Arwa Aburawa (MCFly co-editor) attends an RSA event looking into the need for businesses to take green action and worries that the hard decisions are still being sidelined.
‘It’s no longer business as usual’. If I had a pound for every time I heard that… Well, I certainly wouldn’t be attending green business events in my free time. And events that bring together businesses taking green action such as today’s RSA event at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU),are the worst offenders but more on that in a little while.
The first speaker of the day was Neil Swannick, head of GM Waste Disposal Authority and member of the [now deceased] Environment Commission, who welcomed the attendees to the event after a quick free lunch. He talked about a growing recognition of the impact of climate change in place like Bangladesh and also in the UK. Action is already being taken he added in Manchester which has carbon reduction targets of 41% by 2020 and is currently putting together an implementation plan to achieve that. It is no longer business as usual, he said and nodding heads around the room seemed to agree.
Ironically on the way to the next part of the event, I spoke to a young woman who had started her PhD on Sustainable Construction at Liverpool after working in the construction sector for a couple of years. What she told me was that the problem with the construction sector is that things are in fact, still ‘business as usual’. Companies don’t understand what sustainability is, are afraid of it or are doing the bare minimum to make sure that they win a green contract. So there is clearly a gap between rhetoric and action. Indeed, the panel debate which took place next highlighted another gap – the one between the action we know we need to take, and what action are actually taking.
Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible Todmorden, Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Jocelyn Cunningham who is director of Arts and Society from the RSA as well as Chris Roberts who is development director at Bruntwood were the panellists. To kick off the debate, the chair Mike Blackburn from BT, asked the panel to speak for a couple of minutes about what we as businesses and individuals can do to act more responsibly.
Pam Warhust started off by saying that we need to start believing in people and give them a time to create something better for themselves rather than telling them what to do. She said that Incredible Edible Todmorden had an entire town thinking differently about food, cooking and travel and it had achieved that by working with locals.”We have to get rid of the paternalistic way that we deal with the masses,” she said and and part of the problem is the top-down policy approach which seems to dominate government action. Warhust added that we need to give people the time and space to come to this agenda on their own terms.
Professor Anderson said the solution is that we start living our lives based on the scientific evidence. Universities, in particular, he said are not representing the levels of changes that their research is telling them is necessary or that they are advising others to take. “It’s all about behaviour and practice and the elites of the universities [which Anderson included as himself] need to take personal action so that others can live prosperous and reasonable lives.”
I then asked both Pam Warhurst and Professor Anderson whether they thought we had the time to allow people to take action at their own pace. Pam replied we can’t afford not to give people time and to allow them do it and get on with it. Anderson first pointed out that there is a big difference between sustainability and climate change and the reality is that action to deal with climate change is more urgent and has a much shorter timescale. There needs to be fundamental changes at every level, he said. For example at univerisities, Anderson asked why institutions which are leaders in climate change research are still working to attract international students when they know the carbon impacts of flying students in every year. “Why are there jags and cars in the university quad rather than making the most of green spaces?” he asked. “Universities are not applying the results of their research and so there is no leadership on this issue.”
From Bruntwood, Chris Roberts said that back in 2007 the property sector was moving towards a two tier market with those who were willing to pay a premium for more sustainable properties and those operating business as usual. That has now disappeared as behaviour change has fallen off the agenda and he admitted that his sector is not good at driving the green agenda if there is no demand. Another barrier to action that Roberts highlighted are the “muddled and unclear policies on what is and isn’t sustainable which mean companies are jumping from one measure to the next without achieving anything.” Roberts also added that everything we talk about in terms of energy efficiency isn’t about change, it’s about about keeping the way we live the same so we can drive to work and fly.
The next theme that emerged during the panel debate was how do we deal with unpopular but necessary green polices. Anderson said that it is our job as people switched on to the issue to support unpopular policies that move us towards sustainability and added that the bid to introduce a congestion charge in Manchester shouldn’t have been put to a vote. He added that the money that went to the bailing out the bankers could have been the first, vital step to moving us towards building a green infrastructure. And although that opportunity has passed us by, Anderson said the sorry state of the economy means that the opportunity is still there. Warhurst said that people realise that politicians are looking at the facts and there are some really unpopular policies that they are too frightened to pitch to the wider public- telling people what they can and can’t do isn’t the solution. Roger Milburn from ARUP agreed and said that it’s fine to tell people that they have leadership role in businesses but can we really tell them what to do in their private lives?
I get that choice is an important thing and we all have a right to choose how we live our private lives – but the fact that our lovely lives may be screwing the lives of other people the world over must surely come into the equation? Otherwise are we really saying that the ‘choices’ of white, rich, Western people are the only ‘choices’ that matter?
The next part of the event consisted of two workshops where basically businesses advertised themselves to you. The session I attended overran hugely and so everyone sat around the table barely got a change to introduce themselves. Fourth presentation in, I headed for the door. Not even the promise of tea and cakes in a couple of hours time could make me stay. I was told that once the presentations were over, businesses would get to pitch green projects to the RSA, which will be supporting them through various means.
Arwa Aburawa Freelance Journalist