Cancún: finally, some good news

The private sector has an important role to play in the wake of the climate summit.

As the dust settles at the end of the UN climate talks, it feels as if we are entering a new phase in the fight against climate change.

The UN process has been resuscitated by the outcome of the Cancún summit. Before the curtain went up in Mexico, climate sceptics in the UK said they could hear the sound of the death rattle for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process (UNFCCC).

With the agreement of a new and fair Climate Fund, however, we can now start feeling optimistic that we have turned a corner since the disappointment of Copenhagen last year. Rich countries did agree in Copenhagen to deliver $100bn per year by 2020, and next year crucial decisions on how to raise this money must be made. This will then be channelled through the new fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and develop in a low-carbon way.

Companies and investors have recognised for some time now, however, that the private sector has a critical role to play in complementing government action, by climate-proofing their activities and helping to make the global transition to a low-carbon economy. This was underlined at the Copenhagen summit, where both were pushing hard for the elusive global deal that they hoped would set out a clear framework under which businesses could operate.

Company directors are paid to have their eye on the bottom line and many see that strong political action across the world on climate change could spark business opportunities, while possibly creating more jobs and reducing unemployment.

It is in their interests – as well as our own – to recognise the business potential in climate-resilient, low-carbon growth. Europe's environmental sector already employs 3.4 million people and accounts for 2.2 per cent of GDP.

In the United States, a new Oxfam report estimates that two million Americans are employed in sectors, such as water management, agriculture, insurance and disaster preparedness, that help build resilience to the effects of climate change. If new openings are not seized on, Europe risks falling behind the likes of China and the US – both poised to profit from huge investment in low-carbon technologies.

In Cancún, several company directors unveiled practical schemes to underscore their green intentions. For example, the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum, representing hundreds of manufacturing and retail firms, including Unilever and Tesco, announced that its members plan to use their collective resources to help achieve net zero deforestation by 2020.

This and other initiatives need closer scrutiny before we know what impact they will have on the ground, but it seems to me that this could be more than just greenwashing. I'm expecting there's far more to it than that. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, has recognised that closer partnership between the private and public sectors could offer a win-win situation.

I am heartened by this. We need every tool in the box if we are to help ordinary people cope with the damaging impacts of climate change in many of the countries where Oxfam works, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mexico itself.

Of course, things are not going to change overnight. Many businesses, particularly in the carbon-intensive industries, are clinging to their old ways. They regularly lobby in Brussels to block the EU from making more ambitious cuts to its greenhouse-gas emissions, from 20 per cent to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

While they raise concerns about the competitiveness of their industries under stronger European climate action, it would be good to see these companies lobbying to raise the bar in other national capitals, rather than blocking stronger action at home.

The risk of company greenwashing was highlighted by the recent announcement of the Worst Lobby Awards when, in online voting, the European public sent a clear message that they want to see a major clean-up of the Brussels lobbying scene. The German energy giant RWE and its subsidiary npower scooped first prize for claiming to be green while lobbying to keep coal- and oil-fired power plants open.

It's going to take time to change the practices of all corporates but at Cancún we started to sense that things are moving in the right direction. Companies must now seize the fresh momentum – no one can dispute that a serious commitment by global business to change its practices could have a huge impact on the future of the planet.

There is everything to play for.

Barbara Stocking is the chief executive at Oxfam GB.

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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers