Leaving a lighter footprint

The curse of the ancient prophets Jeremiah and Cassandra was to foresee the future, tell the truth – and to be roundly ignored. Until relatively recently, the same tragedy befell environmentalists the world over.
While they are tracking, and predicting, the ‘progress’ of global warming, the fallout from industrialisation and associated pollution, and the increasing volatility of our weather; mankind – in something approaching denial – ploughs on with its despoiling of the earth and heavy consumption of fossil fuels. Governments of developed – and developing nations – are inclined to heed the powerful lobbies of energy producers, and industrialists, to resist the environmental prophesies; while the rest of us continue to fly to Spain for a quid or, metaphorically speaking, chuck our rubbish over the fence.

The most conspicuous and populist area of this – almost – ideological struggle is in the area of carbon emissions; their contribution to climate change and the footprint left by business, individuals and society as a whole.

A carbon footprint is a measure of the amount of CO2 emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels in the case of an organisation, business or enterprise, as part of their everyday operations; in the case of an individual or household; or a product or commodity in reaching market. A carbon footprint is often expressed as tons of carbon dioxide or tons of carbon emitted, usually on a yearly basis.

The impact of carbon emissions on climate change has not been proved conclusively, but the weight of (at least) circumstantial evidence is tipping the balance in the environmentalists’ favour. Obviously, certain nations – and their governments – are resistant to the arguments out of short to medium term self-interest; but the argument is largely won.

The reasons for the sector to act on these warnings and to start managing its energy usage – its carbon emissions – more efficiently are largely threefold: economic, legislative and altruistic. In the first instance, a drive toward effective energy management will see business’ benefit from reduced costs and increased efficiency elsewhere in the business, especially in ‘lean manufacturing’ processes. Furthermore, particularly in the public and commercial marketplace, customers and end-users will increasingly require evidence of sustainability programmes as a requisite for specification.

Industry is also coming under increasing legislative – combined with economic (taxation) – pressure in this respect; and it seems prudent to anticipate and pre-empt much of this to reduce the pain of cost and compliance.

Whether through taxation or permit trading schemes – where businesses can buy or sell their carbon allocation depending on need; the sector will be increasingly compelled to manage its footprint. And even if this is apparently unfair in the international context, with a unilateral approach taken by the UK Government not necessarily being matched by some super-consumers across the globe – also rendering our contributions somewhat academic.

While some shudder at the thought of additional taxation, it may be the least worst option at the moment. As Ruth Lea, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, recently said in the Daily Telegraph: “If there have to be green measures for tackling climate change, taxes are, therefore, preferable. Apart from the sheer impracticability of global trading schemes, taxes have other advantages. Firstly, the cost of carbon is known with taxes, and transparent, whereas prices can be very volatile and uncertain under trading schemes.

“Secondly, there is no need to set arbitrary baselines and targets as with trading schemes. Thirdly, the imposition of carbon taxes can be used to lower taxes elsewhere in the economy to maintain overall competitiveness of business and/or people’s real disposable income. Fourthly, current fuel taxes can be coordinated with other carbon taxes to provide a balanced package of carbon taxes. Finally, tax collection is administratively straightforward and can cover all emitters – not the case with trading schemes”.

The science of climate change is uncertain, but the risks of denying the issue and not considering – seriously – the containment of carbon emissions are equally uncertain and, therefore, cost-effective restrictive policies are a sensible insurance policy. They have the potential advantage of reducing the reliance on fossil fuels which will increasingly have to be imported.

Ultimately, we are left with altruism: and the question of whether we are prepared to take the chance of our great great grandchildren living huddled together on an ice-flow; just off the then coast of Sutton Coldfield?

Whether for the immediate good of our businesses; the medium-term good of our sector or the almost-infinitely long-term good of humanity; we need to crack on and crack the carbon conundrum.

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