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The Top 10 sustainability issues and opportunities

The Top 10 sustainability issues and opportunities


Green cars are one of the key areas that will help the UK move towards a low carbon economy – but what are the other top sustainability hot topics?

Leading industry experts came together at the base 2010 conference in London in March to transfer knowledge about the current most important sustainability issues for businesses. Speakers at the two-day event included Ed Miliband MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change; Hilary Benn MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Jonathon Porritt. More than 100 individual events included keynote speeches, seminars and workshops. From this, Paul Clarke, founder of and associate director, RSK Group, has pulled together the top 10 issues and opportunities for businesses and the public sector.

1. Climate change

Although the Copenhagen Summit, “Climategate” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s errors are seen as public relations disasters for the campaign to address climate change, the issue has not gone away. It was no real surprise that a global agreement on carbon caps was not reached in Copenhagen owing to the different priorities and interests of countries globally. However, although there was acknowledgement by Ed Miliband that there was no real advance for business, there was certainly no going backwards.

In the UK, issues such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment and public sector carbon budgets mean that the largest private and public sector organisations are committed to reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. But if large organisations have to find ways to reduce emissions, there are opportunities for other businesses to help with solutions. Globally, the race is on to move to a genuine low-carbon economy, but the UK is moving too slowly.

The real issue is that, thanks to past and current emissions of carbon dioxide, climate change is already built into the planet’s system. Therefore, mitigation and adaptation for climate change are required, but this issue is not being addressed seriously or with sufficient urgency. All new buildings should be designed with climate change in mind, and there are real opportunities for the engineering sector in terms of the rest of the built environment.

The high temperatures in Europe in recent years have cost the agricultural sector â‚Ź13 billion. In addition, French power company EDF has shut down some of its nuclear power stations due to lack of water, which has cost â‚Ź300 million. So, the economic effects of changing climate are here already and are set to get worse.

2. Energy

Globally, we are forecast to be “one Saudi Arabia short” in terms of our energy needs. This deficiency is widely believed to support the prediction that energy prices will continue to rise in the foreseeable future.

Energy security remains a critical issue, and the gap between the UK’s future energy needs and the existing supply is so large that there are significant opportunities for new sources of renewable and low-carbon energy.

The UK, however, has become the world leader in generating power from offshore wind, which shows that action is happening in the area of renewables.

Huge investment is needed to replace ageing energy infrastructure, both in the UK and the USA. Combined with this, is the need to move to a smart grid, whereby electricity is efficiently delivered from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology.

So, the energy sector will be very busy trying to produce more energy in a sustainable way, and it will need to enlist extra help for this huge task.

3. Buildings

Buildings are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, so there are major opportunities for designing new buildings that are significantly more energy efficient, and for retrofitting existing buildings with technology to lower their emissions. Building energy management systems and automatic meter reading should be used to help in the quest for improved energy use.

The recently announced feed-in tariff is a significant development for encouraging micro-renewables in buildings, as it will enable consumers to sell surplus energy that they generate to the grid, although the UK is well behind other European countries in introducing such an incentive.

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings, new and used, is a key area of opportunity, but more government regulation is needed to accelerate progress.

4. Transport

There will be a potential quantum leap in transport technology in the next few years. Top of the list will be the vehicles we drive, as many manufacturers plan an explosion in the availability of electric vehicles. In the UK, from the beginning of 2011, this will be accompanied by a government grant of up to £5000 towards electric vehicles that meet certain safety and performance criteria.

To ensure that the electric vehicles have power, much work is required to develop an electricity recharging infrastructure throughout the UK. The regional development agency One North East demonstrates leadership in this area, as it is encouraging the north-east region to become a world leader in ultra-low-carbon vehicle technologies. This includes building electric cars, developing the recharging infrastructure required and support ranging from creating a training academy for workforces to making use of Nissan’s test track. For a full story about what One North East is doing, see
next week.

5. Waste

Hilary Benn sees waste as one of the biggest areas of business opportunity and one driven by continuing increases in landfill tax and potential landfill bans. Subsequently, the government has launched consultation about introducing landfill restrictions or bans on nine waste streams, including paper and card, textiles, metals, wood, food, glass and plastics.

Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, certainly feels that more government leadership is needed in the area of waste and recycling, citing the example that when trying to design sustainable packaging, his company is faced with 90 different recycling regimes operating across the UK.

6. Water

Water, more specifically its availability and quality, is seen as a major issue. It is predicted that water conflict will occur owing to the differing demands of people, agriculture and industry. This constitutes a risk for any UK company, including food producers and supermarkets, that sources products requiring water.

7. Biodiversity

Although climate change will have a significant impact on the availability of water, so will the way in which we manage our ecosystems. Biodiversity is intrinsically linked to ecosystems, and it was refreshing to see the importance of biodiversity being stressed at the conference. Why does biodiversity matter to the economy? The natural world gives us clean air, water, food and an immense range of natural resources; without these, there are obvious problems for businesses and life on earth.

Many things are happening in the world that threaten to destroy the natural resources that keep our planet alive, for example, the destruction of rain forests through the continuing demand for more agricultural land. For a business to be truly sustainable, it must have a positive impact in the area of biodiversity.

This year is the International Year of Biodiversity, and more can be found out about why nature is important for the economy at the International Union for Conservation of Nature UK Conference, which takes place 18-20 April in Edinburgh. For more information, please visit

8. Integrating sustainability

Sustainability used to be an add-on to the core activities of a business. Marks & Spencer has recently implemented its Plan A in order to become more sustainable, and, rather than costing the company money, becoming more sustainable has saved it £50 million. This might be the impetus that is needed to encourage all businesses to integrate sustainability into their core business operations rather than regarding it as an add-on.

The main focus of recent years has been carbon, but sustainability is more than just carbon, and successful businesses and the public sector now need to ensure that the full range of sustainability issues are central to their operations.

9. Government

The base event came in the run-up to a general election, so it was no surprise that politics were on the agenda. The key message from businesses is that they want certainty and stability. Companies will be more prepared to invest if they know that the government will not change the rules too quickly.

Regulation was hotly debated throughout the event, with most people wanting incentives rather than regulations. However, energy efficiency, waste and recycling were examples of areas where it is felt that more government regulation is needed.

The big opportunity for government was seen as sustainable procurement. It was stated that “millions of decisions are currently made with no thought about the consequences.” Government and the public sector have a real opportunity to kick start sustainable procurement on a much bigger scale, and this will obviously have an influence that spreads to businesses. There is currently a serious lack of information about carbon in the supply chain; government and public sector organisations taking the lead on sustainable procurement could help to generate this information.

10. Communication

Perhaps one of the most important areas considered at base was communication, which could be the secret to unlocking the move to a more sustainable future. A wide variety of speakers, ranging from politicians to Porritt, raised the issue. They felt that communication efforts must make sustainability look more attractive. At the moment, there is a tendency to tell people they cannot do things. Instead, the opportunity must be taken to communicate a better, more engaging vision about the low carbon future, i.e., moving from stop to start, and from cannot to can.

Associated with this was the issue of “greenwash”: the marketing of products and services as green when they are not. There has been a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about such unsubstantiated green claims. Even the government has been pulled up by the Advertising Standards Authority for its Act on CO2 adverts, not for greenwash, but for stating that there will definitely be more extreme weather in the future, rather than saying that this scenario is likely.

So, rather than using greenwash advertising and marketing, businesses should genuinely engage with consumers and communities in order to bring about behavioural changes that will result in a more sustainable future. People want to be shown the positive things they can do to improve quality of life, and we need to make it easy for them. For examples of effective sustainability communication, see


A few years ago, campaigning groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, brought environmental issues onto the agendas of politicians and businesses. Then came a focus on sustainable development, followed by climate change. Just as carbon dioxide emissions are invisible, so, to many people, are the issues of biodiversity and the links between the environment and health. When the focus moves away from climate change, will these be the next big sustainability issues?

So there are a number of issues surrounding sustainability and from these arise opportunities. To assist with making real progress towards genuine sustainability, effective communication about an appealing low carbon future is the key.

For more information, please contact Paul Clarke

Keywords: The Top 10 sustainability issues and opportunities, low carbon economy, base 2010 conference, Climate change, Energy, Buildings, Transport, Waste, Water, Biodiversity, Integrating sustainability, Government, Communication