Bristol businesses respond to the climate emergency

Nina Skubala
Initiative Manager | Business West
4th October 2019

This event write-up is based on a Business West hosted roundtable held at Leigh Court on the 11th September to explore the Business Response to the Climate Emergency. The aim was to draw out learning and insights from a range of experts that should be considered by Business West as it seeks to develop its approach to the Climate Emergency.

It was chaired by the Executive Chair for the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and the West of England Initiative, Cannon Dr John Savage, and attendees included leaders from business, civil society, universities and industry experts. We thank all the participants for their contribution.


As a membership organisation that represents approximately 20,000 businesses across the South West of England, Business West exists to help businesses in the region to start, grow and thrive. A not-for-profit company with 200 staff and a turnover of over £10m, Businesses West has been exploring what role it can play in the current climate and ecological emergency dialogue.  

There has been an increased sense of urgency since the publication of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in October 2018, which said the earth was only 12 years away from a climate catastrophe. It concluded that “urgent and unprecedented changes” were required to keep the ambitious pledge made in Paris of keeping the earth’s temperature rise between 1.5C and 2C. Young people and the public are making their concerns known through a series of strikes and disobediences. Business is also voicing its concerns with Legal and General, and The Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group.

Young people have written to the government asking that government 'act immediately' on installing legislation that will achieve net-zero gas emissions by 2050. A number of councils and local authorities in the region that Business West operates have declared Climate Emergencies, as have our members, such as the University of Bristol and We the Curious.

Business West has a track record of providing leadership in this sphere having:

  • Established and chaired Bristol Environmental Action Trust
  • Partnered with Forum for the Future to create a Sustainable Travel Plan for West of England
  • Been a founding partner of Green Capital Partnership and previous Vice-Chair
  • Partnered in Forum for the Future West of England Carbon Challenge
  • Helped to secure the European Green Capital Award for Bristol in 2015
  • Been a Strategic Partner of Bristol 2015
  • Member of Sustainable Development Goal Alliance

Business West has also delivered resource efficiency and sustainable business support to over 2,000 businesses through the Go Green scheme and ERDF funded Improving Your Resource Efficiency projects, and has delivered services in skills and innovation to develop low carbon industries. In addition, through working in partnerships, it has championed and backed a number of schemes aimed at promoting greater resource efficiency such as the Travel West Commuter Challenge and Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles.

Business West’s own environmental impacts are managed using ISO 14001 and it has recently signed up to the International Chamber of Commerce Chambers Climate Coalition and in doing so, has committed to:

  • Advocate for climate action within our business networks and for well-conceived policies to limit the global average temperate rise to 1.5°C.
  • Support the goal of achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050.
  • Mainstream climate mitigation and resilience guidance into Chamber services.
  • Work with public and private entities to support effective climate solutions as part of a transformational change that works for people and planet.
  • Reduce the greenhouse footprint from Chamber activities without delay.

Meeting format

Business West selected a group of 30 members, partners, stakeholders and environmental professionals to take part in the roundtable. Bristol City Council, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Business Declares, VANA and We the Curious were each asked to present to the group the approach that they had each taken. This was followed by an open discussion with the Chair asking the room to consider the following questions and to share their responses with the group around the room throughout the session to allow for everyone attending to participate fully.

  • How high up in importance are climate and ecological crises in your business agenda or those of businesses you are aware of? And how can awareness best be raised?
  • How should businesses approach net zero carbon and biodiversity loss? 
  • How will this region reach net zero carbon and what should be the business role?
  • What are the risks and rewards of achieving net carbon and reducing biodiversity loss? 
  • What should Business West's role be in encouraging or advising on necessary actions to support businesses?
  • Does your business or organisation have expertise that can be shared?
  • What are the benefits and risks of Business West and its members declaring a climate emergency?

