Richard Walker

Governments and businesses must come together to fight climate change and restore nature

There can be no doubt of the critical importance of the COP26 conference in setting the world on the right path to tackle the climate emergency.

However, while all attention is currently focused on which heads of state will be there, the conference is also a pivotal moment for the private sector – as the delivery partner in addressing the existential challenge of climate change and nature’s destruction.

A world warmer than the 2 degree limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement is certainly not one that we would want our children and grandchildren to inherit. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near meeting this target, and will face the associated horrors of floods, fires, famine and conflict if action is not urgently taken.

Nature absorbs about half of all man-made emissions … for free. So simply protecting and restoring it is one of the easiest and cheapest ways we can take action.

Every human life, and indeed every business, is dependent on healthy oceans, soils, forests and wildlife – without which, we would be unable to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves or provide medicines. And yet, if we keep destroying our natural world at current rates, then it is certainly game over for humanity (ironically, in the long run, nature should be just fine without us).

Across the world, governments, businesses, citizens and expert NGOs all urgently need to start working together to make firm commitments that will accelerate the global response to the climate and nature catastrophe we are currently facing. Climate and nature is now everyone’s business.

My own food industry, in particular, needs to start seeing the bigger picture and facing up to its direct responsibility for global warming, as the source of 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

We cannot put dealing with these challenges into a separate box while we focus on achieving an economic recovery from COVID-19. It makes business sense to view nature, climate and economic success through one and the same lens.

This means that Governments and the private sector must all actively prioritise and be fully accountable for every decision that affects the natural world, and put carbon and nature at the absolute heart of their decision making.

Businesses around the world have been making bold pledges on carbon reduction, such as Iceland becoming the first food retailer in the world to sign The Climate Pledge, in February this year, committing to net zero carbon by 2040 – 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement target.

And business is now finally giving nature the focus it deserves as well. Through the Council for Sustainable Business, of which I’m a member, on behalf of the Government we’ve produced a Nature Handbook for Business. We’ve looked at impacts, solutions and case histories by business sector, to show what business can and should be doing.

Businesses of every sort must rapidly transition to greener ways of working to help reduce the impact of climate change and prioritise the protection of nature, so as to halt the continued, devastating loss to our environment of plant, insect, bird and animal species.

Industrialised agriculture has shown itself to be brilliant at delivering cheap food to consumers, but at a huge environmental cost – seen in the degradation of UK soils and the decimation of our domestic wildlife as much as in the alarming tropical deforestation of South East Asia and South America.

In my view it is impossible to overstate the importance of nature protection in helping to stabilise the global climate. And this isn’t just about planting more trees. Done well, this has its place, but it makes no sense to be planting trees to offset carbon emissions in one part of the world while actively destroying ancient and biodiversity-rich rainforests that also act as vital carbon sinks.

Urgent action is needed to bring a halt to the soy-driven deforestation of Brazil, not just by the UK Government but through effective international policy co-ordination.

We also need to safeguard ancient woodlands in the UK from destructive and economically unjustified projects like HS2.

In every part of the world, nature protection needs to be a higher priority and requires proper funding.

I know, through my work as a trustee of Flora & Fauna International, that this funding really needs to reach grassroots conservationists to have the maximum impact. Hence there is a need for international finance to be directed into the hands of local communities and indigenous peoples, who are so often the most effective stewards of the natural environment.

I witnessed this at first hand in Borneo in 2017, where the illegal expansion of a sterile oil palm monoculture was not only destroying the habitats of threatened species, including the orang-utan, but was also devastating the livelihoods of local people. I promised to help them, and Iceland’s corporate activism in banning palm oil ingredients from our own label range has done much to raise global awareness of tropical deforestation and to encourage promises of greater environmental responsibility from the palm oil industry.

I am pleased that we were also able to put something back by planting a million mangrove trees in Indonesia as part of Iceland’s 50th birthday celebrations last year: a project that helped local people by creating jobs and improving coastal protection, as well as sequestering carbon.

Similarly, in the UK, our Charitable Foundation is supporting ambitious plans by Wildlife Trusts Wales to restore all Welsh peatlands by 2030, so that they can fully play their natural role in locking in carbon, as well as improving flood protection and protecting endangered wildlife.

My personal experience of the sheer horror of ocean plastic pollution, on a surfing trip to Morocco, was the spur to Iceland’s world-leading pledge to remove plastic packaging from our own label range, which has done so much to raise awareness and stimulate action in the UK and further afield, though much clearly remains to be done.

I argue in my book The Green Grocer that there is really no such thing as a sustainable business, because every human economic activity takes more resources from the planet than it puts back. But if humanity is to have a future we all need to try much harder to minimise our footprints and our impact on the natural world.

Nature protection and restoration simply must become the cornerstone of our economies and societies. To do this, we all need to recognise the full value of the natural resources we use, and incorporate this recognition into our decision-making. If we adopt this route, business leaders can drive sustainable economic prosperity, while also ensuring diversity and abundance in nature.

Translating this into action means putting nature at the heart of business models; minimising the use of damaging resources; integrating nature metrics alongside climate metrics in sustainability models; and transitioning as quickly as we can to an economy that is not only zero carbon, but also nature-positive.

For the food industry, this means taking a new, long term, strategic approach that will help drive the creation of a more diverse, flexible and resilient food system than the one we have today. One that encourages more regenerative agriculture, new technologies including vertical farming, and the necessary shift towards more plant-based eating.

It’s easy for the better-off to do their bit for the planet by going organic or eating more local produce. The challenge for our industry and society is carrying with us the multitude who shop at value supermarkets and find feeding their family a weekly struggle.

We will never do it by lecturing them; we can and must do it by working together under a strong and clear Government lead that sets parameters for the food industry to drive new approaches to sourcing, encourage transparency, and shift consumer behaviour towards more sustainable solutions.

I am sure all this can be done. But one thing I have learned from our plastics removal challenge is that it is hard to be a leader. We need other retailers and manufacturers to match our commitments in order to drive change by the packaging industry as a whole.

Similarly, food companies and other private businesses must take ownership of their responsibility for tackling climate change – but we will only succeed if we all move in the same direction at a similar pace, and are willing to work collaboratively to find the right solutions.

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