UK: Will David Cameron’s “Green Crap” Comments Damage Sustainable Progress?

By Robert Fenn

Back in 2006, David Cameron was leader of the opposition, committed to ensuring the blue party would be recognized as green. Cameron aimed to underline this commitment to the environment during the year with a trip to the Arctic, a drive in a Gee-Wiz, eco-friendly electric car and – finally – a memorable ride to work by bicycle.

The bike ride somewhat backfired when it emerged Cameron’s shoes and paperwork followed in a car behind. Yet while this took the shine off his green credentials, after becoming Prime Minster he took the bold step of announcing in May 2010 that he wanted the coalition administration to be recognized as “the greenest government ever.”

The cracks emerge

Since then, the jury’s out on whether Cameron’s ambition has been realized. However, certainly things haven’t been helped by a recent story from The Sun newspaper claiming a senior Tory spokesman told them that the Prime Minister said “We’ve got to get rid of all this green crap.”

The fear for anyone already bought into the idea of running a responsible, green business is that the momentum in bringing sustainability to the mainstream will be lost. This is not helped by Chancellor George Osbourne’s previous comments in September where he said that he didn’t want Britain to be a world-leader in fighting climate change. The question is – will negativity trickle down the public sector supply chain, swiftly followed by the private sector? With less pressure on businesses to be green, the typical fears behind implementing a sustainability initiative include it being ‘too expensive’ or ‘too much hassle’ could rear their heads once more, despite being disproven in numerous studies.

The domino effect

Ultimately, the lure of winning lucrative contracts has been the driver behind many UK businesses adopting environment related standards and carbon reduction schemes, with the likes of the ISO 14001 green standard scoring points in tender situations. A typical example of this in action is Clicks Digital Solutions, a growing digital printing company. Having achieved certification to ISO 14001, their general manager Alan Rigglesford spoke of implementing ISO 14001 because “it was coming up more and more in tenders, and prospective clients were requesting that we had it in place.”  Having implemented the standard however, Rigglesford commented on the all-around benefits of addressing the business’ environmental impacts, saying; “We have definitely noticed an improvement in efficiency as a result of implementing ISO 14001. Improving our environmental awareness has also resulted in tangible cost savings.”

These benefits are not confined to the UK. In fact, the worldwide adoption of the standard has increased by 6%, according to data from International Organization for Standardization’s annual user survey of 2012. This has shown that far-reaching supply chains have woken up to the advantages of a sustainable approach to business, but has the European-wide recession dampened enthusiasm?

Cameron defends

Without doubt, European and resulting governmental environmental targets have helped focus businesses on green issues, which they otherwise may not have done voluntarily. However, before all hope is lost, when challenged by journalists whether he still believed in the environmental agenda at a meeting with supporters of the HS2 high-speed rail project, the Prime Minister retorted, “This is a part of it…we have got the world’s first green investment bank, we have got great support for our green technology industries. We have got the first nuclear power station since 1995. This is a government investing in important green technologies.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also chipped in to say green levies are not “all crap,” adding that  Cameron agrees with him. “We both want to see policies, where we are in control of them in government, made as cost-effective as possible without cutting our commitment to reducing carbon commitments and looking after the environment.”

Clearly though, Cameron and  Clegg don’t quite see eye-to-eye. The Prime Minister is locked in a dispute with the Liberal Democrats about his plan to cut the costly green levies on energy bills.  While Cameron wants to scrap most of the charges which help subsidize wind farms, solar panels and pay for home insulation, Clegg is insisting they must stay.

Overall though, the message from Downing Street is that the Prime Minister has not abandoned his commitment to the environment. “He has been quite clear about rolling back the impact of levies on energy bills, but only last week in Sri Lanka he was talking about the importance of tackling climate change,” said a Number 10 source.

Responding to speculation that man-made climate change may be to blame for the recent devastating typhoon in the Philippines, Mr Cameron said then: “The evidence seems to me to be growing. As a practical politician, I think the sensible thing is to say let’s take preventative and mitigating steps given the chances this might be the case.”

The reality is, the ‘green’ issue is never going to go away, especially with environmental disasters such as those in the Philippines generating a huge amount of worldwide concern. Whereas only a few years ago, caring about the environment was considered as something for the Lefties, sustainability has firmly moved into the mainstream and responsible businesses have taken great strides in promoting the benefits of embracing it. Moving forward, continuity from government is key for a green approach to become embedded across the business world – from the huge multi-national companies, right down to the little guys at the bottom of the supply chain.

Do you think the green movement is growing, or is losing momentum? Join the conversation in the comments below, or via Twitter @TriplePundit

Robert Fenn is a Director at the British Assessment Bureau, a UK based Certification Body. Robert is an experienced speaker and writer on sustainability and corporate responsibility within the business world.

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