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The business response to climate change: 6 ways we can make a difference together

The latest IPCC report shows that the climate emergency situation is undeniably bleak. However, it also offers plenty of rays of hope by highlighting that, while humans have caused the crisis, we can be part of the solution. By acting now and acting together (which it is our responsibility to do considering the innovation and insight at our disposal), we as businesses can use our collective influence and resource to genuinely transform society and avert climate catastrophe.

The time is now to do, not just say. Below are six actionable steps we can take to make a difference when we need to most: right now. How well we tackle each of these ‘signposts to sustainable operation’ will be central to how we are judged by the market, by our customers and by our colleagues.

6 steps to meaningful climate collaboration

#1: Prepare to be judged

With the worldwide attention on the latest IPCC report, and the COP26 fast approaching, every company will be asked what they are doing (and not just promising) to help combat climate change.

We should all expect increased demands to be placed on us to show that we are planning, designing, building and servicing in line with the Paris Agreement, as evidenced by signing up to the Science Based Targets Initiative.

Expect also to pay higher interest rates, have loans refused and attract less (or no) investment if you do not score high in tools for assessing to what extent your company is in line with the climate targets set out by the Paris Agreement and other national climate guidance/legislation.

Also expect your offices, your company cars, your traveling solutions, how your coffee is served and much else to be part of how you are evaluated and whether or not you are seen as a relevant partner for future work – both by potential clients and by potential future colleagues. If the best and the brightest from Generation Z, millennials and Generation Greta won’t apply for positions at your company, your future is not secure.

#2: Don’t stop at formal obligations

The IPCC report includes breakdowns on the regional effects of a changing climate, which helps us to better understand what must be done (here and now) to adapt.

This has mainly been the responsibility of cities and municipalities in the past, but now companies should also urgently reflect on how well prepared they – and their suppliers – are to cope with flooding, heatwaves, droughts and other effects of a changing climate. This should be seen as a duty of care to employees as well as the planet, even if not a formal obligation.

#3: Say “no” more often

The IPCC report shows that our ‘business as usual’ is not good enough, and every one of their scenarios on how to meet the 1.5 degree target includes phasing out coal.

At Sweco we have decided not to work with coal at all, and encourage others to do at least the same – a decision such as this will only be efficient for the climate only if all or most key actors agree (while at the same time remaining fierce competitors for other, climate aligned projects and as such raising the sustainability barometer for each other’s performance in the marketplace). Beyond that, we should more often be prepared to offer alternative ‘circular economy’ solutions – for instance, instead of a new office complex, refurbish or repurpose the current one.

#4: Go well beyond formal obligations

As a large consultancy company, what Sweco proposes for its clients will have an important impact on the climate. However, even with the full CDP climate accounting methodology, what is done in projects for clients falls well outside of the scope of our formal responsibility.

With the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Sweco has started a working group to define and calculate the climate impact in project. In the meantime, many more companies may find it useful to better present the impact their consultancy work, their products and their services have when used by their clients – whilst not formally their responsibility, it is something we are all increasingly expected to deal with.

#5: Ensure sustainability co-benefits

The IPCC report puts a much needed emphasis on the urgency of solving the climate crisis. Many of the solutions discussed in the aftermath of the report would help reduce the climate impact but do little to alleviate other sustainability targets that we have decided upon as a society, such as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – or even make it more difficult to reach them.

Even within the climate target, adaptation is often done at the behest of mitigation – when we prepare for a changing climate, we actually worsen climate change. Sweco has developed the Sustainability Sun to help businesses visualise co-benefit and avoid trade-offs, and all companies are encouraged to examine carbon cost balancing – using this tool or by other means.

#6: Drive the climate conversation

As businesses, we’re in a privileged position to obtain and share key insights into climate challenges as well as opportunities.

At every juncture, we should take our place as role models, and support clients by steering their thinking onto topics that will of course benefit the climate action mission, but also their everyday business goals.

#7: Make ourselves accountable

Hands up, we promised six steps. But when it comes to climate action we should always walk (or cycle) the extra mile.

The most important action we can take as businesses is to make ourselves accountable. Data-based evaluation of our climate performance is critical to identifying areas for improvement within our own operations as well as the projects we oversee. Roadmaps to 2025 are an example of how we can tangibly hold ourselves to our ambitions, while tools such as Sweco’s Sustainability Sun can become a focal point of discussions and planning.

At Sweco, we aim to be a role model in sustainability, taking responsibility for and being part of the solution to society’s sustainability and carbon reduction challenges. Our commitment is to do more to support and challenge our clients in delivering innovative solutions through expert consultancy and high-quality design.

Max Joy President, Sweco UK