Presentation summaries

  • Alex Minshull, Sustainability and Climate Change Manager at Bristol City Council spoke about the leadership taken by the Council having been the first local authority in the UK to declare a Climate Emergency. He then went on to talk about their ambition – net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and how, as this was within most people’s working life, making the need to take action feel more urgent. Having set about a bold ambition, the council has established a One City Environmental Sustainability Board which will lead the development of a new Climate Strategy for Bristol. He introduced the work done to date with Regen who produced a report detailing the baseline carbon emissions for the City of Bristol and a Gap Analysis towards reaching carbon neutrality as well as the City Leap Prospectus that details a series of energy and infrastructure investment opportunities in the city.
  • Ian Townsend, CEO of Bristol Green Capital Partnership told the group that a recent member survey showed that 16% of their members had already declared a Climate Emergency and a further 11% were intending to do so within the next 12 months. They, as an organisation, had developed a primer to help their members to address the Climate and Ecological Emergency on their journey to net zero carbon. He explained how members were using the partnership’s vision to enact change within their own organisations and how, through the One City Environment Board they could influence and shape developments in the city.
  • Fiona Ellis, Director at Business Declares spoke about the next 18 months being critical in dealing with the Climate Crisis and now was the time for business to take meaningful action. She explained how she and others including John Elkinton, who coined the phrase “triple bottom line”, published a letter in The Times in support of the Extinction Rebellion to the Times. This has resulted in the creation of Business Declares, an 18 month campaign. Business Declares launches in London on the 20th September, Climate Strike Day. Businesses signing up are asked to: tell the truth on the climate and ecological emergency, celebrate and support companies that declare, share best practice and influence others to take action. She gave a great example as to how JLL are embracing this approach and are engaging staff in "lunch and learn" sessions to challenge themselves. She challenged the room to act faster and finished with something she was told by Aviva “there is no business as usual in a 1.5 degree world”.
  • Jaya Chakrabarti, CEO of the TISCreport spoke how Corporate Transparency could help the UK to sequester carbon through afforestation. Having been successful at addressing modern day slavery through TISC, through VANA she is turning her hand to afforestation. The concept is simple; identify who owns land in the UK in the corporate sphere and link these up with afforestation groups in a strategic way to sequester carbon – this is explained in this video. The project is in development and Jaya has already secured the ex CSR lead from Marks and Spencer to join her board.
  • Chris Dunford, Head of Sustainability at We the Curious is leading the way as the only science centre in the world that has announced a Climate Emergency. Chris spoke about the considerations taken, particularly around engaging their staff. This included consulting staff prior to the declaration to embed throughout the organisation, inviting suggestions and feedback and ensuring that their communications team were well briefed on the day of their announcement. Staff recommended that the organisation also declare the actions that it would take in addition to the Climate Emergency statement – this has given them a new “lens” to consider when working with its partners and clients and as a result they have taken the decision to no longer run an Ice Rink, switching to low carbon electricity suppliers and a move towards having no fossil fuels on site. The organisation has a dedicated "Sustainable Futures Team” with representatives from across the business that push for continual improvements – any one time there are 18 projects in action. Since declaring, they have found a partners of choice with organisations and groups approaching them to work with them on account of their declaration.

 The Chair, John Savage then opened up the discussion to the rest of the room. The key discussion points that emerged include:

Evidencing the truth 

There is acceptance across the business community that Climate Change is taking place and an acceptance of the IPCC Climate Report 2018 that to significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change, increases to global average temperatures must be held to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and we should pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C. Chris Dunford from We the Curious said that prior to their Climate Emergency Declaration they wanted to make sure that they and their staff understood the document and shared a summary of the report with their employees. A greater understanding of localised emissions and anticipated climate impact would provide evidence to enable more informed planning and policy decisions.

Place-based interventions

Matt Griffith, Director of Policy at Business West, explained the need for a greater understanding of local carbon footprints to understand what place based interventions are required and what might be the asks to policy and decision makers. This enables the Climate Emergency to be factored into local plans such as the Industrial Strategy and Spatial Plans.

Bristol City Council have done some work to understand the city's carbon footprint and how it could reach net zero emissions. Their baseline and gap analysis produced by Regen found that in order to reach net zero carbon emissions, considerable investment and change would be required by local and national government and the support of businesses, institutions, communities and individuals. Baseline carbon emissions for the City of Bristol were around 1724 kt CO2e in 2016 which equates to c3.7 tonnes of CO2E per person per year, roughly split into thirds by end-users of domestic, non-domestic and travel demands. The report anticipates that in order to reach net zero carbon by 2030, the greatest reductions will come from the non-domestic sector and the least reductions from the transport (Figure 1). The report envisages that carbon reductions would be achieved by:

