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Companies must step up to tackle climate change

By John Gummer, Lord Deben

This article first appeared in Times Red Box

Britain’s businesses deal with risk every day. That’s why every major organisation has a risk register, which helps executives identify and manage potential challenges.

Alongside climate change, most sensible organisations will have had a line in their risk registers for pandemics – a high risk, low probability event whose effects were hard to predict. Businesses, governments, and all of us as individuals have taken drastic action to address the current coronavirus pandemic. This means that experience of the reality of what seemed so distant a risk ought to increase our willingness seriously to face the climate emergency. Particularly as there is no vaccine for climate change.

That is why I was very encouraged by the government’s ten-point plan for green economic recovery, published last month. It shows real ambition in some absolutely vital areas – mandating an earlier transition to electric vehicles, changing how we heat our homes, and investing in new technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

The prime minister has set a clear direction of travel. Overall, the sheer breadth of the plan demonstrates the government’s commitment to real change across Whitehall and the nation as a whole. That breadth needs to be met by depth if we are to get the necessary results. But this is not just a matter for the government: all of us need to step up if we are going to secure a green economic recovery for the UK and for the world.

I was, therefore, delighted to see the UK water industry coming together to launch a detailed route map setting out how the sector will achieve its goal of delivering a net zero carbon water supply by 2030. This is 20 years ahead of the government’s own ambitions and is the first sector-wide commitment of this kind not just in the UK, but anywhere in the world – a fact of which we can all be proud.

I was part of the government that privatised the water sector. We made this decision because we knew then that the investment required to hit our ambitious environmental targets was simply not possible under a nationalised system. However, the corollary of this is that the privatised companies must act in the very clear knowledge that they are providing a vital public service.

While I would like to see the sector go even further in some areas, it is clear to me that plans for achieving net zero show that the water industry understands this balance and its obligation to communities and the planet as a whole. More than this, their route map provides an excellent template for other industries to follow. We should also be looking to export this sort of leadership elsewhere, so that different countries can follow our example.

Dare I say that the government too could learn from this example as it begins the vital and painstaking work of setting out the granular process by which the objectives outlined in its ten-point plan will be achieved.

There is also a clear lesson in the water sector’s example of being very open about the need to work closely with regulators, the supply chain and environmental NGOs if it were to deliver the stages in the route map. Transparent collaboration of this sort is vital in tackling all major problems facing society – from climate change to coronavirus.

The road ahead remains long and steep as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and chart the course for our green recovery. But the leadership position shown in the past few weeks by the government and industry alike shows that there is much to be optimistic about. Britain is leading the way.

Lord Deben is a Conservative peer and chairman of the committee on climate change