This city region has a long been recognised as a leader of sustainable causes, earning Bristol its European Green Capital title in 2015. Since then, concerns around climate have soared, culminating in the international declaration of a climate emergency in 2018. Bristol’s response to this is the One City Climate Strategy, which was released just weeks prior to the impacts on the UK of the most dramatic health crisis the world has seen in generations
Although the document is an exemplar of progressive thinking towards a greener future, there are valid concerns that this type of strategy might be set aside, whilst struggling families, communities and businesses are understandably prioritised: particularly as the business community begins to turn its thoughts to how we might recover from the economic crisis.
But two unexpected consequences of the crisis hold clues to how the strategy might be even more pertinent now:
1) Many people have been forced to just… pause. And not only to pause, but to re-evaluate what really matters in the context of a real threat to life and to society as we know it. New themes are emerging, including community, compassion, nature, and sustainability.
2) A sharp decline in carbon emissions. Even if the decline is artificially inflated, it is considerable – last week, the Financial Times reported a 60% drop in carbon emissions in the EU. These restrictions have of course been enforced and the impacts of this sharp travel decline are devastating for many, but perhaps the environmental results do at least demonstrate what’s possible if enough people reconsider whether every trip is necessary.
It goes without saying that these consequences do not exist in isolation. The context is extreme economic uncertainty and serious threat to thousands of businesses across the city region alone. Business West’s Trading Through Coronavirus hub is helping hundreds of businesses to navigate deeply anxious times. Central government’s commitment to releasing funds to underwrite the economy could amount to £40bn per quarter, raising different concerns about the long-term societal economic impacts of doing so.
Clearly, there are no easy answers – but the business community will need to rebuild, and the sooner that process begins, the better chance we all have of full recovery. At Government’s daily Covid-19 round-up on 14 April, Rishi Sunak stated that in the face of a large – although hopefully temporary – shock to the economy, investing in infrastructure and levelling up the economy remains the strategy to rebuild the economy.
While it will be essential to hit the ground running in terms of national infrastructure we need to provide opportunities to some of the worst hit, some are asking whether through the lens of new priorities and recent environmental benefits, recovery necessarily needs to reflect everything within the pre-coronavirus status quo.
While nobody would wish to continue with the current situation indefinitely, it does draw out some of the values that can fall by the wayside in the whirlwind of ‘normal’ working life; perhaps there is an opportunity to consider how we might rebuild with a greater emphasis on compassion, community and – time critically – climate.
In February 2020, Copper Consultancy, specialists in communications for infrastructure and development, released research on public attitudes to carbon net zero targets. It found that although most people support Government’s target of net zero by 2050, they do not believe the target will be achieved – and they aren’t prepared to pay for it.
But efforts to combat coronavirus have highlighted that we are one community, dealing with threats to our health, wellbeing and way of life together – and perhaps they show how we can pull together to overcome a range of existential issues on a scale we haven’t seen for generations.
The One City Climate Strategy calls for direct, decisive action now – and a need to “radically rethink how we live, work and invest in the city”. It promotes integrative collaboration across businesses, communities, investors and visitors to develop a plan to achieve carbon net zero within the decade.
There are many positive business behaviours emerging from this crisis that could, if continued, help us reach net zero. As long as our strategy for rebuilding is rooted in robust economic recovery plans for the businesses that need it, there is also the opportunity to support a move to a healthier, more sustainable way of working. Some examples are:
- Health: a focus on mental wellbeing and exercise
- Community: leaving no-one behind and using the business community’s influence to support the most vulnerable in society
- Remote working: with the proliferation of Zoom, Houseparty and MS Teams, we have found ways of working that reduce the need to commute, provide flexibility beyond the 9-5 and allow people to spend more time with family
- Innovation, communication and collaboration: businesses are stepping beyond business as usual on big societal causes (the aerospace industry is manufacturing ventilators; the tech, food and distribution industries are merging to create online food deliveries). Industries thinking creatively about their offering could represent a significant leap in terms of delivering net zero
- Recognition of society’s interdependencies: as awareness of our vulnerabilities in the face of a crisis like this grows, there are valuable lessons we can learn about resilience, particularly in terms of meeting sustainable development goals.
Whether all of these trends remain or not remains to be seen, but what it is certain is that we are beginning to see real camaraderie and collaboration in the face of this crisis – trends which if embraced long-term, could hold the key to achieving the city’s ambitious net zero targets.
Together with Bristol Green Capital Partnership and Copper Consultancy, Business West will be running a series of workshops to define a shared vision for business in the next decade, and how we can best support carbon net zero goals for 2030.