is not enough.

Goodwin: Chris Stark is leaving soon, which is a shame because he is very impressive, and the organisation is recruiting a new CEO. That appointment is very important because the CCC is so crucial. Lord Deben has also stepped down, so it seems there’s a real period of change going on there, but hopefully it won’t detract from the vital role that the CCC has and needs to continue to play.

The report also calls for a robust green industrial strategy. What should that look like?

Veitch: The green industrial strategy should combine general incentives to invest, such as full expensing, with specific measures to help green industry grow and compete globally. Cross-cutting measures include linking the UK and EU emissions trading systems (ETS), implementing the UK carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), launching the green taxonomy, and applying the learnings from the success of Contracts for Difference to other sectors beyond wind energy. There should also be sector interventions where the UK can be a world leader, including carbon capture and storage, and sustainable aviation fuel. Finally, the strategy should also include measures to boost domestic production in key technologies, such as batteries and solar panels.

The BCC helps British businesses build relationships internationally. How does different climate policy across countries present trade barriers?

Veitch: Going green is now becoming part of trade, with companies having to measure the carbon footprint of their products to trade, which could be transformative. However, carbon leakage occurs when emissions move between countries with different climate policies, which is why we are calling for the launch of the UK CBAM. This could also be good for our exports in a carbon-constrained world if foreign companies choose to import low-carbon products from us.

Is there a danger that businesses spend too much time waiting for government policy, and forget to focus on what they can do now?

Goodwin: There’s nothing to stop businesses being more ambitious and extending beyond what is set down in policy. Yes, we do need the long-term policy and regulatory frameworks to drive certain behaviours, and it is a shame that there seems to be this political polarisation creeping in, but businesses can still be more ambitious of their own accord.

Veitch: That’s 100% right, and businesses need to be innovative. Making the first truly eco-friendly coffee cup is the holy grail; as Martha Lane Fox says, ‘the first trillionaire will be in the green space’, and I really hope she’s right, but we do need the regulation to be the tide that lifts all boats.

Visit IEMA’s Green Careers Hub for information on green skills and career pathways: www.greencareershub.com

Download the BCC report here


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