  • Complete removal of petrol and diesel vehicles. This would require adoption of a stringent emission zone policy combined with national policies to prohibit the sale and use of fossil fuel vehicles
  • 95% of vehicles run on electric and remaining vehicles to be run on biogas or hydrogen
  • The electricity source would be near to 100% renewable with an intensity of less than 20g CO2 per kWh and Hydrogen to be manufactured using low carbon techniques. 
  • A reduction in overall car use of 25% with a shift to public, shared transport solution and active travel.
  • All properties heated or cooled by a low carbon source e.g. heat pumps, green gas and heat networks.
  • A decarbonised the heat network
  • The use of zero carbon building standards for new builds
  • A need to explore renewable energy projects beyond the city boundary to offset  emissions e.g. the Severn
  • At a national level, bring the grid electricity to close to 100% renewable of low carbon
  • Supporting a shift in non-fossil fuel new heating sources e.g. heat pumps
  • Facilitating the shift towards electric and low carbon vehicles,
  • Encourage institutions to invest in the generating assets supplying electricity

Figure 1 Summary Results from Bristol City Council Regen Report

Helping individual businesses

A number of organisations have already produced guidance and support for businesses wishing to declare a Climate and Ecological emergency, these include: Bristol Green Capital Partnership Primer, B Corp Climate Emergency PlaybookBusiness Declares Resources and UKSSD Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change. There is a role for Business West and other business support agencies and business networks to ensure that its members and networks are aware of the issue and how it might impact their business, given the opportunity to learn how best to adapt and support to make changes. This support may be delivered by closed roundtable meetings for businesses in a similar size, sector or geography (e.g. urban/rural) to better understand the barriers, workshops, online tutorials, blogs, social media, through upskilling existing business advisors and the creation of new business support programmes.  There is a need to align with existing schemes, in Bristol for example, there is:

  • Going for Gold, a campaign to help Bristol to achieve a Gold Food Status city – this scheme advocates for a number of business actions around food waste and procurement that would contribute towards reduced emissions
  • Sustainable Development Goals Alliance is an active network sharing best practice around the UN Sustainable Development Goals 
  • Bristol City Council Social Value Toolkit provides a mechanism for organisations to put a social value on measures taken to sequester carbon, address air quality, adopt circular business models and reduce transport emissions.


It was discussed how procurement could make a greater difference to cutting carbon emissions. Whilst carbon footprint of products and activities and their effect on the environment are used to make sourcing decisions it was felt that this was not weighted highly enough against costs. Participants spoke of the pressure to push down price was disincentivising business to de-carbonise. John Savaged posed whether a shift in taxation might be needed, whilst it was suggested that the tech and finance sectors may have solutions and should be engaged.

Employee engagement

There was a sense that employee engagement would be a key factor in the success of a business or organisation taking the journey towards becoming net zero. It was highlighted that some carbon intensive sectors may be at risk and this could cause concern for employees around their jobs and the changes that businesses may choose to take – particularly around travel reimbursement or on-site parking facility. Fiona Ellis from Business Declares spoke about "Lunch and Learn" sessions run by JLL where employees could share best practice were working well, and Bristol City Council were embarking on training for their senior managers. Whilst at We the Curious – a dedicated Futures team made up by individuals from different levels from across the business gave the opportunity for wide engagement and effective take up. The effectiveness of including the voice of young people when engaging in this topic and bringing them into meetings was discussed and had been found to be effective, particularly at board level.


There is an appetite for both global, national and regional solutions to sequester carbon and protect biodiversity amongst the roundtable participants. Participants spoke about their investments into tree planting and wind turbines in India and how they yielded better value and carbon returns than UK based schemes. Others spoke about their efforts to re-wild land across the UK and the potential to develop schemes that would enable localised offsetting by investing in carbon reduction schemes such as retrofitting homes. It was clear that there is an opportunity to develop this industry as there is likely to be a growing demand on businesses wishing to offset residual carbon emissions to reach net zero. There are concerns around the current low value placed on carbon emissions, mistrust in some of the current schemes. 

Next steps

  • Business West board to evaluate its own business response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency
  • Business West to work with local and national partners to provide businesses with advice, guidance and support towards addressing the Climate and Ecological Emergency
  • Business West to work with its members and partners to create a forum to consider place based solutions and interventions and policy decisions

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  • The West of England Initiative

    Provides an effective link between private and public sectors to ensure the interests of commerce are considered in key decision making.

  • The West of England Initiative

    Provides an effective link between private and public sectors to ensure the interests of commerce are considered in key decision making.