Opening keynote | Making Sustainability Profitable
Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK's Independent Committee on Climate Change, opens the conference with an impactful speech.
The conference kicked off with a keynote speech from Lord Deben, who served for sixteen years as a British minister, including Secretary of State for the Environment.
Lord Deben is also Chairman of the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change, he chairs Valpak Ltd, and the Personal Investment Management & Financial Advice Association, and is a director of Castle Trust.
Listen again to Lord Deben's keynote...
Lord Deben's Opening keynote speech
Ladies, gentlemen, I'm very pleased to be here and, I want to start just by reminding us that, the words net zero are two: net and zero, and both of them are crucially important. We tend to think about it in terms of reducing our emissions and of course bringing them down to zero is a very real and important target.
But the 'net' bit reminds us that we can't do it. In other words, we all emit, you are all emitting at the moment. I'm emitting, always feel sorry for the poor old cows who get blamed for emissions. But we don't. And yet we, by our very lives, emit. What has happened to the world is that we both have loaded it with so many emissions that it can't cope.
But we've also made it less able to cope than it used to be. So we've done both, and what we have to do is to get that balance back. The great writer Rachel Carson, whose book The Silent Spring, changed so many of our attitudes and lives - those of us who were brought up at the time. The book was published in the 1960s.
She was the one who invented this phrase of the balance of nature. And the balance of nature always was that we were able to emit not so much that it overwhelmed and the world was able to sequestrate the carbon that we had. And of course, that was crucially important because we can all remember the one bit of science that all of us can remember, which was that the world was once too hot to have anything very much growing on it.
And it was gradually the emergence of trees and bushes that took the carbon out of the atmosphere, lowered the temperature, and then we began to have reptiles and fish and then mammals and finally human beings. No one understood those people who couldn't understand that if you reverse the process and put the carbon back into the atmosphere, it was likely to reverse the process and heat it all up again.
Don't need to know much science to understand that. And so what we have done is to put ourselves into this terrible spiral, which is that we push more and more emissions out and we make the world less and less able to sequestrate. That's why the concept of natural capital is absolutely central to the way in which we have to deal with climate change.
And I think the best way to think about it is the way that the Pope put it in his great encyclical, now six years old, laudato si. And in that he says, of course, climate change is a symptom of the disease, not the disease. Climate change is the Earth crying out for healing. And if we are going to do something about it, we have to heal it because we've gotta make it able to heal itself.
And we can only do that by not overloading it and by enabling it to sequestrate both through land and sea. And after all, what we've managed to do is to remove its ability to do that properly. And although we are talking today about the land, just remember we've done it to the sea as well. We're still allowing trawlers to dig up the bottom of the sea.
And thereby release the carbon, which has been put there and make the sea bed less able to sequestrate. It is barmy, apart from all the damage it does as far as the food chain for the fish and the rest of it, it's a simple change which we could make and which we ought to make. And I use it merely as the example of how bad we have been at just thinking through the simplest basic matters which make both net and zero really possible to achieve.
But we're talking about the land and natural capital, and of course the truth is that we have moved away from the historic means of growing our food and of looking after our animals, because historically farmers had to work with nature because they had no alternative. They had to organise things according to the temperature, according to the rain, according to the natural capital with which they were endowed.
And then came the period, which is the period that Rachel Carson deals with so effectively, then came the period in which we thought we were masters. We thought that we were in charge. We thought we could do anything and find a way of forcing nature to do our bidding. And it is that horrific moment in life when the human being became so dominant that we became so arrogant that we believed we could do anything.
And that's why of course, we have bereft the earth of so much of its value. If you eat your five a day today, you will have less nutrition than you would've had 50 years ago, because the trace elements aren't there because we have soil, which is significantly less fecund because we have spread over it the cheap, easy way of getting more food quickly, but forgetting what we've done to the soil. And that second great woman who has done so much to change the world, Lady Eve Balfour, the founder of The Soil Association, she used to talk very simply about respecting the soil, about making people think about the soil as not as dirt, but as the as the basis of all life.
