By James Murdoch, BSkyB’s chief executive (THE GUARDIAN, 25/09/06):
You may have heard about or even seen an advertisement running in the United States which shows a happy family getting in to their car, the bright lights of a big city, and a kid blowing on a dandelion in a field. It ends with the slogan “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life.”The slogan and the sugary soccer-mom-style imagery may not convince anyone that the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere is going to be good for them, but the scale and professionalism of the campaign certainly indicates just how much is at stake. The ad was produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which receives much of its money from large corporations including, until recently, Exxon. Britain’s Royal Society is so alarmed by this type of inaccurate propaganda about CO2 that it has written to Exxon to ask them to desist from funding groups that have “misrepresented the science of climate change”.
Corporations should be involved in the climate-change debate. The issue cannot be simply left to governments or supranational bodies. But those of us who believe that climate change and the growth of CO2 emissions are the biggest intergenerational issue the world faces need to take positive action.
When corporations take a stand about the need to tackle climate change, there is always a risk of a cynical response. Even Richard Branson’s commendable initiative to use Virgin’s transport profits to fund alternative-energy research had its world-weary critics. There are companies that have jumped on the eco-bandwagon without really changing. But businesses willing to engage do have the potential to make a real difference.
Business, in a free marketplace, is a force for good. It creates wealth, jobs and opportunity, and pays for our public services. But business leaders need to do much more to incorporate environmental concerns into their thinking.
Environmental risks affect us all. Research by the Carbon Neutral Company found that almost 80% of the FTSE 100 companies have identified climate change as a business risk. Tackling risk in one’s business strategy is what business leaders are supposed to do.
The investment community has a big role to play here. Investors should be putting pressure on companies to make sure they are running their businesses in a sustainable way. Investors – from small shareholders to huge pension funds – hold company managements to account for their business strategy, and should do the same for their environmental strategy. Indeed the dividing line between the two is increasingly nonexistent. Companies that are trying to generate long-term returns for their investors cannot do so without taking into account environmental issues.
Customers can exert pressure and are beginning to vote with their wallets. A report by the Co-operative Bank found that one-third of UK consumers boycotted at least one product last year for ethical reasons. That should concentrate the mind of any chief executive who thinks they need not bother with their company’s environmental record.
At Sky, we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we have launched a major programme to manage our impact. Our carbon footprint was 41,000 tonnes last year, small compared with that of major transport firms or energy suppliers. But even small impacts add up. Over the past two years we’ve halved our footprint. We did this by adding small victory upon small victory, from using motion-sensitive lighting to hybrid taxis to buying only renewable energy. We’ve got further to go, but while we work on this we have created a fund to purchase carbon credits. In this way we voluntarily offset unavoidable emissions.
Importantly, we’re making our products more efficient: since we launched our set-top boxes we have halved their power consumption. This year we will launch the first auto-standby service, to stop set-top boxes consuming energy when they are not being used. And we are the only television provider in Europe to sign up to the European commission’s code of conduct on energy efficiency of digital TV service systems. As a result, we are the first media company in the world to become carbon-neutral.
But this is only the beginning. Consumer-facing brands – including the media – can play a major role in informing the public. Many people have no real way of knowing which changes to their daily lives would be most environmentally effective. In addition, the sheer scale of the issue can be disempowering.
Concerted action from government, NGOs and business can solve this. We need to give families the information, tools and incentives to make the small victories all of us can achieve really add up. We can have an enormous impact if we encourage our customers to make simple, effective changes in their lifestyles. If we and other businesses are able to do that we may even persuade cynics that business can play a vital role in this debate.
Humanity is incredibly innovative. We have the capacity to solve the problem of climate change; the only issue is whether we as individuals, governments and businesses have the courage to act together to do what needs to be done. The stakes could not be higher.