Why are so few businesses fully facing up to the climate emergency?

Mike Berners-Lee’s book There is No Planet B offers a set of practical questions and answers to steer us on to a more sustainable path.

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In August 2020, Brewdog revealed it had become the world’s first major “carbon negative” beer company. The Scottish brewer and bar chain had achieved this with the support of Mike Berners-Lee, a world-leading expert in carbon footprinting, who describes the business in his book, There is No Planet B, as “the best example I have worked with of a company where people [understand their environmental responsibilities]”.

The decarbonisation programme implemented by Brewdog includes a commitment to take carbon out of the air through “carefully vetted and ecologically sensitive forestation schemes”. Berners-Lee insists all businesses must agree to “high standards where there is no trading-off through bogus offset schemes”.

Pledges by businesses to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero came thick and fast in 2020. With Joe Biden’s entry into the White House, this trend is only expected to accelerate. However, Brewdog is one of only a handful of companies to have grasped the scale of the radical action needed to put words into practice and stop runaway climate change, Berners-Lee suggests.

Energy Monitor: Mike Berners-Lee on writing There is No Planet B Part of New Statesman Media Group

Books about climate action are piling into the market, but Berners-Lee’s contribution, first published two years ago, remains essential reading for business leaders. In an updated version, Berners-Lee, who is the founder of Small World Consulting, an associate company of Lancaster University in the UK, reiterates his call to action to rid the world of fossil fuels.

He offers a comprehensive set of practical, data-backed questions and answers to steer companies, politicians and the rest of us on to a more sustainable path. Those questions range from the personal (should I buy an electric car?) to the political (which is better, the market economy or the planned economy?), but each is underpinned by a pragmatic approach to the climate emergency.

Like his brother Tim, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee studied physics at Oxford before carving out a career in academia. He is now a professor at Lancaster, where he works in the Institute for Social Futures and investigates multi-disciplinary responses to the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

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Berners-Lee knows how to pack a well-aimed punch. “In the 21st century it is totally unhelpful to have organisations that exist primarily in order to make a profit,” he writes. And dealing with climate change means much more than buying in some wind or solar power. “All companies need to take a holistic approach to the transition to sustainability,” says Berners-Lee. “With Facebook, for example, we look at what they are doing on democracy and truth as having more climate impact than their own emissions.”

The need for companies to change their culture as much as their energy supply is central to Berners-Lee’s vision. “That all companies promote a culture of truth and intrinsic values, such as respect and care for the world, will be necessary for humanity to thrive in the years ahead,” he says. “We need to create a culture for business in which it is embarrassing to be seen to be careless with the truth.”

This truthfulness includes ensuring “business responses to climate change are coherent with science”, meaning companies need a strategy for dealing with their own emissions and energy use, and those of their supply chains. Companies have to make it clear to suppliers that to remain in the game, they have to “sort out their carbon”, says Berners-Lee. “Is this way, they can create a snowball effect.”

He is scathing about the speed of the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. “If you looked down from Mars, you would say people hadn’t noticed climate change yet,” he warns. “Nobody has got anything to be self-congratulatory about.” However, he cites the “tonne of calls to my consultancy from the asset management community” as an important sign that the worlds of business and finance are undergoing real change.

“There is a new seriousness and new demand for transparency from the finance industry, and an increasing yearning from asset managers for trustworthy funds that push the global energy transition,” Berners-Lee says.

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He credits the climate action protests inspired by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) as partly responsible for this change. “I thought asset managers would see me as a bit nutty if I talked about XR, but not at all, most people can see the space it is opening up,” he says. “I can now use the phrase ‘climate emergency’ with companies and not be seen as a hippy.”

Philippa Nuttall Jones is editor-in-chief of Energy Monitor.

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