Not so long ago, I had the privilege to visit our team in South Africa, where our world-class team has been in overdrive helping a range of clients prepare for the upcoming COP17 global climate talks in Durban later this year.
It is clear the government there – and many of its biggest companies – are determined to put on a big show. Anyone suffering hearing damage from the sound of vuvuzelas at World Cup 2010 would surely agree that the country does “big show” very well. But now, football has been replaced by climate change as the subject on everyone’s lips.
That strikes me as a contrast to the way the subject is being viewed in Europe. The continent has historically led the world in the development of climate change policy and practice, but lately, I get the feeling that other concerns – economic recovery, job creation and so forth – have caused politicians and business leaders to focus elsewhere.
While in many ways this is perfectly understandable, it fundamentally misses the point. I say that for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously, the problem hasn’t gone away. Climate change is still happening, we’re still making more of an impact on the world than we should, and many complex issues have yet to be solved before we are able to live sustainably within the world we created.
Secondly, there is a mistaken notion that tackling climate change costs money and jobs. In reality, it often makes good business sense to tackle climate change. High energy prices mean that measures taken to make operations more efficient can give companies a competitive advantage. The opportunity to do our part to save the planet motivates employees, inspires innovation, and creates new jobs in cutting-edge industries. The notion that reducing our impact on the environment has to mean increased costs or job cuts is outdated.
That said, I also think that it is important to put a value on our environmental impact if we are going to seriously address the problem. It has often been said by companies that “we will not buy our way out of environmental responsibility;” but the real issue is about changing behaviour. Behavioural change is always difficult, and cost is a much more powerful motivator than goodwill.
I’m not sure whether COP17 will produce a watershed of political support for environmental and social sustainability. Early signs are promising – China, for instance, is sending 2000 delegates to Durban, South Africa intends to unveil a comprehensive carbon tax, and the EU remains ideologically committed to furthering the discussion. But international agreements are complicated, the world is deep in recession, and – and as COP15 in Copenhagen showed us – intent and result are often very different things. Time will tell.
In the meantime, however, each of us can focus on where we can personally have an impact. If we each can assess and show improvement in a small way, and actively think about and manage our energy use, it can make a huge difference. It is also important for each of us – either as companies or as individuals, to communicate: to talk about what we’re doing; how successful we have been, what we have learned along the way and – of course – how much money we have saved. Doing this will make it much more real than talking about it in the abstract.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for reducing environmental impact. But if each of us does a little, we can have a big influence. The future of the planet is too important to be a passing fashion.