What businesses can learn from COP26

The COP26 climate summit raised some important issues – and pledged some ambitious aims – regarding emissions. But how can small businesses play their part? Birmingham City University’s Dr Steve McCabe offers some key insight. 

Posted 16 November 2021

Image representing climate change and the COP26 conference.

COP26 and the importance of change

The transition by all businesses to an economy based on green principles is irresistible.

The last couple of weeks, when COP26 took place in Glasgow, emphasised the absolute importance of changes being made in every aspect of the way we live to urgently reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are proving so destructive to the environment.

Without such action, life for many hundreds of millions of people could become impossible.

Even in this country, we’re likely to see the sort of disrupted weather patterns that have caused severe torrential rain and flooding in recent years.

Increasingly, customers will make purchasing decisions based on what is good for the environment.

After all, we’ve been buying energy saving lightbulbs for many years and are happy to select products if they save us money in use.

In a greener future, differentiation on the basis of offering products and/or services will become essential in order to maintain competitive position.

Accordingly, every business, regardless of size, can take particular steps to address climate change

Dedicating effort to reducing emissions

A combination of government incentives and sanctions will ensure that business must dedicate effort to reduction of greenhouse gases either through direct production or, alternatively, through processes employed by suppliers.

Undoubtedly, the greatest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is due to energy use.

Ideally, all energy used will be produced without the burning of fossil fuels.

If possible, the use of solar panels should be considered as a way of reducing reliance on traditional energy. This is one area every business can address with immediacy.

Crucially, by carrying out an energy use audit, businesses should identify processes resulting in waste which, at the very least, is expensive.

Upgrading machinery and consideration of innovative techniques, for which there are government grants, will vastly improve efficiency and reduce energy requirements. This would include transportation through the use of vehicles using fuel that is not derived from fossil fuels.

The starting point may seem daunting. However, small efforts will build confidence in attempting more ambitious projects subsequently.

Collectively, this will have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. What’s clear is that any gains are cumulative. The more effort that is put into reducing energy by all businesses, the less energy that needs to be produced.

Think sensibly

One of the most negative aspects of mass consumption is the amount of waste that is produced in packaging.

All producers and distributors can ensure there’s much less unnecessary packaging which simply adds to the huge quantities of waste produced annually.

Given that not all of this waste can be recycled, its incumbent on every person to, as well as reducing packaging to an absolute minimum, to select materials that can be used again.

Obviously, plastics, so ubiquitous, and notoriously problematic to recycle, should be avoided if possible.

Ultimately, what every business should take the opportunity of dealing with climate change as a catalyst to rethink what it does and how it achieves processes.

One of the lessons to emerge from the quality improvement revolution of the 1990s was that every process can be reconfigured to identify waste and inefficiency.

This equally applies to dealing with climate change. Nothing should be seen as beyond question.

Constant attention to continuous improvement will create a culture in which innovation and creative thinking becomes the norm.

Once this occurs, an environment will be established in which a business is searching for the solutions to tomorrow’s issues and challenges.

How to deal with existing issues

Perhaps the greatest challenge for many businesses is in dealing with the existing problems. However, experience demonstrates that if all you ever do is to ‘firefight’, nothing will ever improve.

Moreover, being passive gives a clear run to companies willing to embrace the challenge of dealing with climate change.

Advertising and marketing of the way that you innovating to reduce the company’s carbon footprint or waste can provide immense benefit.

One company, Arla, a dairy producer, has achieved this through describing the fact that cow poo on its farms is collected and processed to create sufficient electricity for 1.2 million UK homes.

Learning from others and being inspired to take action is perfectly acceptable.

Indeed, carrying out what’s known as ‘benchmarking’ can be an extremely helpful way to seek to discover simple ways to improve.

Moreover, as the quest towards the transition to a green economy gathers pace, there will be additional expertise made available to provide guidance and expertise in what needs to be done.

Remember, though any effort to become greener may seem like a distraction, creating space for thinking about alternatives to the way processes are carried out will always allow new ideas to emerge.   

Being proactive is the key to success

The message from COP26 is that there is not a moment to waste in attaining a future that far greener than we’ve been accustomed to.

Indeed, as the first lockdown we experienced at the beginning of the pandemic demonstrated, there was an immediate positive impact of reducing emissions.

What every business should recognise is that this is possible through judicious intervention and willingness to reengineer everything it does.

There’s an unwritten rule suggesting survival is not mandatory.

If there’s a belief that you cannot afford to invest in the innovation that is essential to becoming greener, you should be prepared to be regarded by customers as outdated.

If customers can purchase alternative products and services that are greener, you shouldn’t be surprised if they do. This is the nature of the zeitgeist that’s currently underway.

Those who do not heed the warning will only have themselves to blame.