And we are beginning to relearn that. Even people who have been laughing at muck and magic and the organic movement declare interest because I have a small organic farm and I don't believe it's muck and magic. There's certainly no magic about it, but it is beginning to be very encouraging when I can point out how much the profits improve if you don't have expensive inputs, it's surprising how the cost is beginning to turn people's minds about what is happening. And we are finding more and more people who recognise that you can't go on as you were going on, in terms of using the land as we have done, and because of that change and because there is this significant move towards regenerative farming, we are relearning a lot of the skills of our forefathers and foremothers, if there is such a word. I'm trying to be politically correct. And if we are learning again, how you work with nature and we are doing that all over the world. One of the companies which Sancroft works with is teaching 290,000 small farmers how you can grow cotton sustainably.
They have tiny farms, they grow several crops. But if the cotton is to be sustainable as it is necessary for the company to be able honestly to say that their products are sustainable, then all these small farmers have in fact to learn how to live with nature again and how not to destroy the fecundity of their soil.
And in that context, when Bidwells is advising on land management and indeed on land purchase, in that context, we all of us have to recognise that this isn't a series of single things. It is a total way of looking at the world. The great achievement of fixing on net zero was that it stopped people thinking that they could get out of their responsibilities when it was an 80% reduction.
Surprising how many people thought that they were going to be the 20% who didn't have to reduce. When it's a hundred percent, then you do actually think much more seriously about achieving this end. So I want to leave you with four thoughts which are worth really applying to your own business. And the thoughts that we in Sancroft have been working on because it's not just climate change, it's right across the board.
It's sustainability as a whole. And the first thought is the supply chain is crucial. Every single link in it matters and has to be watched and does not the lessons of covid teach us all that things we never thought about, we found we couldn't get and couldn't do without. The supply chain is not only necessary, but it's our responsibility and we have to get the supply chain right if we are going to get our climate change demands right - not just category one and two, but category three.
The second thing is we have to begin to have a world in which each one of us approaches every decision we make by saying, is this sustainable? Because if we don't, then there will be no sustainability and it will in fact have an effect not only on ourselves, but the rest of the country and the world.
And the third thing we have to say to ourselves is if we want to be here, our business, our college, whatever it is, if we want to be here in a hundred years time, it's now we have to make the choices. So saying 'Is this sustainable?' is about our future. The chairman of Coca-Cola, a company we worked with for very many years and work with now, the chairman of Coca-Cola once said to me, as far as I'm concerned, sustainability is Coca-Cola being here in 125 years as we've been here for 125 years.
That's why they now don't use 12 liters of water to produce a liter of Coke, but only one liter of water. And actually, they renew every one of it, put more water back than they take out. That's why they have become the first great company to stop using HFCs in their refrigeration. It's very selfish. They want to be here in 125 years time.
And the last thing is very simple. Every time we think about decisions, we should remind ourselves that a whole lot of businesses will not be here in 12 years time in 10 years time, in many cases, in five years time.
Carrying on a battle with ExxonMobil at this moment, they are building a new pipeline from Fawley to Heathrow to provide 147% more fossil fuels for industry, an aviation industry, which is not going to be able to use it, and they seem totally unable to understand that this is absolutely clearly a stranded asset. They haven't told their shareholders and they haven't understood that it means that their promise to be net zero in 2050 doesn't mean anything, because if you don't do it now, not tomorrow, but now, you won't get there in 2050. And those of you who've got more ambitious proposals, and many of you have - know that today is when you start and not tomorrow. And so I say to you very simply, this is the message for our existence.
This is what we have to do in order to be profitable, in order to be here and above all, in order to make sure the rest of the world is here in a condition which makes life as we know it, available to ourselves, not just our children, ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. We know, so we have the responsibility, we know, and therefore we have to act.