Monday 22 March 2010

base 2010 (business and sustainable environment)

base 2010, the event where business meets sustainability, was held in the Excel centre on 16-17 March this year. The run up promotion to the event, which promised a plethora of prominent speakers, seemed too good to be true however the final turn out did not disappoint. Few conferences have managed to gather together such an influential list, with attendees from the government, NGO’s, advisory bodies, the FTSE 100 and leading national media. In fact, it often seemed, perhaps due to the size of the venue, that there were even more renowned figures present than delegates themselves.

Given the event’s proximity to the national elections, the Q&A sessions and keynotes were dominated by MP’s and government advisers, not wanting to miss a key opportunity to plug their respective “red-green” and “blue-green” agendas and relevant party’s commitment to the cause. The resulting outcome of the successive speeches by Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn MP (Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Nick Herbert MP (Shadow Secretary) was strangely cohesive, which both parties pointing out the importance of sustainability on the corporate and social agenda after the financial turmoil of the last two years. Both speakers chose to focus much of their content on the issues of waste and landfill, highlighting the fact that waste is an opportunity, not a cost and stating their aims to make landfill sites obsolete. Benn pointed to the successes of the Landfill directive in encouraging new technologies which are highlighting the upside down way in which we talk about waste. Herbert couldn’t resist having a dig at the Labour Government’s lack of ambition when it comes to setting poignant targets, in particular for landfill tax, but while he agreed that business certainly needs a fiscal and regulatory strategy which would allow them to plan ahead, we must be careful to recognise that the overall regulatory burden on companies is too high.

There were a couple of surprises to this green-off, however, with Benn acknowledging the difficult environment for innovative high-risk technologies to attract investment and asking the conference “how can the government help with this problem?” Given that he carried on talking I can only assume that this was a rhetorical question, however, he demonstrated awareness of a key issue holding back the supposedly burgeoning cleantech world and perhaps even willingness for the government to consider a solution. Herbert, although less impressive and perhaps less rounded as a key political figure, also made some good points, stating that “natural resources are no more finite than the fiscal resources of the Treasury” and that the UK “makes a mistake of seeing the sustainability agenda as a burden.” Further to this he pointed out a solid sustainability strategy would actually help to uncover inefficiencies in our businesses as well as our economy as a whole, allowing continuing growth without long term commitment to the path of consumerism that we have trodden for so many years.

Carrot or Stick?
The key differences in messages really showed when discussing regulation. The Labour party remains committed to forcing sustainability on business through establishing a fiscal and regulatory regime which will punish avoiders. The Tory mentality was far more interested in working the carrot approach, relying on societal buy-in, which would essentially amount to a smarter form of procurement, encouraging community empowerment and private sector investment in new technologies, hence reducing the cost to the public sector and investing and encouraging through non-regulatory means. Micro-management or macro-management? Ensuring sustainability rather than encouraging sustainability? The vote is yours!

“We must work together”
Another highlight of the event was the Q&A session with Rt. Hon. Ed Miliband MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. In his brief address before the grilling started, he attempted to salvage Copenhagen’s reputation, labelling the conference as a big step forward involving 80% of the worlds emissions producers, compared to Kyoto’s 45%. The importance of an attitudinal change was crucial to his agenda, encouraging people to talk about opportunities arising rather than dangers to be avoided and removing climate-change from the environmental box, instead making it about opportunity. As the world leader in the generation of offshore wind (since overtaking Denmark), the UK, Miliband promised, is in a great position to take advantage of this transition. “We must work together” he enthused about the public-private partnership. Kate Silverton, who appears to be enjoying a whole host of extra-curricular events, encouraged questions from the crowd which flew with the speed and kindness of machine gun fire. Topics covered included the lack of ambition with regards to the Feed-in Tariff, the skills shortage to embrace this new transition, the damage done by Climategate, Miliband’s thoughts on carbon offsetting (positive FYI), the controversial fairytale adverts on TV, party coalition on green issues (nuclear energy seemingly being the elephant) and what can be done to reconcile the demands of climate change with the short-termism requirements and attitude of the City. All credit due, Miliband handled the questions impressively, never breaking sweat or coming unstuck. Although, it has to be said he moved exceptionally quickly towards the exit at the conclusion.

The timetable of the event was so crammed with goodies, that planning was essential and sadly many, no doubt, highly informative lectures and discussions were impossible to attend. I did, however, attend one other top hit; Question Time with Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, Philip Green, CEO of United Utilities, Richard Reid, the London Chairman of KPMG and Professor William Pope, representing England’s RDAs. This impressive panel commented on the relationship between sustainability and economic development, producing some interesting insights before answering questions on Britain’s broken society, institutional investment mindset and how the big companies were reconciling sustainable strategy with corporate strategy.

For me, the most interesting theme of the event was the challenge of aligning shareholder and stakeholder interests. It has been known for CEO’s to be sacked for not having their shareholder’s best interests in mind following the announcement of a new CSR strategy. This links in with the short-termism of the City and the never-failing requirement for rapid growth and immediate prosperity. Society has not kept up with the rapid growth of the last decades and adjustment is required. The financial markets have abruptly and painfully adjusted themselves, however social change is moving more slowly. Too slowly. Sustainability does not have to be about dying polar bears and palm trees in Scotland; it can be about opportunity and putting in place a foundation for a new and reliable future. If we do not move quickly we will miss out on the wave of opportunities rising. Those who lag behind do so at their own peril, whichever political party ends up in the driving seat.


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