Opinion: From Storebrand to Virgin, are businesses finally starting to see the case in tackling climate change?

Richard Branson at an event during New York climate week in 2010.

By Anders Lorenzen

As I wrote last week, the Norwegian investor Storebrand, which are also among the largest in the Nordic region, announced that they have excluded ten coal companies from their investor portfolio. This follows on from last year, when they excluded 13 coal companies and six tar sands companies. Earlier last week the company also excluded 11 palm oil companies.

In Davos, Switzerland last week at the World Economic Forum, founder of the Huffington Post Arianna Huffington and entrepreneur and billionaire Richard Branson, unveiled the B Team project to the world audience. The B Team is a partnership group whose aim is to prove that we can have business growth while still respecting human rights and the environment. On BBC News, Branson said that we need to create hundreds of thousands clean energy jobs, to grow the economy, to bring development and basic needs to the developing world, while at the same addressing climate change.

There seems to be a growing consensus in some parts of the business world that dealing with climate change is crucial for business, and carrying on as we are could spell economic disaster; a sentiment which has been echoed by Economist Lord Nicholas Stern. These are sentiments that are now starting to be echoed by some governments, but unfortunately not here in the UK, where the Chancellor George Osborne seems to be of the opinion that adhering to environmental regulations is a luxury we can’t afford in the current economic climate.

But on the island state of Great Britain we have a golden opportunity to create a clean energy generation that will create a flow a jobs – a new industrial revolution. But we seem to be stuck in the past, with the fantasy ideology of exploiting every last drop of fossil fuel reserves which we know will one day run out, instead of going for eternal energy of renewables. Prime Minister David Cameron and George Osborne seem bent on the fact that we need a fracking revolution in this country, even though the month of December saw a disastrous month of extreme weather events and the Prime Minister himself admitted that he did believe the increase of these freak weather events was because of climate change.

It is a challenging time to be a consumer. We are now global consumers; we adhere to and live in a global economy and in reality we know very little about where our projects are coming from and the environmental impacts of producing them. Governments still focus very little on sustainable growth and company regulations are hardly visible. For instance in the summer of 2012 during the London Olympics, one of the world’s oil majors BP, who just a few years earlier were responsible of the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, were made sustainability sponsor of the games with the tagline delivering sustainable fuel for the future. Many other examples exist of large corporations using their power to greenwash their image.

But when I sat down recently in Oslo, Norway, with Storebrand’s Head of Sustainability Christine Torklep Meisingset, I instantly got the feeling they were keen on sustainability on not just fronting it to greenwash their company image. They are simply doing it because they believe is the right thing to do and it’s too risky doing business if not adhering to sustainability. Not many governments let alone companies are strongly opposing the world’s largest fossil fuel project, the Canadian tar sands, which so far have mostly been opposed by environmental groups.

Head of Greenpeace Norway, Truls Gulowsen subsequently in a blog post commented that the Storebrand model was right, but he was disappointed in their ambition which he said should have been higher, he did acknowledge though they are almost alone in doing what they are doing.

I partly agree with that sentiment, but I also believe as environmentalists, we’re good at criticizing but we’re less good at praising. Of course I could wish Storebrand’s ambition was higher, but I also understand the complexity that the world economy is based on fossil fuels. I would rather point a finger at other investors who have large holdings of fossil fuels and are showing no signs of divesting.

In Denmark, the largest Pension Fund have heavily invested in the first offshore wind farm in the US and other climate initiatives, that should also be praised. But why is Storebrand and Pension Denmark’s examples in the minority? Why are governments not making fossil fuel investments less attractive by phasing out fossil fuel subsidies? These are important questions we should be asking and we should look in horror at examples such as Canada’s promotion of tar sands, Poland, the US, and UK with shale gas, and Australia with coal, unfortunately the list is far and wide.

Sadly it does not look like we will see progress on these issues in our political systems and that’s why companies like Branson’s Virgin, Storebrand, Pension Denmark and other businesses who have taken the lead in this field must continue to lead and encourage other businesses to do the same, while showcasing that environmentally sustainable business models are working.

Sub edited by Charlotte Paton

Also posted on Huffington Post.

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