At the end of last week I signed a joint letter – along with other business leaders, charities and experts – calling for the Government to prioritise a green UK economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has demonstrated that the pre-existing environmental emergency is intrinsically connected to public health, and the enforced lockdown has given us all a great opportunity to reflect. We’ve all seen the images of clear waters in Venice, people being able to breathe clean air for the first time in decades in India, and the smog lifting from Beijing.
Our ‘great global pause’ is also a great opportunity to change direction – it’s drawn a line in the sand and given us the best chance we will ever have to change our ways and behave more responsibly, based on what the planet clearly requires from us.
We need to create a radical policy change that recognises this urgent need and fast tracks a green recovery, helping us to find a way out of the climate and nature crises that ultimately pose a far greater threat to humanity than Covid-19 or the other pandemics that will surely follow it. It would be a huge mistake to lose the momentum that was building before the present crisis, and aim to go back to ‘business as usual’.
Why is it important for business to come together now?
Most of the business world is now aligned in its focus on driving a greener economy, tackling the climate crisis, and reversing the decline in global biodiversity. In my spare time I sit as a member of Defra’s ‘Council for Sustainable Business’: a group of leaders from a variety of industries who are working with Government to promote and encourage more positive environmental action.
We know that this is what our customers want: an IPSOS MORI poll last month showed that two thirds of people in the UK consider long term climate change as serious an issue as Covid-19, and most want to see the climate prioritised in recovery plans.
We’ve all learned big lessons and adapted very quickly. In my own business, only 10% of our 800-strong head office workforce have actually been at their usual desks in Deeside, yet we have been more productive than ever. Obviously I am looking forward to being able to meet my colleagues face-to-face again, but I don’t think we will ever go back to the way we were.
People have experienced a new way of living – home working, walking, cycling, looking after each other, and wasting less – and they won’t want to return to the slog of daily commuting to the office.
A green economy is a stronger economy
This is an unchallengeable fact. Smart and low carbon technologies increase efficiency and productivity, and offer new employment opportunities across the country. They save money for both businesses and consumers, make supply chains more resilient, cut pollution, and improve health. Why would any sane country continue propping up old, dirty industries that have no long term future when we could be investing in business activity that reduces carbon and helps the planet instead?
That is why it is vital that the Government’s economic stimulus plans to lift us out of the lockdown ensure the delivery of a more resilient, low carbon, and resource-efficient society.
In the post-Covid world we need to focus on ‘soft’ infrastructure projects, such as the nationwide rollout of superfast fibre broadband. The huge growth of home working makes this all the more urgent, and it will be much quicker to deliver than heavy, pre-Covid investments in concrete and steel to build infrastructure like new roads or additional runways.
The HS2 vanity project, in particular, should be ditched now. It didn’t even show a return for the taxpayer before the pandemic, and all the assumptions about future travel on which it is based have now been blown out of the water. We should spend its £100bn cost on a post-Covid green recovery instead.
Since it is very clear that we don’t need to travel as much as we have done, we must also thoroughly review the future of air travel and related industries. A ‘non-essential frequent flyer’ levy would be a good start. And if airlines are going to need Government support (which they clearly will) they need to commit to reducing emissions and developing new technologies, such as hybrid fuel planes.
The Government should do more generally to incentivise businesses to reduce carbon – for example, by switching to electric vehicles or protecting biodiversity. They should prioritise the delivery of 100% renewable energy generation – 24/7, 365 days a year. And Green Tech industries should be nurtured, not least as an opportunity to lead the world through the next economic revolution.
Considering that the built environment accounts for up to 40% of all carbon emissions, we should also free-up the planning system to push ahead with building both greener and more efficient new homes. Reducing carbon ‘in-use’ (by using better insulation and air-source heating, for example) is a must; but lowering carbon ‘in-build’ is also a massive opportunity – timber-framed construction techniques should be prioritised over the heavy polluting steel and concrete construction of old.
The startling drop in global oil prices should not be used as a reason to pull investment in renewables. Rather, governments should support the retraining of workers and the switch of skills from declining fossil fuel industries into growing renewables ones. We should urgently begin the shift from fossil fuels to renewables in a planned and measured way – starting with a reduction in the huge subsidies that oil and gas exploration and extraction currently enjoy. Considering that it must happen at some point, in order to avoid a future “jump-to-distress” (as the then Bank of England Governor put it in a speech to Lloyds of London nearly five years ago), we should start this de-subsidising process now.
What the Government should not do is view the current crisis as any reason to weaken existing environmental laws and protections. We are already hearing the siren voices of Big Plastic calling for a climbdown on planned legislation for plastic and packaging taxes – please don’t fall for it. Coronavirus is not an excuse for breaking promises, and the Government should crack on with its Environment Bill, which in an age of a Climate Emergency has already taken far too long. And looking beyond domestic policies, there is also a real opportunity to show global leadership with the UK both hosting COP26 and holding the G7 Presidency in 2021.
What has Iceland done?
I’m very conscious that it is easy to preach and much harder to do. So let me just say that we at Iceland are doing our very best to live by the precepts I have set out.
We have reduced our own label plastic packaging usage by 29% in the two years since we made our commitment to eliminate it by the end of 2023 – a commitment that we remain determined and on track to deliver, undiluted by Covid-19.
We have removed palm oil ingredients from our own label range – a stand we took to highlight the huge damage being done to global biodiversity and the climate by the destruction of tropical rainforests to expand palm oil production.
We are achieving huge efficiencies in our use of lighting, air conditioning, and refrigerants. An example I love is that we now switch off our 1,000 illuminated fascias every night – saving money, energy and nocturnal insects! All our electricity is already generated renewably; we are reviewing the use of electric vans and environmentally friendly HGVs, and increasing the use of electric or hybrid company cars.
We are also making huge progress in reducing food waste – down significantly over the last two years within Iceland (more news on this soon). As Covid-19 has made us all more conscious of the importance of avoiding waste, we have also seen a surge in demand for frozen food as people rediscover its benefits, saving them money and greatly reducing the amount of food that ends up in their bins. It’s not just for selfish business reasons that I very much hope this trend is sustained.
Building a better future
Covid-19 has brought heartbreak to too many families, and will cast a long shadow over the economy that will affect us all, even if we avoid direct exposure to the virus. So let us make sure that we turn this crisis into an opportunity to rebuild – and to rebuild better: creating a stronger, more resilient, greener and healthier economy that is fit for the next generation.
Revert back to business as usual? Now that really would be a tragedy.