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The Guardian : Sustainability is central to survival

It’s not enough simply to wear the badge of corporate responsibility. Business must accept that real change is the only response to the global crisis of sustainability

Jonathan Porritt
Monday November 6, 2006

The Campaign Against Arms Trade was understandably incensed when BAE announced that it would be launching a new range of environment-friendly weapons, including “lead free” bullets, rockets with reduced toxins and grenades that produce less smoke. There have even been experiments to see if explosives can be converted into manure.

BAE executives may well believe they are “doing the right thing” in marginally reducing their environmental footprint while staying true to their particular business model: making as much money as possible flogging weapons of deadly destruction to whoever is prepared to buy them – legally, of course.

It is hard to imagine a better way of explaining the difference between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate sustainability. BAE will no doubt be looking for plaudits in the world of CSR indexes and reports, and may well get them, on the grounds that it’s obviously preferable for combatants to die or be wounded in a clean environment rather than a polluted hell-hole. But by any serious measure of sustainability, it’s plain ridiculous.

In 2005, global expenditure on arms topped $1 trillion, completely undermining whatever paltry efforts we are currently making to redirect the global economy on to a more sustainable path. Not only does that $1 trillion entail the consumption of enormously high levels of fossil fuels, raw materials and precious metals: look at what $1 trillion could buy in terms of enhancing real security around the world today rather than undermining it – combating desertification or deforestation, providing access to drinking water and sanitation, or addressing the kind of preventable diseases that are killing around 35,000 children under five every day.

It is, of course, a bit tough to stick a burden such as this on one company. But dealers in death (tobacco companies, for example) are best advised to dispense with any CSR fig leaves, however expensively fashioned they may be. If your definition of “unsustainable” does not include wilfully facilitating the premature demise of millions of people, then it’s worthless.

Many campaigners today are now intent on holding other unsustainable sectors to account, however “responsible” they may claim their business operations to be. For instance, there’s a growing debate about ways in which the big oil companies could be held to account for climate change. In 2004, Greenpeace calculated the net contribution of ExxonMobil to climate change over its lifetime: “from 1882 to 2002, ExxonMobil’s emissions of CO2 totalled an estimated 20.3 billion tonnes of carbon – or between 4.7% and 5.3% of global CO2 emissions.” It was looking ahead to the possibility of future legal action against ExxonMobil on the part of those whose lives are destroyed by rising sea levels or climate-related disasters – on the same sort of basis as tobacco companies have been sued by people whose health has been destroyed by smoking.

Oil companies hate any analogy between themselves and tobacco companies as dealers in death and destruction. Indeed, they’re astonished at the hypocrisy of people who enjoy the benefits of their products (in terms of driving, flying and so on), but also reckon it’s the oil companies that should be held responsible for all the costs.

I sympathise with that; it’s far too easy for us to dump our own responsibilities on those wicked multinationals. However, there is a massive mismatch between a “socially responsible” fossil-fuels company, on the one hand, and a genuinely sustainable energy company on the other. BP and Shell (usually considered to be the most socially responsible oil companies today) continue to talk blandly of oil and gas remaining dominant sources of energy through to 2050. By contrast, the emerging scientific consensus on climate change is that we have a far shorter period of time to wean ourselves off our dependency on fossil fuels if we are to avoid runaway climate change – perhaps no more than 10 or 15 years.

In that respect, the percentage of new investment going into renewable energy rather than into more and more oil and gas developments is the single most important measure of a company’s commitment to a genuinely sustainable energy future. Managing existing oil and gas assets (or developing new ones), as responsibly as possible just won’t cut it.

And on renewables, the record of the major oil companies is seriously poor, both on a historical basis and in terms of share of new investment. BP’s $8bn investment over the next 10 years into its new Alternative Energy business represents the biggest commitment to date, but this is still a fraction of the total effort required.

It may, of course, be unrealistic to look to the big oil and gas companies to grow the next generation of renewable energy technologies that will inevitably, at some point, replace fossil fuels. And they may already be losing any kind of controlling role anyway; spending on renewables in China in 2005 was in excess of $5bn, and investment in venture capital funds covering renewables is soaring all around the world. Sweeping market transformations of this kind go to the heart of how sustainability is going to affect the business community.

Climate scientists talk more and more of the likelihood of “non-linear climate change” – the point at which the gradual build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere triggers dramatic rather than gradual changes in the climate. That’s what the climate record, deduced from ice-core samples going back over hundreds of thousands of years, has made frighteningly clear.

The threat of non-linear climate change demands a non-linear leap in leadership quality, and comfortable, complacent, CSR is incapable of driving such a shift.

Unfortunately, the dominant business model for most companies today remains “business as usual” with CSR retrospectively welded on. Any serious business leader is going to have to renounce that model, and start working out what real corporate sustainability looks like in a changing world.

· Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, www.forumforthefuture.org.uk, www.sd-commission.org.uk

http://society.guardian.co.uk/givinglist/story/0,,1938756,00.html

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