Companies line up to pledge climate action

More than 500 companies promised to implement a low-carbon strategy at a climate change summit hosted by the Prince of Wales on 1 May. The level of support, says The Carbon Trust, shows carbon management has reached the boardroom and spread beyond consumer-facing businesses.

The event was heralded as the start of a "nationwide movement of businesses committed to leading the UK towards a low-carbon economy" by its organiser Business in the Community (BITC).

CEOs and other senior executives from more than 1,000 companies attended events held across England. Among them were BT, British Airways, Barclays, B&Q, EDF Energy, BSkyB, J Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer, Rolls-Royce, and DLA Piper.

Environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell outlined the scientific consensus on climate change and the Prince of Wales told delegates "business is not only a major contributor to climate change but can also play a key role in tackling the problems and reducing their impact… It just cannot be business as usual."

He urged companies to make a "firm commitment" to address their emissions and invited them to sign up to ten pledges.

Some 537 companies vowed to implement a low-carbon strategy in their operations - an overarching pledge to consider climate change in every aspect of business. This covered a further nine pledges which companies were asked to sign up to.

The most popular pledge - signed by more than 740 firms - was to raise employee awareness of climate change and help them take action, while more than 570 companies promised to develop a carbon-reduction plan with targets to minimise impacts.

Thames Water, which has been criticised for its leakage rates, said it was taking part because its electricity use is rising and it is reviewing its climate change strategy to reduce emissions, use renewable supplies where possible and adapt to impacts. Thames’ chief executive, David Owens, promised on the day to reducing the firm’s carbon footprint.

British Airways, also under pressure because of its environmental record, attended the summit, but made no pledges beyond existing commitments, such as improving fuel efficiency by 30% on 1990 levels by 2010.

Other pledges included commitments to provide customers with information about the carbon footprint of products and services; ensure that a board-level representative champions carbon reductions; and work with suppliers to minimise supply chain emissions.

Many medium-sized and smaller companies wanted to learn how they could help clients reduce carbon in the supply chain.

Firms will be offered support in delivering commitments from The Carbon Trust and Envirowise.

A Carbon Trust spokesman said that bringing 1,000 business representatives together to talk about climate change and encourage them to make a pledge was an "enormous feat", particularly as most were chief executives and managing directors.

Significantly, the senior level of attendees reflected "the growing realisation that climate change is a board-level issue and cannot be put in an energy or operations silo," he said.

Equally important was the fact that "the range of businesses attending indicates that the issue is shifting from consumer-facing to business-to-business organisations."

Jonathon Porritt, director of Forum for the Future, also spoke at the event. He emphasised opportunities to reduce costs, access new markets and improve reputation through carbon mitigation.

Several companies that are more advanced in tackling their direct emissions, such as Marks and Spencer, BSkyB and Alliance Boots, have widened their carbon strategies to explore ways to produce lower carbon products and services, and were urged by the Prince to do more and share their knowledge with other firms.

Alliance Boots’ chief executive Richard Baker told the meeting the company would target cutting emissions by 30% on 2001 levels by 2020. It has already reduced emissions by 22.9% since 2001.

The group’s head of corporate social responsibility Richard Ellis, who attended the summit, said: "Rather than one event being a turning point, I would say there has been a shift over the past year towards people seeing climate change as real threat."

BSkyB’s director of corporate social responsibility Ben Stimpson said the summit helped "crystallise thinking". BSkyB became carbon neutral in 2006, but Mr Stimpson said it would "continue to work on reducing its carbon footprint and to engage customers on actions they can take to reduce their own emissions. "This is a long journey - so far we’ve learned to keep our carbon programme simple and be clear about what we’re aiming for," he said.

BITC will help share best practice and advise firms which pledged to take action - called "May Day companies" - on how to achieve commitments. Firms will report on progress in May 2008.

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