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The New Edinburgh Centre Putting Climate at the Heart of Business Strategy

Posted: 3rd December 2020

Economies are attempting to rebuild in the wake of Covid-19. There’s growing momentum around the idea of “building back better”, by prioritising spending on jobs in sectors that help reduce climate change emissions and withstand future shocks.

Meanwhile, Scotland has been given an extra year to prepare to host the next global climate change summit.

These factors and more mean that now is the time for business leaders to put sustainability at the heart of their strategies. And right on cue, the University of Edinburgh Business School has brought together its long-established climate change and sustainability research centres into a new entity with bigger ambitions for transforming the economy and society.

The Director of the new Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability, Dr Sarah Ivory, says the aim is to offer practical solutions for businesses and policymakers who want to act on the scientific and economic reality of climate change:

“The centre builds on the Business School’s decade-long track record in these areas, bringing together a dozen colleagues across disciplines such as finance, marketing and strategy, along with academics from other parts of the university such as geosciences, politics and engineering. It reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the challenges we face and the solutions we need to develop.”

The fact that COP26, the next global gathering to agree action to tackle climate change, is now 14 months away, due to Covid-19, isn’t entirely bad news, according to Sarah:

“There are three silver linings. The first is that the pandemic has demonstrated something that years of advocacy, encouragement, and even some government policy failed to achieve: there is a different way forward from the traditional approach to business with central office buildings, significant daily commutes, and business travel the norm.

“Second, we have seen communities come together and individuals and families become aware of what matters and how they might voluntarily embrace some of the enforced changes in their post-Covid lives.

“Third, it has given the UK government some breathing space in their plans and diplomacy for a successful global outcome from the Conference of Parties in Glasgow. Whether they will embrace that opportunity remains to be seen.”

After the 2008 financial crash emissions dropped but then rebounded as economies revived. Sarah is hopeful this time will be different:

“There will be many stimulus packages post-Covid, and we need governments all over the world to ensure these are linked to a low carbon transition while also supporting the most vulnerable by enabling them to remain employed. Dubbed a Green New Deal, this is our one chance to seriously and significantly reset the economy and society on a pathway to an environmentally stable future. It is a chance to shift away from metrics such as GDP – where economic growth matters irrespective of the impact of that growth – and to ‘build back better’.”

“We all have influence in our roles, even in small ways.” – Sarah Ivory, Director, B-CCaS

For those who are sceptical that the business community is sincere about the transition to a low-carbon economy, Sarah flags four things:

“The first is the transparency that comes from a more connected world in which abuses on one side of the world become same-day news stories on the other.

“The second is the demands of individuals, groups, communities, and institutions for organisations to live up to certain social and environmental standards if they are to maintain their social license to operate and their markets.

“The third are investors, who may not be moving fast enough, but certainly are moving towards a recognition of the significant impacts – environmental, social but also financial and economic – of valuing short term returns over long term value and contribution to society.

“And last are the people. Yes, some are leaders like former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, or the late Interface Chairman Ray Anderson. But it is also the factory manager who pushes for energy savings investments, the engineer who innovates to develop a climate-resilient solution at equal or lower cost despite not being briefed to do so, the academic who commits to research and promoting solutions to help businesses achieve their sustainability aims. We all have influence in our roles, even in small ways.”

And, Sarah says, the Business School’s connection to the city of Edinburgh puts the new research centre at a distinct advantage:

“We have fantastic support from the Edinburgh financial community, especially given it is a community with a long-term, patient approach to capital and investment. For many of the members of the financial community here, share ownership is not a number on a spreadsheet. It represents company ownership, and this means company responsibility; encouraging, supporting and in some cases driving the companies they invest in to make long term decisions which support a sustainable society.

“Scotland’s renewables community is also world-leading both in terms of academic research and proof of concept ideas, as well as commercially viable and operational renewable technology companies. In many ways, the country itself is demonstrating how to transition from an oil and gas hub to a renewable hub, and showing the world that it is possible.”

Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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