Opinion

COP 26

CYB's founder, Ben Stewart, on the urgent need to align rhetoric and regulation

We know there is now nothing more important, more urgent, for humanity than stopping and ideally reversing global warming. And COP26 here in the UK is the critical forum for seeking global consensus on the priorities for action to achieve this. 

Small businesses like ourselves are ready to play our part, and some have indeed started without specific direction, or mandates. But it is unavoidable that regulation and mandates will be essential to drive the behaviour changes that are needed to meet the goals of net-zero carbon emissions.

However, the enormous challenge of achieving behavioural change - just how difficult it is for people to accept a new normal - has been aptly illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people are not willing to change how they live even when their lives, and the lives of others, are in danger. Even though the scale of impact already makes Covid-19 appear a glitch, global warming fails to register in the lives of many people and their elected leaders.

COP26 must be cognisant of this, and now successfully incorporate recommendations in its global toolbox for how to drive behaviour change across borders, cultures, people, and businesses of all types and sizes, using all the learning from recent events. 

Most importantly we call for COP26 to drive governments to establish strong alignment through all levels of society and its institutions. Common goals and actions need to exist at every level of society. Poorly aligned investments and incentivisation are the main reasons why big government initiatives fail to achieve the necessary behaviour changes and their desired goals. 

Just in the area of mobility and transport alone, three areas require strong directives from COP26 to force big changes in industrialised countries:

  1. Public transport services must be able to operate with zero-carbon emissions, with very low costs to passengers, free wherever possible, and networks must be increased to support freedom of movement for work.

  2. Air travel must be avoided and reduced - businesses need to have a local physical presence, and remote virtual presence. Flights must be minimised until global warming is halted, only then can the numbers of flights that operate be reconsidered. 

  3. Road infrastructure must be reduced - businesses should no longer be able to make an assumption that roads will be provided and maintained for commercial exploitation with no environmental consequence. Electric vehicles do not offset the enormous carbon cost of road infrastructure - we need to change the established model and attitude towards the commercial exploitation of roads. 

At the level of a small people-focussed business, we are motivated every day with protecting our staff - their income, their health, their careers, their families.  So we cannot force an individual to, for example, commute using the train instead of driving their car when the train costs £200 a month more (a current journey where driving half-way into London, from Strood, significantly reduces the costs of the commute). 

These misalignments are set to continue and get worse with the UK’s current transport infrastructure investments. These focus on increasing and encouraging carbon usage:

  1. £98bn+ on HS2 which will never be carbon neutral in its projected 120 year lifespan (1)

  2. £14bn+ on another London airport runway which will massively increase carbon (2) emissions

  3. £27bn+ on strategic road networks which will significantly increase carbon emissions even if all vehicles on the roads were being electrically powered with renewable energy (3)

These UK government goals drive massive misalignment down through society and indeed communicate that businesses like ours do not need to take global warming seriously. They take the hard earned tax of small businesses like ours and that of our staff and associates, and use it to drive carbon emissions up, giving us nothing of use as a result and damning us to a future of no hope in the face of global warming.

They leave little time and effort and money for entirely new infrastructure required for our desired zero-carbon future, and continue the pitiful levels of spending on walking, cycling, electric buses and trams.

For our small business and others we know, we don’t need to get between UK cities any faster. Outside of commuting, regular train travel simply isn’t necessary - it is far too inefficient and is highly unproductive both at a business level and a personal level.

Similarly flying goes against the values of our business which is to encourage local expertise by not flying our consultants into distant roles. This was a founding principle when establishing the company over 10 years ago. When we can make a significant difference to local expertise by flying and having a face to face presence we optimise the event with planning and give it the time it deserves, seeking never to repeat the journey. 

We have no need for increasing road networks and instead encourage all businesses to support both working from home and flexible working hours, including job sharing. In particular eliminating the ‘rush hours’ which are a direct result of workplace commuting almost entirely negates the need for road infrastructure improvements. 

The current misalignment of incentives across almost all areas of UK society needs to be addressed by COP26 - it needs to dictate that countries must align incentives through central, local, and city government policies such that the carbon reduction message is clear to businesses and citizens, and becomes an obvious and simple choice in our everyday lives. 

(1) HS2